I finished Patient H.M. today. I have always been interested in memory and have read some of what has been written about this famous patient whose profound memory loss (induced almost certainly) by a bilateral resection of his medial temporal lobes. There was much personal and political intrigue and an appalling sense of the lack of ethical treatment of human research subjects in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but the central theme of the book was memory and that memory fades with time in all human beings.
I had a sense of this as a child. Even then I had an impulse to make photographs to preserve the moment. I admit I also thought I could use my photographs as proof that I was present at a particular moment or indeed that a particular moment actually happened. One of my friends told me that he never wanted to take a camera with him even when he planned exotic trips. He said that those moments would always be preserved in his head. What confidence!
As an adolescent, I wrote down my feelings, in part to figure out how I was supposed to fit in, etc. (the usual angst that accompanies that stage of life). At the time I also thought that by writing, I could preserve who I was at that moment and revisit it later to restore my memories and also to remember who I was ‘back then’. In fact, one of my art projects, The Exo-Memory of Jack Davis, features dotted lines, which documented the location and angle of view of each family snapshot I could find, taken in and around the yard of our family home. This was way before Google even existed.
In the epilog to Patient H.M., the author presents a transcript of one of his interviews. He asked the elderly professor, one of the pioneers of memory research about his first encounter with H.M.. The professor’s related only two details of this encounter: that he and H.M. were left alone to talk and that each had the same ambition to travel from Cape Town to Cairo. That apparently was the last remnant of the memory, the peak of the narrative left above sea level as the rest was submerged in oblivion.
The sequence below represents fading memories and attempts to distill them to their essences.