The Dilemma of Melancholy
“I find my own self hard to grasp. I have become for myself a soil which is a cause of difficulty and much sweat.” – St. Augustine
I am small and drowning in time—the present pushes on me like white rapids—and I am seeking a God beyond time. I know this present well, for I perceive it with all of my senses. But where does all that information go? The information is stored in my memory and there my memory makes sense of my present. But without any reason for being preserved, these memories will die like I am going to die. Memory is that power which rises above my ability to perceive and makes sense of my perception. Memory is that power which allows me to take a step back and look at my time-bound existence and come back to past ‘presents’. Why do I have this ability? Does it guarantee that I am a finite cocoon of self, always inspecting myself and left alone to contemplate my condition? Or can my memory in some way aid my search for God?
In Book X of Confessions, Augustine asked how memory works and why it works in the context of this search for God. “There [in memory] sky, land, and sea are available to me together with all the sensations I have been able to experience in them, except for those which I have forgotten,” Augustine says. Except for those which I have forgotten, though; that is the trouble for me. What of that? We use memory as a tool to find something inside ourselves, but if we turn to memory and ask to possess it, we are forced to say “it is a vast and infinite profundity. Who has plumbed its depths?” Augustine said that amazement gripped him when he thought of our inability to understand memory. I am more scared than amazed. I am afraid, because I don’t understand why I am to remember. Yes, I use my memory to store and sort through all of my past. But why I am supposed to remember things I know will be forgotten? It feels like a mortal taunt, an accidental vast chasm that my limited frame can access every now and then. “Is not human life on earth a trial in which there is no respite?” Why is an infinite faculty available to a finite creature? I say that memory is just another way that my mortality is tragic: Augustine said that it is the only hope in making sense of our little place in time. In memory, we can seek after God and find that he has been looking for us the whole time. And Augustine can personally testify to this discovery of remembrance.
The exercise of exploring past images also teaches me, like it did Augustine, that God has not made his abode in my memory. Yet, the very ability to hold onto past images is a work of God that he holds above me. God is not within my memory, because the place of memory organizes itself by placement and Augustine believes God to be “unchangeable”. God cannot be unchangeable inside my memory, because memory is a process that requires the shifting of images into an understandable narrative. This process of memory is “all that is what happens when I recount a narrative from memory.”
If I am to use memory to find God but he is not there, then why do I remember? I do not find God in my memory, but I can remember God’s work in my life. And so this exercitatio animo actually serves the same purpose as the divine command of righteousness to remember the Lord my God. This memory does not exist inside my mind, but the images which are retained in my memory allow me to recall what I need in order to remember what God has done to lead me to himself. God was doing things for me in past “presents” that I did not understand at the time. And now that I am where I am, I can look back and see how what has happened to me brought me to this present place. This is the entire modus operandi of Augustine’s Confessions. The entire book is an exercitatio animo. Augustine is remembering for us, so that we can see that God had been there all along pushing him toward himself.
Augustine wants to prove that he had always been seeking God even before he felt his presence. In order to prove this, he must order the images in his mind. To order the past is to determine what is first remembered and what is finally remembered, or discovered. Augustine wants to say that we have all been looking for God. We are looking for a God like a woman searching for a lost coin. If people come to her and say they have found her coin, she is disappointed when she sees the object they are holding and finds that it is not the coin. It does not match what she has been searching for, even though she is searching because she has forgotten its place. It seems like we must have some memory of God even before we know where he is, because when we find him there is that elation of discovery. There would be no elation of discovery if we had not known of him before. Our memory is satisfied when all the past images become rightly ordered to the end of finally finding God. This is what Augustine did in Confessions. He ordered his memories into a narrative so we could see how each past “present” pushed him to the intensity of conversion.
Augustine’s view of memory saved me from the condemnation of memory. I can know God is always moving me somewhere in my present even though it doesn’t feel like it. This is a twist to my previous dilemma: I went seeking after something in memory and found that memory was there to seek after me. Reflecting on the past is not valuable for its own sake. And memory is not there only to produce the sensations of melancholy that might itch pleasantly, but rather to show that God is working in my present. And if God is working in my present, then I know that my finite condition is of an eternal interest. Memory is the bridge by which God makes clear my place in time. By reflecting on past events, I like Augustine can see how my feeble frame has moved in time according to an eternal purpose.
Memory allows mortals trapped in time to comprehend the works of God. And to comprehend the works of God is to be able to pursue truth and seek that happy life. All of the works of God that we can know have been done in the past or will be remembered through the past. But God is not within our memories. Memory is a means to bring us to God. I can say of memory what Augustine said of the sky: “Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.” Memory will point us to him: God made memory functional. We remember so that we can comprehend what is true. And we comprehend truth, so that we can comprehend God. Because memory is the “stomach of the mind” and since the present cannot be contained since it goes too fast for us to understand, the present goes through the process of becoming the past for us by being processed into the mental images that memory retains. And it is here that we can discern the meaning of certain memories in a series: this is the entire point of the first nine books of the Confessions: inchoate events in Augustine’s life were leading him to God. When we use our memory, we are really remembering the works of God—and this is the purpose of memory.
I have struggled for a long time with my memory: the burden of vividness I sometimes experience, the passing of memories and my attempt to try and keep it all. But it is not for me to hold onto things that I am built inevitably to forget. I must trust that what God wills for me to remember will be kept, not for the benefit of understanding my past life but for the security of understanding the present. Memory allows me to go through those old images of the present I once experienced and understand them now and what they mean. The places I once walked in were unknown to me and will be unknown to me once I know why I walked in them.
Like Augustine, I don’t find God in the external world nor do I find him in my memory. But father “you are the abiding light by which I investigated all these matters to discover whether they existed, what they were, and what value should be attached to them. I listen to you teaching me and giving instructions.” It is only by the power of God that we can enter into memory with melancholy and leave in hope.