Memory, the Internet, Hyperlinks, and Data Loss

Found Words on a Jump Drive by Elliot Wright[1]

Why am I writing this here? Because suddenly I am terrified of data loss.

This is likely from a combination of factors. The roots of this must be my trip to Japan; that was the place where it all came from. I went to Japan and fretted continually over the fact that I may one day forget the bulk of what I experienced there.

Eventually, these feelings evaporated, but at a steep price: because they had disappeared, I was no longer inclined to record in my diary, thus making my worry a reality. The result was a thin, tattered notebook with a Magritte[2] on the cover, which contained perhaps ten pages of handwritten material for a 5-week trip. And yet, in spite of this, when I went back to read those pages, even in such a small body of text there were morsels lodged there that I never would have remembered on my own.

I’d already read my Benjamin[3] on Proust[4], though, and so the fact that a sizeable chunk of my experience would be burned up in the act of consciousness was not news to me. Though of course, even if I had not known this, Japan would have taught me that on its own.

Though the idea is represented in Benjamin[5] and Proust, the idea of consciousness-as-incineration comes from Freud[6]. He was speaking of WWI soldiers burning away the intolerable horrors and boredom they had known in the trenches.[7] I certainly don’t know anything about the horrors of trench warfare, but I do know about feelings so acute that the conscious mind burns them upon entry. This numbing usually feels like an emergency break, a kind of last-resort red button encased in glass with a little hammer next to it. But the operation can be applied to less acute or concrete situations, as well.

One such instance was Japan. The feeling being burned away: alienation.

In America, the sense of alienation is real and acute, but it never reaches that critical mass, that critical density that enables it to act as fuel. Instead, it is like moisture from rain on the logs. The logs will still burn, but dampened.

In Japan, however, the logs are damp with kerosene, not water. The sense of alienation is so hulking that it fails to fit through the door of your sensorium. It is too big. You cannot process it, so you don’t even bother. And so you stop processing. Your self disappears. Where you fit into the big picture does not matter because you don’t fit in anywhere, and there’s no illusion like there is here.

 I got into a relationship. I started waking up earlier. I thought, maybe a real job wouldn’t be so bad. And suddenly it seemed like I was merging with the salmon stream of American society. Nonsense, of course — it was a honeymoon. I am still at my core (despite a long diversion where I believed I had no core) a lone data scrounger. Maybe I am a multicore data scrounger. That’s who I am.

In Japan, this Fata Morgana[8] never appears. You know there’s no chance, so you can embrace your outsider-dom. But I’ve gotten wildly distracted. Another thing that fuels my fear of data loss — my disorganized-ness. Files, thoughts, texts spread across Google Docs, home directories, virtual machines, shell accounts and scraps of paper. Well, not too distracted, I guess.

The point is, we lose life in its happening, and we are often left holding its threads like unearthed artifacts from a long-lost Chinese dynasty.

The other point is, the mind prunes experiences for all sorts of reasons, and as a result, the ones that make it across the experience-memory barrier are special by default, even if their selection was fairly arbitrary. In this way, the experiences that do make it through to become memories are elevated above experience itself. I know this well, and often I look forward to the memory of the experience even before the experience in question has ceased impressing itself upon my sensorium. How many times have I written these same paragraphs in different ways? Is this my version of Joe Gould’s family history? Endlessly rewritten and revised, the one hazarded component of a vaporware masterpiece?

The point actually is, LIFE IS DATA LOSS. There, there’s your mantra. (A tautology, but what other formula is so certain?)

In Japan, I learned to deal with data loss by letting it happen, realizing that it’s happening would serve the greater good of furnishing memories greater than the sum of their parts. Borges[9] and Brooker[10] dealt with it by showing how disastrous perfect memory would be. Knausgaard[11] and Proust[12] dealt with it by using the void left by data loss to create fiction and art. (Well, I suppose that’s true of all of them, really).

So Japan and Benjamin primed me to read Proust. The fact that I’ve only just drawn the connection between Japan, reading Proust soon thereafter,  and my fear of data loss is itself illustrative of the process by which experiences affect us without becoming memories — and perhaps becoming more a part of us than memories ever could. So, it’s no small wonder that after Proust, Benjamin, and Japan — oh, how could I forget Knausgaard, too, which I’d even read before Japan — that data loss was on my mind. The chain of influence unwinds madly.

When I got back, as far as Japan was concerned, I’d come to peace with it. I was happy to have forgotten myself while I was there — that was enough. I knew I could rely on the burnishing effect of Proust’s mémoire involontaire[13] from thereon out. Those memories were lodged in me, and there would always be stimuli to wriggle them loose.

Obvious ones, such as a Skype call from Ikumi[14], have achieved this in only the last few days, but so have more tangential things, like perusing Story of the Stone[15] last night while Brenda studied. The Story of the Stone is Chinese, of course, but revisiting it with bits and shards and tufts of Japan in me caused the pleasure of my first reading of Cao Xueqin[16] and the lucent quality of Japan’s mémoire involontaire to overlap.

But also like Story of the Stone and Proust (my two desert island books, for sure — I need no others, really), I was possessed with a need to turn memory into art. Like Proust, this desire was driven by nothing more than a love of literature. Nothing within me was begging to be told; I wanted to write because I like to read. (As for Cao Xueqin, he never comes out and says that he wrote because he wanted to write and nothing more, but the first and especially the second two books are little else than books about books.)

My love for books is more like Xueqin, the verse collector, than Proust, the enraptured-hand-in-a-stream type.

Sure, when I first read David Foster Wallace[17], I wanted his opinion on each and everything I ran across, just like Marcel did of the Anatole France avatar in Recherche. But largely, my love of reading is a love of hyperlinking. I love Xueqin because nothing happens except literature and words, really — especially in the second volume, my favorite so far — and because the allusive nature of letters in China means Hong Lou Meng[18] is basically a repository of hyperlinks to other works.

It’s why I love collected letters, too. A beautifully written database you can live in. It’s quite video-gamish. Reading them reminds me of the way I just kind of wanted to hang out in Midgar[19] when I played Final Fantasy VII as a kid. Or Persona 2[20] more recently. The gameplay was fairly dull, but the sounds, the graphics with their smudged hardware fingerprints all over them, well, I wanted nothing more than to climb inside. The same with the scenes and landscapes described in Hong Lou Meng.

We can trace these fibers to the place they intersect: the internet. Memory, data loss, texts as hyperlinks.

Surprisingly, it took me a very long time to zero in on the internet (again, these things fold into the self and become invisible). This was probably because its influence on me was so enormous that I swung the other way in equal measure and was equally repulsed by it. Like hates like, as like recognizes like; I lived with no personal computer and no phone for months.

Interestingly, what I perceived to be my love of literature actually brought me around again to the internet. I wanted to write because I loved to read, so I began writing. I tried to write pen and paper, and I tried to keep .txt files because of their lightweight, but the former would destroy my wrists raised on keyboards and the latter would end up getting erased because I would never save them. So, I opted for the decentralized cloud method.

There are probably better options than Google Docs for the kind of scribbling I was doing, but I wanted serious stuff and scribbly stuff (and all my documents, really) in the same place because I knew the strain spreading my docs across several platforms would pose to my organizational abilities. Of course, that ended up backfiring. All that happened was I ended up keeping too much stuff in one great big pile. Google Docs ended up being too browser intensive (it’s basically an Office virtual machine inside your browser, so that’s not terribly surprising.)

Little did I know that this sporadic web of documents was jacking the sinewy chasm of my internet mind back open. I used Gutenberg[21] to chase down quotes instead of copying them by hand. I had a general file, which was my longest surviving .txt-based foray, which moved online and was quickly displaced by a document containing a list of links (I like this option over the bookmarks bar because I can make commentary). Separate docs for fiction forays, scribble pads, poetry forays, links, unorganized quotes, a full-on journal, thoughts about the internet, everything.

And that’s when I realized that the internet had given me my love for reading: I was building a massive database. And I interact with literature as though it were one great big database of interlinked works. Everything was flat and equal; the goal was to have an optimal unbroken path of digging.

And this, I have come to: ”In Proust’s calculus, Swann’s error is not so much the failure to love Odette for herself, but rather directing at a living person the human largeness of feeling and imagination that can only find compensation in art.”[22] 


[1] Annotated with infinite love and heartbreak by his mother, Elaine Gantz Wright

[2] Time Transfixed by Rene Magritte, https://www.sartle.com/artwork/time-transfixed-rene-magritte

[3] The Philosopher Stoned: What Drugs Taught Walter Benjamin, Adam Kirsch, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/08/21/the-philosopher-stoned

[4] Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust, https://campuspress.yale.edu/modernismlab/remembrance-of-things-past-a-la-recherche-du-temps-perdu/

[5] The Life and Influence of Walter Benjamin, Rhys Tranter, https://rhystranter.com/2015/04/14/the-life-and-influence-of-walter-benjamin/

[6] The Pre-conscious, Conscious, and Unconscious Minds, Kendra Cherry, https://www.verywellmind.com/the-conscious-and-unconscious-mind-2795946

[7] A New Kind of Dream: Freud, Trauma and WWI: A Look at War and Artistic Creation through the Theories of Cathy Caruth and Sigmund Freud,  https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/articles-posts/4636-a-new-kind-of-dream-freud-trauma-and-wwi.html

[8] Fata Morgana: The Strange Mirages at Sea, https://www.farmersalmanac.com/fata-morgana-mirage-28630

[9] Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga,  https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/borges-and-memory

[10] Algorithmic Intimacy, Prosthetic Memory and Gamification in Black Mirror, Jin Kim, https://blogs.strose.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Kim-2021-Algorithmic-Intimacy-Prosthetic-Memory-and-Gamification-in-Black-Mirror.pdf

[11] How Writing ‘My Struggle’ Undid Knausgaard, Ruth Franklin, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/11/knausgaard-devours-himself/570847/

[12] The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories, Cretien van Campen, https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199685875.001.0001/acprof-9780199685875

[13] Proust ou la mémoire involontaire, Sebastian Dieguez, https://www.cerveauetpsycho.fr/sd/neurobiologie/proust-ou-la-memoire-involontaire-1592.php

[14] [Not sure about this one, but this seems plausible – doubting it’s ’the character with the same name.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikumi_Nakamura

[15] Story of the Stone, Cao Xuegin,  https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/BVJ/story-of-the-stone

[16] Cao Xuegin  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cao-Zhan

[17] The Unfinished: David Foster Wallace’s Struggle to Surpass “Infinite Jest,” D.T. Max, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/09/the-unfinished

[18] Hong Lou Meng https://www.amazon.com/Hong-Lou-Meng-Chamber-Classics/dp/1539851230

[19] Final Fantasy Wiki, Midgar, https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Midgar

[20] Megami Tensei Wiki, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, https://megamitensei.fandom.com/wiki/Persona_2:_Innocent_Sin

[21] The Gutenberg Project: A Library of Over 60,000 Free Books  https://www.gutenberg.org/

[22] Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust https://campuspress.yale.edu/modernismlab/swanns-way/

6 thoughts on “Memory, the Internet, Hyperlinks, and Data Loss

  1. Elaine! Elliot’s writing is way over my head and maybe beyond my minds capability. Some of the writing seems down to earth yet the ideas and references are in the clouds (yes, computer related and not.)

    Was this on the thumb drive of his you found. What a treasure! You put a lot into the annotations! His writing reveils his complicated, intricate, intriguing mind! A mixture of somewhat easy, natural mind dialog and brilliance! You have found a treasure on the thumb drive! I so wish I could find more treasures from Keith. So glad you are finding some of Elliot’s.

    XOXO Sue

    On Tue, Feb 15, 2022, 9:23 PM Elaine Gantz Wright wrote:

    > elaine gantz wright posted: ” Found Words on a Jump Drive by Elliot > Wright[1] Why am I writing this here? Because suddenly I am terrified of > data loss. This is likely from a combination of factors. The roots of this > must be my trip to Japan; that was the place where it all ” >

    1. Oh, dearest Sue, I agree. I am lost in Elliot’s extraordinary prose and turns of phrase. That’s one of the reasons I became entangled in the annotations — attempting to connect, to see and to be part of him. Love you, dear one.

    2. Dear Sue: I agree completely. I get overwhelmed by the intricate matrix of Elliot’s prose. It’s like stepping into a parallel universe or invisible dimension. I think that’s why I found myself obsessed with the footnotes (also an homage to one of his muses, David Foster Wallace in”Infinite Jest”). I wanted to connect to him — and somehow understand. Thank you for your kind words. I am eternally grateful for your presence and insight on this difficult journey we sadly share. Sending loving compassion.

  2. Elaine I enjoyed this piece. Selfishly it taught me something about myself – thank you and Elliott for that experience and for increasing my data set. Of course much of it hit home – particularly this paragraph…..
    The other point is, the mind prunes experiences for all sorts of reasons, and as a result, the ones that make it across the experience-memory barrier are special by default, even if their selection was fairly arbitrary. In this way, the experiences that do make it through to become memories are elevated above experience itself. I know this well, and often I look forward to the memory of the experience even before the experience in question has ceased impressing itself upon my sensorium. How many times have I written these same paragraphs in different ways?
    As i move through (now) grieving my Dad and being surprised (again) how loss manifests itself ….. Your words and Elliott’s too are helping me.
    Thank you.
    😷 🏮 Mary Clutts 🏮 😷

    1. Again, Mary, your words move me deeply. Grief’s path is not linear but walking together along the way helps us both carry the pain and love together. I find Elliot’s musings about memory to be poignant and disconcertingly prescient. Bitter and sweet. Thank you for sharing his presence with me — and my heart is with you.

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