In 1992, artist Dennis Ashbaugh and writer William Gibson published Agrippa (a book of the dead). The pages in the book “were treated with photosensitive chemicals, effecting the gradual fading of the words and images from the book’s first exposure to light.” The poem, stored on a floppy disk, was programmed to erase itself after a single reading. The point seems to be that memories (and our lives) are ephemeral.
It’s cool that the material object disintegrates, self-destructs in our hands. But we’re left with reading about it … or looking at archived copies available digitally on the web. Which changes the whole experience entirely, doesn’t it?
Certainly raises questions about the tension between owning a thing, of penning it down to keep it forever, and the ephemerality of memory and experience. Isn’t this the tension informing what writing and books have done for Western Civilization? The technology of writing and the book (and later photography) have allowed us the illusion that ideas and memories can be made solid, palpable, material and stored / archived over centuries. It’s the grand hope of the digital revolution that ideas and human products can now be stored, without deterioration, in tiny drives with terabytes of storage capability, for centuries. The tension eloquently embodied in Agrippa makes the point, however, that our desire to own and keep may be just an illusion.
As Annie Dillard writes in her essay, “To Fashion a Text” : “After I’ve written about any experience, my memories – those elusive, fragmentary patches of color and feeling – are gone; they’ve been replaced by the work.” Writing, she says, are a sure way to lose your memories as memories. It’s been my experience that she’s right.
I love to write so, like Annie Dillard, I’m willing to risk “cannibalizing my life for its parts.” But I do recognize the loss as well as the gain.