Carl Wernicke: The Power Of Memory

Nov 30, 2017

William Faulkner famously said that the “past is not dead, it’s not even past.” It’s somewhat of a contradiction. In one sense, you can only live in the present, it’s the only moment you have. But every lived moment immediately recedes into the past.

In looking up this quote, I was led to an essay on Faulkner by Sartre, analyzing Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” who wrote that it is man who messed up the distinction between past and present by inventing the clock and the calendar.

Anyway, before I entangle us too deeply into things none of us understand, I’ll get to my story.

Recently I was giving some minor help to the University of West Florida Historic Trust by identifying some old photos from the Pensacola News Journal. One brought back an incident I remember clearly, although it happened more than 30 years ago.

One morning when I was still a young reporter an editor called me into her office and told me a colleague had not come to work, and couldn’t be contacted. He was divorced, living alone, and had some health problems. She asked me to drive out to his home and find out what was wrong.

The look on her face told me what she didn’t have to say.

He was living in a trailer park over on the west side. When I arrived, I found him in his small car, slumped over the wheel; the engine was on and there was garden house running from the exhaust pipe into the passenger compartment.

I didn’t have much experience with death at that point, but I knew what I was looking at. I turned off the engine and, this being the dim past, had to walk to the park office to use a phone. I called my boss, and asked the park manager to call the Sheriff’s Department.

In present manifestation, we are the sum total of our past experiences; they coalesce within us to create our present, and if do it right we learn from the past. I did not know this man well. He was a veteran on our copy desk, and I was in my mid-20s. I didn’t really know anything about him other than he was affable and knowledgeable at work, and I probably never gave much thought to his life outside the office.

When the deputies came, they quickly summed up the situation. We gave a cursory look inside his small trailer, which was sparsely furnished. There was a mostly empty whiskey bottle on the table.

Looking back, I realized how little the man I knew at work had to do with the reality he lived with, of who he was. And certainly the small glimpse of that outside life I got, which of course came after that life was over, still didn’t necessarily tell me a lot, either. I could draw conclusions from what I saw — the tiny, old trailer, the whiskey bottle, the blood-stained handkerchief he would wipe his mouth with —  but I’d never know if the conclusions I drew were valid or not.

Anyway, it struck me how such a memory could be evoked so many years later by the random arrival of a photograph selected from among many other photographs, and sent unknowingly to one of the few people it would resonate with in this way. I was going to say that Faulkner could write a whole book off this, but of course he did, and it emerges from the past for anyone who opens its covers.

WUWF commentator Carl Wernicke
Credit IHMC

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