“Events far-reaching enough to people all space, whose end is nonetheless tolled when one man dies, may cause us wonder. But something, or an infinite number of things, dies in every death, unless the universe is possessed of a memory, as the theosophists have supposed” (Jorge Borges, The Witness).
What is memory? Malleable, imperfect memory, that sinks into shadows and corners of the mind, only to resurface at a smell or sound or sight all-too familiar—why does it exist? What weight do the forgotten and remembered images hold? Jorge Luis Borges in his essay “The Witness” describes memory as a mode of preservation which dies with the one who remembers. When the last witness of an experience has passed, Borges argues, something irreplaceable is lost to the world forever, and so every death marks the end of something.
He speaks of a dying man as a witness forgotten. This man has seen rites no one else is old enough to recall, and so with him dies the last memory of a culture passed. History books record the tales of years gone by, but in their words, there is something missing. Even when events are recorded first-hand, the entries have a black spot, a puzzle piece irretrievable: the eyes which saw it are no more.
There is a difference in remembering someone else’s story and remembering the scenes of the story itself. No matter how well the witness describes his tale, no matter how many people care enough to listen and pass on the words, the memory of the person himself is stronger and more real than the memory of the observer. In my recollection, I can relive an event of yesterday; in my reminiscences with friends of times we shared, the experiences are made more real and true. Someone else may be able to tell my story when I am gone, but that person can never know for themselves what it was like.
No one can experience in exactly the same way the way that last night’s sunset struck the tree gold from the perfect angle. No one can feel like weighted surprise and joy that struck me when I stepped past a pile of stones and heard a heart-beat in the gurgling of water running through it. I can describe it, but my words will never fully capture what I saw. I can bring people to the same spot, but the experience will always be a little different, the water shifting a little higher or a little lower, the leaves a different mix of colors, the light casting different shadows on the stone. Even if a thousand people have watched the sun set on a thousand trees, have heard a similar sound in a thousand rocks, the moment of that precise rock and that precise tree and that precise heart-beat is mine alone, shared only by the birds who were nearby.
The memory of a witness is a testimony to reality. We can speak with authority when we were there, even if we didn’t know all the facts, even if we don’t know the whys or how behind it, simply because we lived it. Experience is an evidence few are willing to argue with. Though events may exist without our notice—trees fall in the forest, beauty and grace are performed—the moments of our witness testify to their existence. Memory acts as a reminder of reality and truth. It hosts moments and preserves them for years after.
Individual worth becomes confirmed by the uniqueness of one’s past, for in it rests a combination of experiences that no one else shares exactly. When Borges writes that something is lost in every death, he reasserts the value of each life because all lives hold something or infinite things that made the world a little richer and leave the world a little poorer when they are gone (Borges 39).
The stories we pass on, then, are important because even if we can’t pass them on fully, the narrative becomes a new event preserved in the minds of the listeners. My nieces and nephews won’t recall the pulse of the stone, but they may recall their crazy aunt sitting them upon her knee and claiming that the earth has a heart-beat. The narratives of the past are the birthright of the future; the generations to come who value their heritage will want to know the stories large and small. The memory will be reshaped and carried on.
Every person is born to be a witness, to pay attention to what is around them and to keep in their minds the truths they see. When we choose to share our stories, we give our narratives to those around us, and when we die, we carry away scattered pieces as a testimony to the worth of our lives.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Witness.” Dream Tigers, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. 39.