-- By Tom Phillips
Years ago, as a graduate student in psychology, I took a course called Memory and Attention, from which I remember only one basic proposition: memory is a function of attention. We remember what we pay attention to.
I thought of Memory and Attention recently as I read Volume Three of Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” the story of a middle-aged man remembering his experience as an adolescent boy. And because Knausgaard is often compared to Marcel Proust, who wrote a hundred years ago, I went back and re-read the first part of “Swann’s Way,” the beginning of that earlier six-volume epic, drawn from Proust’s memories from the same time of life.
What's striking in both is the quality of their attention, the amount of experience they can extract and retain from a moment – Proust watching the twin spires of the church shift their perspective in the waning sunlight, as he walks “Swann’s Way” in the little town where he apparently spent just a few weeks of his young life. And of course the most famous extraction of them all – the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea, the subsequent descents into the subconscious, and finally the awakening of the whole remembered scene, the town and its environs, all the feelings that were bursting the heart of a proto-poet at a tender age. The past becomes present, memory and attention are one.