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Malleable memories and never-present nows

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DECEMBER 17, 2022

Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot, so they invented hope.”

—I’m Thinking of Ending Things, directed by Charlie Kaufman

CW: allusions to suicide and spoilers for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

J.B.S. Haldane, British biologist, was intrigued by the distinct ways humans perceive time and the relations between past, present, and future — especially with regard to memory. In his paper entitled Possible Worlds, Haldane focuses on locating the “present.” What can we legitimately deem the present, and how is this specific to our human sensations? 

Haldane concludes that humanity always exists two seconds away from the past. In other words, humans are aware of a “specious present” or a “now” about two seconds in length. It is not possible to be directly conscious of a series of events lasting for more than two seconds at the same time. A long life could consist of almost a thousand million nows — presents. The past, in any given moment, is that close to us: a mere blink away.

Given our one-dimensional perception of time, we are constantly building upon this series of presents by gaining more memories. As such, we see that, incapable of looking forward to the future, we are bound by these limitations.

“My consciousness at the present moment is in a special relationship to that of the other moments in my past,” Haldane writes. “It remembers a few of them, and is influenced by many of them. It has not got this relation to events in my future, or in your past or future.”

He also touches on the deterioration of memory. He says that the chief reason that the series of presents does not indefinitely prolongate is because after we reach 60, our body begins to hit our neurological limits. The degenerative process of neural connections weakening — the process we passively undergo at every age — begins to amplify. Memories fade and become distorted, and so too does our current “special relationship to that of other moments” in our pasts.

In other words, our memories are malleable, and our nows — seemingly never present. 

With the window of the present so incredibly small, we are practically always referring to the past — something we can only access through memories, which are not always reliable. How, then, does this affect our sense of the present, built upon our listless recollections of the past? How can we investigate our shifting memories, sorting through the real, begging for what has changed, what could’ve changed?

“Only the future revisits the past,” writes poet Ocean Vuong. 

Like a rejected lover, we return to the past constantly, and it never replies, despite appearing different every time. The singular dimension we travel through doesn’t allow us to bring the past back in all its authenticity — to relive it like we do these fleeting nows. But we can revisit the past, and sometimes take hold of its malleability, simply reimagining it. Memories are on the verge of possibility; there are ways we can enter them and dwell within them. 

Like a rejected lover, we return to the past constantly, and it never replies, despite appearing different every time.

Vuong’s novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is neither fiction nor autobiography. The inside of the cover will tell you that, “Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” Readers who contextualize the work within Vuong’s life will tell you that it’s a retelling of his life. Both have some truth. The book is a product of the author’s imagination, and it is a retelling of his life. Specifically, it is an investigation into Vuong’s memories — an attempt to preserve them through fiction.

It is memory in physical form. It is memory itself. 

The novel is framed as a letter to the narrator’s illiterate mother. It’s poetic, it’s everywhere, it’s real and not real at the same time. Like a memory, it’s not stagnant, and it’s never clear which of the novel’s events actually occurred in Vuong’s life and which didn’t. 

There is this moment in the beginning of the novel when Little Dog, the narrator, reflects on his mother’s reception to a mounted buck. His mother, Rose, is uneased by the mounting — how the corpse is stuck on the wall like that forever. “It was not the grotesque mounting of a decapitated animal that shook you,” Little Dog writes, “but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won’t finish, a death that keeps dying as we walk past to relieve ourselves”

Like a taxidermied beast — a moment in its life immortalized — Vuong too immortalizes moments in his life by reinterpreting them and turning them all to ink. When he traces the way his grandmother lost touch on reality, that deterioration renews and begins again every time someone reads the novel. When he illustrates the ways cracks formed between him and his mother, those cracks are witnessed and remembered every time the pages are turned. Like his mother, some people are horrified by the reliving of such painful memories. But for Vuong, writing memories in all their rawness does not merely mean enduring the pain again. “[W]hy can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration?” he writes.

So, when Vuong reinterprets his past, bordering the lines of fiction and reality, he is regenerating his memories in the ways he chooses to see them. “[B]y writing, I mar it. I change, embellish, and preserve you all at once,” he says to his mother. He knows the past cannot revisit him, but he can bring his version of the past to the present, enframing it to endure the weaning of time. 

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a translation of memories into words. Unreliable, painful, and sometimes, briefly, gorgeous — places in which to enter and reside. While memories regularly change outside our control, Vuong takes it upon himself to present them in his idealized way. The result is something uniquely his. It’s a reformation of the past he builds his presents upon. He is being truthful to how he desires things were, while recognizing how they deviate from the original form of his memories. 

It’s as novelist Iain Reid says: “Sometimes a thought is closer to the truth, to reality, than an action.” 

This is one of the opening lines to both Iain Reid’s novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and the Netflix film adaptation of the same name. Spoiler warning: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” like Vuong’s novel, takes place within a person’s memories. Similar to Vuong’s novel, it is not entirely built upon the reality of past events; instead, the reflecting character takes their liberties in reimagining their past, and consequently, their present. 

The novel is confusing. It’s fragile. The film adaptation is no different. Audiences are invited into uncertainty, tricked by visual inconsistencies, unnerved by old monologues, and disoriented by choppy pacing. There is no present to ground yourself as a viewer of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Nothing is promised except the malleability of memory and its relationship to desire.

The movie follows a woman and her new boyfriend, Jake, as they travel to visit Jake’s parents. Meanwhile, the woman narrates her thoughts, which keep circling back to the idea of ending things with him — or so it seems. The “reality” of the film is that the woman is a figment of Jake’s mind, and the real Jake is a much older and lonely janitor, who is thinking of ending his life. The journey he and this imagined woman take as he navigates this decision retraces his childhood memories: his old dog, his favorite books and plays, his favorite ice cream place, and even some more recent memories like the young girls at the school for which he works. 

The film’s director, Charlie Kaufman, is no stranger to adapting works that frame memory and thoughts as their setting. Perhaps his most famous film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” tells the story of a couple wiping their memories of each other after a painful breakup. It, too, briefly touches on reshaping how memories appear, like details visually fading away or becoming warped and unrecognizable. With this same idea in mind, Kaufman implements many cinematographic elements to make “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” really feel like a memory.

In an interview, Kaufman goes into the minute details of making a scene come alive. As they built the set for a farmhouse, in which Jake would show his girlfriend the exact spot where he saw his old pigs die, Kaufman says that they had the freedom to make the farmhouse as big or as small as they wanted to. “The intent was to make it feel different in memory than it felt in reality,” he says. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” knows that the past is sometimes incommensurable to how we remember it. Therefore, there’s this massive distinction, this surrealist quality, to being within a memory compared to simply going back to the past — especially a memory that is altered to fit with one’s desires, as is the case with Jake.

This potential for memories to appear differently is something very important in the story of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” The chief reason for revisiting memories, according to this tale, is because they will reveal something new with every revisit. As time drags on, as the present keeps coming and the trail of past moments grows, memory draws closer and closer to fiction. Reid writes, “Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality happens only once.”

As time drags on, as the present keeps coming and the trail of past moments grows, memory draws closer and closer to fiction.

The way Jake envisions his past speaks monumentally about his future. Exaggerated personas of how he remembers his parents, stressed moments that shaped his conceptions of death, sprinkles of his favorite media that he wished he shared with a lover. Jake attempts to revisit the past through his imagination, and through this fictional landscape he receives a reply to the question of whether he should end things. When both his reality and his imagined stories amount to the same decision, that’s when he gives into their truths. Fiction and reality suddenly agree.

This story appears to reason with Haldane’s conception of the two-second present. We never get any closer to the future, Haldane supposes. The future simply becomes the present as soon as we’re able to perceive it, slipping by us to eventually become the past. The process is constantly repeating — it never ends. The narrator in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” has a much more depressing take on the same sentiment. She says, “People like to think of themselves as points moving through time, but I think it’s probably the opposite. We’re stationary and time passes through us, blowing like cold wind, stealing our heat, leaving us chapped and frozen.”

All these narratives — Haldane’s, Vuong’s, Reid and Kaufman’s — seem stupefied by the physical inaccessibility of the past, as well as how they continue to change outside our grasp, like old photographs in a locked box growing dusty and faded. We are constantly putting ourselves in relation to our past experiences, gauging our present based on them. But when they shift beneath our feet, becoming unrecognizable, what does that mean for our current selves? Can we even recognize these people anymore? 

These questions are what inspires experimental stories like “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” They’re attempts at speaking with the past, sorting through memories to make sense of our current realities. Neither one is completely fiction nor completely real: an autobiography disguised as fiction, and a memory adjusted to current desires. These revisits may reveal hardships and force us to recognize all that we forget and all that we wished for. But when we are constantly on the verge of the past, our relationship with it is the only means we have to build more presents and make room for the future.

So, along the way, “Just tell your story. Pretty much all memory is fiction and heavily edited. So just keep going.” 

― Iain Reid, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Contact Logan Roscoe at 


DECEMBER 17, 2022