The Poem 6 Feet by John King
a brick of a man
like a cluster bomb
shards of a broken life
she looked at him
and did the only thing she knew to do
she held him while he cried
While memories are our most treasured asset, our footprints in the snow, we are stretched as humans to fully understand its mysteries. A simple explanation defines memory as the capacity to store and retrieve information. Some psychologist believe that memory works like a pen and a notebook. For a brief time, before the ink is dry, it’s possible to smudge what’s written. While some deem memories to be fixed, others claim the brain is not static nor etched in stone. Any recollections, they say, can be influenced by outside forces, leaving the possibility of minute changes. Science is even wrestling with the idea that traumatic memories can be totally erased from the brain. Whether that is good or bad is debatable and will be discussed at the end of this book.
While science moves forward and disagreements continue, imagination will lead the way. Writers of fiction continue to broaden the boundaries of truth, allowing us to explore the mysteries of the human brain. It is their imaginations that motivate, in part, future discoveries in the scientific community. What has become real, was yesterday’s fairy tales.
It was an earlier time, late nineteenth or early twentieth century, perhaps, when three learned men. — Hermann Sorgel, Daniel Thrope, and Major Barclay — gathered in an English pub. They had entered 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, 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 strands for is every bit as wondrous as the ring. Shakespeare’s Memory, from his youngest boyhood days to early April 1616 — I offer to you.” Sorgel fell silent as he struggled to find a word.
Thorpe continued. “I’m not an impostor. I’m not insane. I beg you to suspend judgment until you hear me out. 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 to 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’m 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 words 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 Thrope’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 from each 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. “Do you want “Shakespeare’s Memory?” And to Sorgel’s surprise, the voice answered, “I will take that risk. I accept “Shakespeare’s Memory.”
Shakespeare’s Memory was transferred a little at a time, and it was irregular at best. But years later, some residue still remained. “I am not a man among men,” Sorgel wrote. “In my waking hours I am Professor Emeritus Hermann Sorgel. I putter about the card catalog 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.”
While Shakespeare’s Memory is a work of fiction, it does open the mind to the beauty and complexity of the human brain and serves as a prelude to the story you are about to read. Memories serve as a witness to our struggles and desires for a satisfying life. Too often, though, they record the unimaginable that can break a man’s soul.