Msgr. Ronald Knox begins his essay “Birmingham Revisited,” collected in Literary Distractions (1958), like this:
“It is alleged by a friend of my family that I used to suffer from insomnia at the age of four; and that when she asked me how I managed to occupy my time at night I answered ‘I lie awake and think of the past.’”
Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and son of an Anglican bishop, is one of the last century’s unacknowledged masters of English prose. Like Max Beerbohm, Knox calibrates his words until they attain the precise edge of irony he seeks. The passage above arouses in this reader pensive amusement with a hint of sadness. The notion of a four-year-old even having a past to contemplate is funny – and poignant. We’ve all known boys and girls who carry the gravitas of old men and women. They seem to inhabit two ages and have access to precocious wisdom.
Lewis Hyde, in A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, writes:
In Chinese myth, Old Lady Mêng sits at the exit from the underworld serving the Broth of Oblivion so that all reincarnated souls come to life having forgotten the spirit world, their former incarnations, and even their speech (although legend has it that occasionally a miracle child is born talking, having avoided Lady Mêng’s broth).
Similar stories abound throughout Indo-European myth, as well as in modern pop culture. I’m not a believer in immortal souls, afterlives, or reincarnation, but I do find the myth interesting. My mom, who does believe in those things, likes to tell a story of me, at age three or four, bursting into tears as she played the soundtrack to Zorba the Greek. When she asked me what was wrong, my answer was, “It hurts to remember!” Funny enough, even though I have a better-than-average memory, I don’t recall this at all. When I finally listened to the soundtrack again as an adult, it didn’t unveil any memories, traumatic or otherwise, from past lives or from toddler-hood. Have I forgotten something that I once knew? Forgetting seems like a curse, especially in the extreme form of dementia, but too much memory would also feel suffocating. The slow drip-drip-drip of individual memories into the dissolving flow of time over a lifespan seems to be the best any of us can hope for.