Memory is life’s greatest gift.
It was an earlier time, late 19th or early 20th century, perhaps, when three learned men — Hermann Sorgel, Daniel Thorpe, and Major Barclay — gathered in an English pub. They had attended a day-long Shakespearean conference in London, listening to lectures on the works of William Shakespeare and experiencing a lively discussion on the structure and theme of their favorite sonnet. What better place to finish the day. A bar lined one wall, a smoke-stained fireplace stood against another, and several like-minded patrons circled small wooden tables separated just enough for an intimate conversation. The cigars were strong that night, and the dark, warm beer was smooth and plentiful.
The Major abruptly changed the conversation when he pointed to a beggar standing outside. Islamic legend has it, he said, that King Solomon owned a ring that allowed him to understand the language of the birds. And a particular beggar, so the story goes, somehow came into possession of the ring. Of course the ring was beyond any imaginable value and, as a result, could not be sold. Legend has it that the beggar died in one of the courtyards of the mosque of Wazir Khan, in Lahore.
Sorgel jokingly added that the ring was surely lost, like all magical thingamajigs. Or maybe some chap has it, he said with a chuckle, and can’t make out what they’re saying because of all the racket.
Thorpe weighed in. “It is not a parable. Or if it is, it is still a true story. There are certain things that have a price so high that they can never be sold.” Thorpe went mute and stared at the floor. He seemed to regret having spoken at all.
The darkening of Thorpe’s mood and the lateness of the evening moved the Major to call it a night. Thorpe and Sorgel soon followed suit and returned to their hotel. Thorpe then invited Sorgel to his room to continue their conversation. It was there, in the privacy of Thorpe’s room, that he asked Sorgel if he would like to own King Solomon’s ring. “That’s a metaphor, of course, but the thing the metaphor stands for is every bit as wondrous as the ring. Shakespeare’s Memory, from his youngest boyhood days to early April, 1616 — I offer it to you.” Sorgel fell silent as he struggled to find a word. Thorpe continued. “I am not an impostor, I am not insane. I beg you to suspend judgment until you hear me out.”
Thorpe continued. “I was a military physician. I was in a field hospital when a soldier who had been shot twice was about to die. What he told me might sound quite startling, but strange things are the norm in times of war. The soldier, Adam Clay, offered me Shakespeare’s Memory, and then, in the final minutes of his life, he struggled to explain the singular condition of the gift. ‘The one who offers the gift must offer it aloud, and the one who is to receive it must accept it the same way. The man who gives it loses it forever;’ he said to me.”
“And you, now, possess Shakespeare‘s Memory?” Sorgel asked.
“I am now in possession of two memories — Shakespeare’s and my own. They seem to merge, or maybe I should say that two memories possess me.”
I’ve searched the works of Shakespeare for years, Sorgel thought. What better gift than to know the inner workings of Shakespeare’s mind, and maybe touch his soul. “Yes,” Sorgel declared with an assertive tone. “I accept Shakespeare’s Memory.”
“Shakespeare’s Memory” is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. While the work is fiction, Borges’ insights into memory are both precise and profound, and as real as life itself. Borges leads us through a maze of discoveries as bits and pieces and chunks of memory begin to unfold.
Sorgel recalled Thorpe’s words. “It will emerge in dreams, or when you awake, when you turn the pages of a book, or turn a corner. Don’t be impatient; don’t invent recollections. As I gradually forget, you will remember.”
Sorgel’s sleepless nights were mixed with the fear that it was a hoax, or possibly an illusion, and the longing hope that he might in some way become Shakespeare. Memories began to return as visual images, and then auditory, sounds that issued from him when Sorgel sang a melody he had never heard before. In a few days, Sorgel’s speech took on the “r”s and open vowels of the sixteenth century. He began to sound like Shakespeare.
Memory was not the stretch of rolling hills with green meadows and natural springs that Sorgel had hoped for. It was a mountain range with beautiful and at the same time, terrifying peaks, frigid temperatures, and the threatening crevasse just around the corner. Some memories were shadowy, and some were so traumatic that they were hidden forever. Sorgel enjoyed the happiness of the moment, and then his mood darkened from an unwanted memory.
At first, Sorgel’s and Shakespeare’s memories were separate and easily distinguishable each from the other. Then they began to mix, and finally, Shakespeare’s Memory overpowered his own, causing Sorgel to question his sanity and wonder how little time was left before he was no longer the man he once knew.
It became clear that Sorgel had no choice but to give Shakespeare’s Memory away. He dialed telephone numbers at random. At first they were met with skepticism and then an abrupt hang-up. In time, he reached a more receptive gentleman and Sorgel said, “Do you want Shakepseare’s Memory?” And to Sorgel’s surprise, the voice answered, “I will take that risk. I accept Shakepseare’s Memory.”
Shakespeare’s Memory was transferred a little at a time, and was irregular at best. But years later, some residue still remained. “I am now a man among men,” Sorgel wrote. “In my waking hours I am Professor Emeritus Hermann Sorgel; I putter about the card catalogue and compose erudite trivialities, but at dawn I sometimes know that the person dreaming is that other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.”