Selective Memories

This week I have selected a photograph that my shed more light on the place of my memory than the actual memory. I chose a fairly banal photo because that is often the kind of images that W.G. Sebald liked to include in his short stories from The Emigrants. For example, in the story of “Dr. Henry Selwyn” on page 11, what is an incredibly important moment of foreshadowing in the text (Dr. Selwyn mentions his gun which he will later take his own life with) is reflected by a mere photograph of architecture. In choosing my own photo that is much less loaded with meaning than others in relationship to my memory of the day the photo was taken, I hoped to shed some light on why Sebald did the same.

It was a stiflingly hot day in Takoradi, Ghana. A group and I had signed up to visit one of Takoradi’s famous Water Villages, a completely isolated community with buildings and houses erected on stilts directly above the water. It took us a 50 minute canoe ride to even reach the village. On my journey there, I remember about all the quietness of the nature that we were coming upon. Even in a group of about 20 people with 5 different canoes, there was a general feeling of awe and silence as we rowed through the marshes and jungles. There was something almost spiritual about it, something that made me happy that something so beautiful could still be left alone.

And then we came upon the village. I distinctly remember struggling to get off of the canoe and onto the dock, feeling incredibly dehydrated. It had been a tiring trip, and now the discomfort of trespassing in this community was suddenly inescapable. We were greeted by a huge gaggle of children, some barely clothed and some not clothed at all. In terms of the whole experience, I have to say I felt rather stupid. I’d brought a huge digital camera and my friend a 3-liter bottle of water. The kids were incredibly happy to have visitors, but for the most part the adults seemed that they couldn’t be bothered and just went on with their daily chores without acknowledging us.

I think the most important and painful moment I can remember was concerning that 3-liter bottle of water. A five year old girl came up to me with arms outstretched, hugged me, and then asked for the water. Of course, I gave it to her. She was grateful and I held her as she hugged it, not even taking a sip. About five minutes later, her older sister, who was about 7, walked up to me and told me that I shouldn’t have given her the water and that I should take it back. The older sister grabbed the water from her younger sisters hands and handed it back to me. I felt incredibly ashamed and at the same time not exactly sure of what I had done wrong. The trip ended with me just leaving what was left of the water on the dock for anyone who may want it.

As you can see, the picture reflects none of this, just as Sebald’s picture of the castle reflects none of the important events in the story. I think this must be a commentary on selective memory, or on how photography can block important memories by selecting more banal memories (as Barthes once said). Sometimes the images we have taken on a certain day or during a certain memory can distract us from what actually happened. I know that I was so preoccupied with the photo Sebald included that I completely disregarded Dr. Selwyn’s moment with the gun. In the same way, when I look at my picture of the village, I never think of those other important and humbling moments– I had to force myself to extract those memories. Because of this, I think Sebald very successfully affects the way we read memories and moments in his short stories.

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