66. The Philosopher of Memory

MORE THAN TWO DECADES after her departure, the internationally recognised cognitive philosopher X finally returned to her native country from Oxford, where she had been teaching and writing, to attend to her dying father. Her name had been made, as it were, by a pioneering study she had written called A New Phenomenology of Memory. Over the course of her career, she had come to be known as the philosopher of memory, a moniker that had begun to bug her. Upon her return, she was inevitably flooded with memory. Her father still lived in the same house she had grown up in. In fact, the house had remained more or less untouched. Moreover, her father, who suffered from a form of dementia, lived in the past. He recognised his daughter not as the woman approaching fifty that she was but as the young woman in her early twenties – the woman, in fact, that she had been before accepting the offer of a scholarship to study abroad. So in the little time she had to herself, X began keeping notes that she intended one day to use to write a book about her experience, believing it to be especially pertinent to her life’s work. Although she was determined to keep a low profile during her visit, word spread of her return and she began to receive invitations to launch books, attend openings, speak at colloquia, and so on. Being shy by nature, as well as determined to take the best possible care of her father, she systematically refused all the invitations. This systematic refusal continued until she was invited to deliver an oration at her school, in recognition of her many professional accomplishments. Although she was initially reluctant to accept, the offer was too tempting to refuse, for X remembered her years studying at this school as years of outright misery. Almost every time she thought of the school she felt a stab of pain. Although it was a prestigious private school run by a respected religious organisation, she considered her school to have been a pit of mediocrity and complacency, a breeding ground for an inept and hypocritical governing class incapable of the slightest thought or act beyond its own self-interest. X had been invited to speak for 20 minutes to an assembly of the school’s students and staff. She stopped taking notes for her book and instead began to work on a 20 minute speech in which almost every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph was intended to pour scorn and contempt on the school. She laboured over this speech so much that in the proceeding days and weeks it began to impinge on the care she was taking of her father. When the old man died, the day before she was due to deliver the oration, X was in the study, working up another insult to hurl at the school. Naturally X was grief-stricken and, more so even than is usually the case, consumed by guilt. Nevertheless she went to the school at the appointed hour and was warmly greeted by a welcoming committee. She recognised no faces or names, and the school’s august buildings now seemed small to her and dwarfed by more recent additions to the campus. The school assembly hadn’t changed, however. It was in the same assembly hall, where the sounds of shuffling feet, scraping chairs, throats clearing and indifferent murmurs still echoed around the high ceiling. X was introduced by the principal in the warmest possible way, and the assembled students and staff applauded her generously. She stood up with her speech in her hands and stepped up to the podium. She looked down on the children below her, all staring at her, mouths agog. She paused and was suddenly unsure what to do. She could deliver the speech she had prepared, even though she was suddenly no longer sure about its veracity. What could she possibly be qualified to condemn when it might well be herself who was truly deserving of condemnation? Alternatively, she could improvise another speech, and speak of her father, but she knew she would be overwhelmed with emotion. Then a third alternative popped into her head: she could improvise an anodyne speech, and dole out some harmless, charming epithets about memory, and talk about the importance of education, and everyone would be happy. Then another possibility appeared to her: she should use this speech to confess she in fact knew very little about memory, next to nothing in fact, and that the more she thought about memory the less she knew, and that this very day, during this very speech, she should announce her retirement. One after another, new ideas for speeches occurred to her as she stared down at the lectern in front of her, feeling two thousand or more pairs of eyes staring at her curiously. Within seconds, those four thousand eyes each came to represent four thousand hypothetical speeches she could give, until the ocean of faces in front of her came to represent an ocean of speeches, an infinite ocean of possible speeches she could give at this very moment. Meanwhile, the pause had now gone on for too long and X became aware that everyone in the room knew something was amiss. The echoing sounds – shuffling feet, chairs scraping, throats clearing, murmuring – grew louder and more expectant. But rather than shocking her out of her paralysis, this awareness had the opposite effect: it paralysed her all the more. This continued for another half-minute or so until the principal mercifully took matters into her own hands. She stood up and took X by the arm and led her down the three steps and outside into the sunshine. X was later hospitalised, and although she resumed her career at Oxford it is now generally agreed that her writing has never been quite so confident or surefooted since her return, the scope of her thought's ambition never quite as vaulting. Rather, she has become known for her teaching.