Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/03/2010

Deleting Memory: Microsoft Goes for the Emotional Jugular. Walt Whitman and the Exultet from the Great Vigil of Easter to the Rescue.

[Note: what follows is an attempt to say something about the life of the imagination, of the spirit. The attempt, I fear, fails.]

Microsoft, in its incompetence, holds on to every picture one ever downloads in Digital Image Editor, even if—especially if—one deletes it from a file. Open “pictures” on “My Computer,” and they are all—every single one of them—still there. It’s impossible to delete them because you’ve already deleted them, and they are no longer available to delete.

Never mind the memory they use or the personal memories they dredge up you don’t want. They are in your files forever. If you stumble upon them looking for something else, and they cause pain or embarrassment, well, tough luck! Microsoft does not care. Fortunately, jumbled with those images are images of joy and pleasure. Confusion reigns.

Why, you ask, did you put pictures you don’t want to remember on your computer? I am with Walt Whitman, lugging around with me memories like

The rich coverlet of the grass, animals and birds, the private
untrimm’d bank, the primitive apples, the pebble-stones,
Beautiful dripping fragments, the negligent list of one after
another as I happen to call them to me or think of them,
The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)
The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me,
This poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, and that all
men carry. . .
.[1]

If you have no “. . . real [images]. . . drooping shy and unseen that [you] always carry. . .” you’re not my kind of reader.

I carry images of all kinds, an inordinate number negative. I read recently, “There is an internal logic here. Once we conclude that we are an unworthy person, we embrace a politics of rejection. We can only assume that other people will reach the same conclusion we have, that they will find us unlovable too.”  I was once again wrestling with images “drooping shy and unseen that I always carry.”

Yesterday I railed against the church here. I’m still not sure why except that, for reasons I cannot explain, the demise of my little church is affecting me in a way I would not have dreamed (waking or sleeping) possible. My railing did not dispel my understanding of the church as an institution that became flawed and decadent in 311 CE when Constantine made it the dominant religion of his empire. The church became instantly corrupted when Constantine signed the Edict of Milan. The question I cannot answer for myself is why any of this matters to me when I have no truck with the belief system of the church (beginning with “in the beginning”).

Enter Microsoft. One has no way to delete pictures from the memory of Digital Image Editor. And one has no way to delete images from the memory of one’s inner life—including images from the church whether or not the church matters, or even whether or not there is a god (I do sound sophomoric). These may be images that I don’t want to bring to mind. Or, perhaps I do.

Many of the past forty years I have chanted the Exultet during the Great Vigil of Easter. The first time was about 1970 when our rector had the mumps and no deacon could be found who could manage the long chant. I became emergency deacon with proper vestment draped around me, and I sang the hymn to the new light of Easter, one of the most incomprehensibly beautiful complexities of ritual.

The first time I sang those ancient words something happened to my personal Image Editor. I was joined to an unknown  deacon from the seventh century (the earliest manuscript of the Exultet dates from that time) in a mystical union that I carry with me in memory that neither Bill Gates nor anyone else can delete.

Try singing these words alone in a cavernous room lighted only by candles held by the assembly (perhaps one hundred fifty people) to a tune that sounds as ancient as it is, wearing a white brocade dalmatic with red overlays sewn on with gold thread, and see how it affects you:

How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight,
And sin is washed away.
It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.
It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined
and man is reconciled to God.
Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this
candle in your honor.
May it shine continually to drive away all darkness
[2].

These words have the power to correct my assumption that I am “an unworthy person, [embracing] a politics of rejection” and “that other people will reach the same conclusion we have, that they will find [me] unlovable too.” The words—Whitman’s “poems of the privacy of the night.”

Forty years later I cannot pass this night without singing those words. I cannot delete the memory file of that hymn. Tonight I can and will sing it alone because my little church is dying. But that story, that history, that remembrance is not dependant on the church. On any church. It exists apart from the church The ritual, the solemn ancient story-telling, the smell of incense, the sight of a dark space filled with the faithful holding small lighted candles, and my own feeing of terror, awe, and joy replay themselves in my mind—and in the minds of countless persons. But they are not the true memory. Even if there is no god, and even if the church is corrupt, stupid, and immoral, the files cannot be erased. I can sing the Exultet alone.

The church is not responsible for those stored memory files—the words, the vestments, the candles, the incense. That lowly deacon—or whoever he was that sang those words for the first time in the seventh century or earlier—and I have a direct personal connection that the church  likes to take credit for, but it doesn’t involve the church at all. At best, the church has stored the files for us to access and preserve our connection. “Earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled. . . .” It’s the night itself, not the church, that “restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn, [and] casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.”

I fear this writing is, as my writing often is, incomprehensible. Throwing out the church with the bathwater, concentrating instead on the voluptuous, earthy, even sexual imagery of Whitman. Those who are enamored of the church will say, logically so, “But it’s the church that preserves and makes the connection.” Perhaps, just as Microsoft stores the images. When my computer dies, the images will finally die.

Not so. The images, the lovely ones of the Oregon coast as well as the out-of-focus images, or the images of not-the-best human behavior, are stored in perpetuity not in Microsoft Digital Image Editor, but in my mind (and in other minds). The Oregon coast image at the top of this page, for example.

The image is stored, not Microsoft. The Exultet is stored, not the church. I don’t know how to sort these thoughts out. But I don’t have to because “the privacy of the night” stores the image thatrestores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.” The image, not the church.

[1] Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. No. 21. Philadelphia: David McKay, [c1900]; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/142/.
[2] Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1979. http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/Special_Days.pdf

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