Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Friday, March 3, 2017

Excavating the Past

Today I found myself thinking a lot about the past, for various reasons. The past is often compared to a foreign country. But to me, the past-- I mean my own personal past-- seems more like a vanished civilisation, one that has left behind relics and memories but which can only be reconstructed, not revisited. More accurately, it is a series of vanished civilisations.

A couple of months ago, while listening to an extremely boring speaker at a conference, I found myself casting about for ways to keep myself entertained. I was right at the front so I had to pretend to listen. I hit on the idea of trying to remember as much as I could of my schooldays, year by year. What shocked me was that there were several years of which I could remember nothing at all, besides the location of my classroom and the identity of my teacher. (And I wasn't always even sure of the latter.)

This evening, for no obvious reason, I found myself thinking of something my teacher said in the final year of primary school, when I was twelve. He told us that, in England (or was it America?), people would phone ahead before paying a social call on a friend. I remember he said this with some incredulity and we were all surprised. It seemed insanely formal, almost unimaginable.

But do I really remember that? Am I remembering it right? Did I misunderstand? As recently as 1990, did Irish people (Dublin people, what's more) casually call on each other without any announcement? This seems hardly credible to me now.

But why would I have the memory, if the teacher hadn't said it?

Later on, I found myself flicking through the TV channels. I came across Kill Bill Vol. 1, the 2003 revenge movie by Quentin Tarantino, and I was swept back to the several times I saw it in the cinema. In fact, I took a day off work to see it for the first time, and this doesn't seem at all silly to me in retrospect.

I think Quentin Tarantino is a genius. I've often mentioned that Groundhog Day is my favourite film of all time-- hands down, no competition-- but, when it comes to the greatest film ever made, I would award that honour to Pulp Fiction.

I think there is something almost superhuman about Pulp Fiction, as there is about the poetry of Yeats. I honestly don't know how Tarantino managed to get so much into a single film. Nearly every frame seems to be packed with wonders.

One example. When John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are discussing the nature of miracles, having just escaped death in an apparently miraculous way, Jackson's character says: "You're looking at this the wrong way. It may be that God stopped the bullets, or He changed Coke into Pepsi"... Is there any better expression of how intimations of the divine persist in our banal, consumerist era as "he changed Coke into Pepsi"?

I've had long conversations about Pulp Fiction with a colleague who also marvels at it. We both agree that there is something uncanny about the final scene, the stand-off in the diner. The way I express it is that, after watching that scene, I feel as though something has really happened.

(Having said all this, if a regime of movie censorship was instituted under which all of Tarantino's movies were banned, I would cheer it on. Shame to lose the movies, but the gain would be much bigger.)

I came late to Pulp Fiction, and to Tarantino, but by the time Kill Bill was released I was a confirmed devotee. And I remember being blown away by the movie (the first one, anyway). It was such a feast of pure form-- Tarantino manages to make a long shot of a woman walking up a flight of stairs in a nightclub gorgeous and captivating. The entire thing is a lush, shimmering, gloriously self-indulgent celebration of martial arts movies-- I knew nothing about martial arts movies, but I didn't have to. I knew I was in a perfectly insulated universe, infinite within itself.

The dark beauty of the movie, I felt, seemed to somehow tap into the "climate" of my own soul. Even back then, I wondered if it was simply my imagination, since my expectations were so high. Watching it again tonight, I don't think it was my imagination.

The first time I saw it, I was so moved I had to phone a friend to talk about it. (I went on my own, as I always went to movies at this time.)  I was only starting to make friends at this time, and they weren't very good friends. I wince when I think of how often I poured out my soul to people who really would have been completely indifferent to my confidences, and only listening out of politeness or mild curiosity. I don't know how I can write that without sounding bitchy, but there it is. Years and years of thoughts and feelings were coming out, and needed someone to hear it. Doubtless they are utterly forgotten now, so I shouldn't feel embarrassed.

I saw the movie in the Santry Omniplex (as it was then called), where I've seen the vast majority of the movies I've seen in the cinema. I've seen hundreds of movies in that cinema. I only really started going to the movies in my early twenties. I went to a handful of movies in my childhood, always with at least one parent. I was so shy in my youth that even walking up to a box office and asking for a cinema ticket was intimidating. But once I got over that obstacle, I was completely hooked and it became an obsession.

Here's the funny thing. When I remember my manic cinema-going, in my early twenties, the memory seems strangely earlier than my memories of college or the end of school. I used to buy a bottle of lemon-flavoured Lucozade in a nearby shop, and drink it while wandering around the Omni shopping centre, before the film started. Somehow, the sights and sounds and thoughts of those days seem lighter, brighter, and more innocent than a few years before them-- in the way that medieval Europe seems younger and fresher than the evening of the Roman Empire.

I remember this ad especially, which aired in cinemas around the time I started my avid cinema-going. I always associate that ad with this atmosphere of sunrise and earliness which seems to pervade this particular period of my life. I felt I had been reborn. Perhaps it was the wonder and magic of the cinema which did that. But this is another aspect of the past that fascinates me-- that later memories can seem "younger" than older memories. At least, they do for me.

Even later than this-- in my early thirties-- came my conversion to Catholicism. Surely this would be "well-documented", in my memories?

But it's not. I've tried to reconstruct it, but it's very difficult. I have flashes, but no continuous memory, and the sequence is all jumbled up.

When I started going to Mass, it was a Mass some distance from my home parish, as I felt self-conscious and didn't want anyone to recognise me. When I remember those Masses, it seems very very long ago, very early, almost prehistoric. 

But I have an even earlier memory, of taking refuge from the rain in that same church (it was deserted), and feeling like an interloper. I remember looking around it and thinking how strange it was that people believed all this stuff. I felt sure it was just wasn't an option for me.

People say hindsight is 20/20. I can't think of a saying I disagree with more strongly. "Through a glass darkly" might be more accurate.

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