When we revisit favourite songs, books and movies we encounter our earlier selves and experiences.
I was watching a video of Paul McCartney singing ‘All my Loving’ in a recent concert on Youtube on my computer. Little more than a minute into the song, the camera froze on a member of the audience. This guy, who looked to be in his fifties, was practically sobbing. Songs don’t make grown-up men cry like that, I reasoned, and examined the comments section of the page to see if I could find out why he was crying so hard. One comment informed me that he had lost his wife recently and ‘All my Loving’ brought her memory back because it was their favourite song.
That episode set me thinking of the role art plays in our lives. As we age, our favourite songs, books and movies become a repository of our memories. When we revisit them, we encounter our earlier selves, the people we knew then, the experiences that shaped us... Since I have spent a good part of my life with books, I have several memories stashed away in them.
For instance, my first kiss emanated from a book. It happened a little more than 20 years ago when I was studying at an American college. The book, in question, was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsbyfor which I shared a passion with a fellow student called Trish. We would sit and discuss its characters for hours. Those Gatsby interactions led to a movie date to see — what else? — the 1974 movie version of The Great Gatsby at a classic theatre. The kissing happened after the film in a car in the college parking lot once we got back from the movie.
If one book marked my first foray into love, another lay at the centre of my first encounter with death. I started to read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind when I was 16. At first, I was so daunted by the thickness of the book that I wondered if I really wanted to read it. Once I began reading, I found myself incapable of consuming more than 40-50 pages before going on to something else. It took almost a year to finish.
When I began the book, I would often speak to my grandfather about it. He hadn’t read it, but the movie was one of his favourites. I remember how he kept referring to Scarlett as Vivien Leigh and to Rhett as Clark Gable. He wanted me to enlighten him about the parts of the book that were edited out of the movie version. As the months passed, however, we stopped talking as tuberculosis took possession of his body. He was bedridden for several months before he died. By the end, he was unable to speak or comprehend, and barely had any flesh on his bones. To this day I retain some of the horror of watching the life seep out of him. You don’t really know death until it happens to a loved one, and there is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the experience.
Nowadays, when I encounter a copy of The Great Gatsby or Gone with the Wind, I don’t think of Daisy or Gatsby or Scarlett or Rhett. I see myself at 19and wonder how we managed to kiss for almost 20 minutes in the front of a second-hand, two-door Honda. With the steering, the stick shift gear, and, not to mention, the handbrake between the driver and passenger seats in the way, it was hardly the place for passion. When it is your first time, I guess, passion knows no discomfort. Or I am reminded of my grandfather and feel a shudder pass through my body as I recall how death ate away at him.
Because of the kind of memory it represents, The Great Gatsby has the pride of place on my bookshelf, while Gone with the Wind remains buried out of sight. Or, rather, I try to bury it. Like any bad memory, it insists on surfacing from time to time. I have thought of tearing it up or giving it away only to find I can’t. It feels like parting with a piece of myself, and that is never easy. Then the book and movie remain very much in vogue; so it isn’t as if I can avoid it.
A character in the Argentinean movie classic The Secret in Their Eyes says: “Memories are all we end up with. At least pick the nice ones.” My failed attempt to eject Gone with the Wind from my life tells me that is, at best, wishful thinking. Memories, after all, are made by living and can only mirror life which is bittersweet. Hence, as with life, you have to take the good ones with the bad.