Memory Boxes, Old and New
by Nataliya Deleva
On a frosty morning I drive across the city, before being tied up to machines, their beeping sounds overtaking my mind frozen in panic. The procedure goes (almost) to plan; the biopsy results would take some time, I’m told by the consultant. Her eyes (the only part of her face I can get a glimpse of) seem tired but calm, and that’s reassuring. I find myself trapped in the in-between time: after the procedure and before the results, the possibility of dying still lingering. A sinking feeling in my stomach has nested inches away from my body part that radiates pain, while my thoughts swing between the best and the worst case scenarios.
Kafka wrote that ‘the meaning of life is that it stops’. The line comes to mind with a clacking sound in my sleep in the middle of the night, and I burst into tears. Unconsciously at first, over the following days I become more sensitive to the life around me: my daughters’ laughter (how would they cope with the loss if something happened to me), my husband’s affection (does he know enough meals to cook, or where the kids’ summer clothes are stored, and should I add him to the parents’ WhatApp group just in case), my unfinished essays (this was one of them). Even when I’m scared for my life, I still try hard to plan ahead, to have control. ‘I am still realising, again and again, that losing control of my life is the hardest part of getting sick,’ wrote Lucia Osborne-Crowley in a thought-provoking piece on living with illness. What defines the chronically ill person ‘is the feeling of wrestling between one story and another, slipping between worlds, battling to create meaning out of total chaos, staring into emptiness and knowing that nothing and no-one will be there to stare back at us.’
A few years ago I worked for a cancer charity. The people we supported were going through unimaginable times. Quite a few of them shared positive stories, full of life stories, despite the terrifying experience of the illness. But for others things went the other way. A big part of the charity’s work was supporting the families to cope with the loss of the loved one. Memory boxes filled with objects to remind of the deceased person were often suggested as a coping mechanism, especially for children losing a parent or a sibling. As though, by keeping the memories and the objects we associate with our loved one, we can preserve their life too.
When my grandma passed a few years ago, she didn’t depart all at once. She would leave slowly, little by little. She slipped away with the last quinces she picked days before her death, with the slippers by the door that we didn’t dear move away until spring, with her gown hanging In the hallway for months, heavy with the absence of her. I told my four-year old to speak to her bunny when feeling sad, and that Grandma would hear her whispers. I let her cling to the idea that, while the body is not present any longer, her energy is with us, all around us. Three years later, I still hear my daughter speaking to her plush toy before going to bed, caressing it and loving it as though the woman’s spirit was trapped inside – a metaphysical reality I created for her because we wouldn’t want to let go. My grandma's passing was both sudden and prolonged by our rituals of clutching her tightly with us.
Freud believed that in our unconscious we are all convinced of our own immortality. ‘Early in the 1960s, a group of enthusiasts advanced the concept of freezing humans as soon as they die, in hopes of reviving them after the arrival of medical advances able to cure the conditions that killed them,’ I read in an article on Inside Science. The idea went into practice for the first time on 12th January 1967 when James Bedford, a professor of psychology at the University of California, became the first person to be ‘cyropreserved’. A team of doctors froze him a few hours after he died from liver cancer. Fifteen years on, after a series of moves from one cryopreservation facility to another, his body found a home at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, where it still resides.
The pursuit of immortality and the idea of preserving ourselves on both personal and collective level are recurring themes in the history of art, literature and in most recent years, in technology. For centuries, philosophers, scientists, artists and writers have indulged in the idea of their own immortality and imagined infinities by creating something (an idea, an artwork) which would outlive them. We all do this in an everyday context by storing memories, personal items and other memorabilia of our loved ones, and thus keeping them with us for longer. We in turn leave behind photographs, personal items, videos and voice recordings, creating a version of ourselves that exists via other people’s perceptions of us. It’s a subconscious effort, of course. On a pure existential level, childbearing is perhaps the most natural and obvious way of seeing ourselves continued beyond our own existence.
A big part of our own immortality is the memory of others. In his 2017 book, Digital Memory Studies, Andrew Hoskins explores how the digital age and our reliance on smartphones, search engines and social media is affecting our memories in a number of ways. ‘We no longer need to remember,’ he says. The social sciences professor explains there has been a key shift in both the way we process memory and our attitudes to memory – moving away from the act of remembering, to the act of knowing where to look online for quick answers to our questions.
Unable to rely on our memory, photographs have become the most obvious way of framing a moment, leaving our prints behind, or keeping a loved one close. We pose for a photo, take endless selfies we then post online, dressing our avatars in presumed happiness, documenting the foreign places we've been, the unusual things we've seen, the affection we've received from those around us. Images, films and memorabilia are all a proof of our existence.
In an interview about her memoir, Homesick, the author Jennifer Croft explained: ‘Each of the very short chapters in the book is a kind of a Polaroid snapshot, a vignette that captures just a flash of emotion, which I like because it substitutes that wonderful white space a Polaroid has around it, where the viewer (or in this case, reader) can fill in her own feelings and ideas.’ The narrative dances between text and image; as Croft explains in the book, by writing the memoir, her aim has been to ‘capture and fix forever the presence of her sister, to contain her, to never let her go, or break, or even change.’
Today, our digital imprints and the way they interact have become so advanced, that this has pushed tech companies to explore the possibilities of the digital worlds substituting reality. The membrane separating real life from digital existence wears thin often imitating one another but still, the differences remain. Writing in the Guardian, the novelist Olivia Sudjic observed: ‘That terms such as “real life” and ‘digital life’ still exist in tension, despite the extent to which they overlap, is indicative of social media’s contradictions. Connection and isolation, homogeneity and fragmentation, exposure and concealment, the order and simultaneous incoherence of the timeline.’
Advancements in digital technology are now looking at extending the one-way ‘living after death’ to a more complex, two-way existence which involves a sort of response or interaction with the deceased. An artificial intelligence, a synthetic conscious, a digital persona of a lost loved one: a bot, who can 'think' and interact with you the same way the actual person used to or would have, if they were still alive. Microsoft was recently granted a patent that allows them to create an AI-assisted chatbot using the personal information of deceased people. Their ambition is to create a programme that can recreate one’s consciousness by using their digital imprints, but also to ‘learn’ and adapt the bot to the current events and simulate a conversation within any context in future.
The project calls to mind an episode from the dystopian drama, Black Mirror, ‘Be Right Back’, in which a woman uses a similar bot to communicate with her deceased partner. The similarities are quite obvious. Just like in the film, the bot, based on the ‘images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages’ and more, according to the tech company, would facilitate a simulated human conversation with users’ dead loved ones. ‘The specific person [represented in the bot] may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity etc.’ What’s more, ‘living users could train a digital replacement in the event of their death,’ suggesting the creation of a digital self a person can leave behind after their death.
In 2014, a Future Library project was launched in Oslo. Until 2114, it will be collating unpublished manuscripts by famous writers for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time. One writer contributes a text every year, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the year 2114. Writers to date include Margaret Atwood (2014), David Mitchell (2015), Sjón (2016), Elif Shafak (2017), Han Kang (2018), Karl Ove Knausgård (2019), and the newly added Ocean Vuong (2020). ‘It does appeal to that side of us who as children buried things here and there — little trinkets, little boxes — hoping that someone would dig them up later,’ Atwood said.
Literature’s obsession with immortality dates back to ancient times. Scheherazade’s tales provide us with the comfort of endings with endless new beginnings. In a way, our own lives become an endless string of stories, all with a single purpose: to keep us alive for longer, for an eternity. There has been a trend in literature over recent years for more personal writing and own stories, a rebirth of the memoir as a genre. It’s perhaps a step forward in art form as a time capsule, drawing from the very personal and lived experience of the writer. At least half of the books I’ve read in the past months were memoirs too, and great ones: these include In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Inferno by Catherine Cho, Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt, Homesick by Jennifer Croft, and Constellations by Sinead Gleeson. As a reader, the experience of approaching a memoir or a personal essay is different to reading fiction: you consume it with the fresh awareness of the narrator's existence in real life and their truth (albeit subjective, as all retellings of past events). Each one of them encapsulates a fragment of the author’s personal life which would continue to exist and be evoked with each reading for many years.
Some of these memoirs deal directly with the trauma of losing a loved one, or with the exhausting experience of surviving an illness. ‘If this book had to exist,’ Anne Boyer wrote in The Undying, ‘I wanted it to be a minor form of reparative magic, for it to expropriate the force of literature away from literature, manifest the communism of the unlovable, grant anyone who reads it the freedom that can come from being thoroughly reduced. I wanted our lost body parts to regenerate via its sentences and for its ideas to have an elegance that will unextenuate our cells.’
In her 2017 memoir, Carl’s Book, Naja Marie Aidt makes sense of the death of her 25-year-old son in a tragic accident. Although centered around Carl’s death, the book is much more about his life and the way he exists in his mother’s memories. This is the world Aidt constructs, while coming to terms with the loss and acknowledging it. Exposing the traumatic experience — not only the event but the following days, weeks, months, and years, enveloped in nothingness, in no-time — is the only way for her to begin to accept life after this unimaginable event, while keeping her son close to her.
But all these time capsules narrate a past. They collate objects and memorabilia which can later be revealed to the living, relying on these items to recreate a version of that past. What’s groundbreaking — and perhaps frightening — in Microsoft technology is the ability to construct a future with the deceased person being a part of it. A capsule which evolves with the time and recreates itself (or a version of) in the context of reality that exists for the living.
Of course, there is the question about ethics and legality. The use of another person's likeness or personality could also cause personal data breaches. But what’s interesting in experiments like this one is the reason for their inception – it’s one that stems from our human desire to preserve ourselves and our loved ones for as long as possible. It is, in fact, another quest for immortality. Because whatever we do, we want to make sure that when life ends, we don’t.