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/

Shirt, Shakuhachi and Saxophone

Easter is a complicated and befuddling holiday—so many meanings, layers, beliefs, rituals and memories, but one stands out for me. Easter will always remind me of Elliot. In 2014, Easter Sunday just happened to merge with his spectacular fourth-year saxophone recital at the University of Toronto. His precise, riveting and affecting command of the instrument mesmerized and stunned his rapt audience of devote fans. I remember feeling there could not possibly be enough room in my heart to contain the flood of joy, love and pride I experienced in those remarkable moments.

On Easter, I do my best to stay steeped in the beauty of that sacred space seven years ago—which feels like both a lifetime and a heartbeat. As I honor this rare and extraordinary human, forever missed, I endeavor to embrace the grace and joy of this glorious memory—and the notion that love never dies.

So, here are two poems.

One is Elliot’s and the other is mine. I was inspired to write “Saxophone” in a recent poetry class with Megan Adler. We dissected “Shirt” by brilliant musician/poet Robert Pinsky, and I felt a flash of Elliot’s mercurial presence. I paired it with one of Elliot’s most haunting poems, “Shakuhachi,” which describes his love for another eccentric instrument. This piece evokes his unbridled passion for life’s music—and words.

SHAKUHACHI
by Elliot Wright

Someone should not-
ify the authorities—
This can’t belong to me.

I shouldn’t be
allowed to touch it when in
every Japanese

restaurant I’ve been
in they hasten to me with
a fork,

this mendicant ghost’s
pneumatic bamboo carapace,
this severed bundle

of lacquered vacuoles.
Hollowed stock, red bore tender
as a ribbon of

his throat—he who is
surely ululating to-
ward me from the Pure

Land in futile rage.
It came to me woven in
the raft of my

grandfather’s trinkets,
that gregarious poacher,
anxious collector,

lover of things and
strangers—those stop-gap measures
against that vacuum

the mind so abhors.
No wonder, then, that he should
have parted with this

chime-hammer of the
void, this attendant to the
court of nothingness—

this contradiction
given me

SAXOPHONE
by Elaine Gantz Wright

The reeds. The ligature. The body. The bell.
The saxophone’s bourbon-soaked wail lingers—
longing for another coda or infinite reprise

The keys. The mouthpiece. The bow. The crook.
Where is your rarified air, your circular breath—
that was snatched, silent in eternity’s niche?

The tenor. The alto. The soprano. The bari.
Fingers on fire made your practice perfect,
such mania that muted all but your memory

Coltane, Parker, Getz and Halladay—mentors,
brethren, your trenchant troubadours of note—
persistent signs of life and bittersweet balm

Shakuhachi and Linux. Yamaha and Proust—
virtuoso with far too many talents to be
soaring into forever on a regular Sunday

I want one more song on the saxophone,
redux to recall a melody long gone—again
to fill this abyss with your timeless refrain.

Away with Words

It all started with a susurrus.

The first time I saw this whisper of a word dancing in Elliot’s prose, I required a dictionary—not an uncommon occurrence when reading anything he wrote. He used the term to describe a chorus in the program notes for his saxophone recital—as poetic as they were precise. A susurrus is a murmuring or rustling sound. Such a visceral, expressive metaphor—complete with a hint of onomatopoeia.  

This is where it gets interesting.

A couple of months ago, I noticed a new notification in my venerable yahoo.com email box. I’ve had it for ions—since the boys were young, but it’s still functioning reliably. In fact, I’m grateful for my inconsistent email hygiene over the years—as I am relishing the treasure trove of memories and conversations buried deep in its archives.

The subject line of this particular email was: “Word of the Day: Susurrus” from mail@wordgenius.com. I don’t remember signing up for this alert, but I was game. Of all the words in the world, how could they pick this “Elliot word”? My heart jumped. He was the wordsmith’s wordsmith—the inimitable “word genius.” How many people do know who received a perfect score on the verbal SAT—not missing one question?! Could this be a wink from Mr. E? After all, we were both inveterate word nerds, and the Wrights are peppered with writers. Why not? I mused as I felt a giant grin, so unfamiliar of late, stretch across my tear-stained face.

Elliot was an exquisite and erudite writer. Following his graduation from the University of Toronto, where he majored in classical saxophone, he reviewed contemporary classical recordings for a respected music publication in Toronto called The Whole Note. In Dallas, he reviewed local concerts of all genres for The Dallas Observer. And he crafted provocative think pieces for Central Track.

Yet he soon abandoned the glamorous writing life to pursue another one of his extraordinary talents as an IT savant at Global Payments. Clearly, he could write compelling stories in almost any language and any context. Here is an excerpt from his brilliant program notes from his fourth-year saxophone recital on March 31, 2015, at UofT—as captivating as the music. Elliot wrote these evocative words about a piece he played spectacularly:

Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano | Edison Vasilievich  Denisov  (1929 — 1996)

DENISOV – Though his place of birth is a full 900km deeper into Siberia than the penal colony where Dostoevsky was transformed at the end of a mocking rifle barrel, Denisov suffers from neither the anguish of mysticism (as was the case of his contemporary, Gubaidalina) nor subarctic austerity. In fact, at its core, Denisov’s music is all lyricism and ardent expression, refracted through the crystal lattice of his mathematical mind.

Commissioned by Jean-Marie Londeix in 1970, the Sonata for Alto Saxophone allows saxophonists to have their cake and eat it, too: it is at once a sophisticated serialist composition and an unbridled jazz freak-out. The first movement is a kind of shambling waltz, the left leg of the waltzer filed down by the machine-gun 32nd notes exchanged between the saxophone and piano. The second movement is a saxophone soliloquy, a lyrical murmur glinting through the Siberian ice which entombs it. All this melts seamlessly into the final movement, a dodecaphonic jazz burnout inflected with an almost hysterical irony: the big—band “shout” chorus which appears midway through the piece becomes more of a “susurrus” chorus, and of course it is just as the music approaches a full-blown pseudo‐free jazz eschaton that Denisov is most meticulous with his musical orthography. Condemned by the Soviets as a “formalist” and reared in the harshest regions of Russia, Denisov’s music expresses a wryness in the face of all the improbability of being.

I was so enchanted with the susurrus that I used it in a haiku that felt directly channeled through Elliot’s consciousness. It reflected his passion for Japanese culture, his love of poetry, and his voluminous vocabulary:

Time
In a susurrus,
what is done, always will be—
dissolving the now.

And it turns out that susurrus was just the overture for me. There have been other words since then from the same email that have snatched my breath away.

The next was camber, a word I did not even recognize.

As I read the definition, I gulped. It refers to the slightly convex shape of a road or other horizontal surface. Coming from Middle English, its roots track back to the Ancient Greek word “chambre” (arched room or burial chamber) and the Latin word “camurus” (curved inwards). I instantly thought of the treacherous curved ramp where Elliot apparently lost control of his motorcycle. Could this be another piece of the accident’s puzzle—something that hindered his ability maneuver safely on that hideous day in August? There are still so many unanswered questions that torment me, and I would not put it past my mischievous rascal of a son to communicate in such a perplexing and obtuse way.

Upon further research, I discovered the term “negative camber,” which specifically refers to a road condition that scuttles motorcyclists. This curve of the road’s surface requires the rider to recalibrate the angle of the lean and velocity of the turn on the fly—a factor I had not uncovered in my extensive research. But it feels plausible. I wondered . . . could this word be administering a glimpse a grace? Could this be an explanation that might help soothe my unsettled soul? These random glimmers and glimpses always seem to appear just when I need them most. But oh, the possibilities continue to swirl around in my head like an agitated hornet’s nest.

Are these questions keeping me mired in the gravity of gone? Is this why I feel so stuck in the muck—overwhelmed and anxious, enmeshed in the trauma of those fragments of the puzzle that may never be solved? It does feel like the road to nowhere.

Elliot, is it time to let go of needing to know?

Especially when there are so many potent words to ponder, like the group of Japanese words that popped up just yesterday. One was tsundoku. Quintessential Elliot, it refers to the habit of acquiring too many books to ever read and letting the pile grow indefinitely — one of his favorite words and activities.  (However, I think he actually read every one.)

Made me smile.

Another was wabi-sabi. That’s embracing the transience and imperfection of nature—and the eventual end of everything.

Still working on that one.

So, the journey continues . . . one moment and one word at a time. Keep them coming, Mr. E. I love you.

Time for Haikus

Last night, I caught the very last story on “60 Minutes.” It highlighted the rare and timeless rituals of Kabuki, still thriving in Japan today. Though this took me back to my days studying theatre at Northwestern, I was reminded of the Japanese word for Kabuki. It means “off-kilter.” Apropos of everything.

Instantly, I also felt Elliot’s presence in the stylized whimsy of this ancient theatrical spectacle. What bittersweet synchronicity that I happened to turn on the television at this very moment on the last dreary Sunday evening of 2020. And since then, I have felt El’s unmistakable zeitgeist all around.

Japanophile was just one of his many monikers—son, brother, nephew, grandson, friend, housemate, boyfriend, wordsmith, poet, alumnus, brilliant iconoclast, IT savant, musician, saxophonist, shakuhachi flutist, composer, music critic, artist, philosopher, pinball wizard, raconteur, Global Payments engineer, volunteer, mission tripper, teacher, journalist, book devourer, bitcoin purveyor, witty conversationalist, “whitish-hat” hacker, tilde.towner, fellow traveler, cool cat, hip nerd, aviation ace, computer game whizz, old soul, restless heart, disarming intellect, insatiable student, reluctant soccer goalie, skeptical theologian, Japanese car aficionado, Japanese motorcycle fanatic, skateboarder, origami master, loose tea connoisseur, and world citizen.

Oh, I know I’ve left out something . . . so much to so many in one wild and precious life.

“That’s OK,” my wise and spiritual friend Sue reassures me, her heart also irreparably torn apart by the loss of her adult son, “As mothers, we cannot ever possibly know the totality of our sons’ existence, the edges of the lives they led,” she muses. “And somehow, that’s strangely healing. They have and always will exist far beyond us.”

Yes, I think that notion is powerful. I take a breath.

And perhaps, it’s grace.

Right now, it’s Elliot’s Japanese thread that dances before me, so it’s no surprise to me that 2020 was my “year of the haiku.” They seemed to flow from me like a gentle mountain stream. I dedicate them now to Mr. Elliot. They greeted me as I walked, as I sat quietly in my office, and often, as I washed my hands—over and over . . .

With these words, I hold you—and all who have struggled and lost so much in this year like no other, as will I for El forever:

Heart
Make it stop—this now
sacred, unquenchable ache,
because you took flight.

Time
In a susurrus,
what is done, always will be—
dissolving the now.

Apart
Life in a bubble—
Hermetic under its veil.
Together alone.

Grave
No other reason.
A grave erratum must be—
Buried on his page.

Lament
Grief’s ambient tears,
Permeating my membranes
inside tomorrow.

Swann
Passed is my future
So now In Search of Lost Time
Still—breaking my heart.