I remember lying in a ditch and staring at some pebbles while German bombers were flying over our heads. That was long ago. I don’t remember the face of my mother nor the faces of the people who were there with us, but I still see those perfectly ordinary pebbles.
“It is not ‘how’ things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists,” says Wittgenstein. I felt precisely that. Time had stopped. I was watching myself watching the pebbles and trembling with fear. Then time moved on and the experience was over.
Not long ago I was working on a review of some books by Charles Simic when there was a knock at the door. It was a colleague of mine, a biologist, asking if I wanted to hit the bike trails. I did, but I also wanted to show him the passage above, from one of Charles Simic’s essays in The Life of Images, his selected prose. “Why,” I asked, “do you suppose Simic remembered those pebbles?”
There were so many other things that one thinks might have taken precedence in his mind on that horrible day in Belgrade at the end of the Second World War, when as a child Simic had feared for his life. I told my colleague the theory I’d been mulling over, and with his help—and his expertise—developed two more.
The Uncanniness of Stones
Decades ago, James Atlas classed Simic among the "stones and bones" poets, whose imagery seemed inevitably to involve one or another, and Simic's fascination with stones has not abated since: earlier this year, I stood outside a small museum on the Upper West Side, talking to a poet I admire, a poet committed to eloquence in expression and the beauties of traditional forms of rhetoric. Simic's name came up, and the poet told me he always pictured Simic holding a stethoscope up to a chunk of rock, listening for some deep message, for a cryptic Truth. "It's a stone, Charlie! Give it up!" he said miming an action that looked something like grabbing a poet by the shoulders and shaking some sense into him.
Simic has long been aware of how his fascination with stones is seen in some quarters, and even responded to Atlas, saying:
...people have written genuinely about stones and are interested in a stone as the utmost kind of presence. A stone is the uttermost limit; there’s nothing beyond stone. It’s an object of incredible interest and variety. I like stones. I love stones. Stone is so alien to us, distant from us, that any attempt to speak across that distance is interesting...Simic's sense of stones as being in our world but alien to it seemed important to me as a way into the passage about the pebbles and the bombers, and was the basis of my first theory of their memorability.
As he lay in the ditch, the young Simic was struck not by the bombers or by the people around him, but by the stones. But weren't they the least relevant of details in the scene? Well, maybe that was precisely their fascination: there they were, palpable, immediate, but also strange—because they were both within but also somehow outside the human context of war. They were part of the scene of fear and carnage, but fear and carnage meant nothing to them. And no outcome of the scene, or of the war, would make a difference to them: they would endure in any dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic or muddled outcome. They were there at hand, the most ordinary of things, but they were also absolutely divorced from human experience, and from the context of war, which was the only context that could matter to Simic at that moment. They were familiar, these stones, even mundane—but at the same time deeply alien.
This simultaneity of the familiar and the strange is, of course, the very definition of the uncanny—that most fascinating and disconcerting category of aesthetics. Certain creepy dolls are uncanny, like us but unlike us; the experience of déjà vu is uncanny, and Simic's pebbles were uncanny, too: hence the way they lodged more firmly in his memory that any other, more clearly relevant, detail.
The Neurobiology of Frightened Rats
My colleague listened to my thoughts about the uncanny patiently—he always takes an interest in humanistic ideas—but I could tell he was not entirely convinced. I asked what he thought, and he told me he imagined it may have more to do with the neurobiology of memory. We're still in the early stages of understanding these things, but experiments have indicated that fear has an important effect on memory formation, and Simic's experience seemed consistent with some findings in recent experiments. The one my colleague recounted in some detail had to do with how rats remember maze navigation routes. The general idea is: frightened rats seem to have much better spatial memory than rats do under normal conditions, and better visio-spatial perceptions. Apparently under conditions of great stress, the brain processes visual and spatial information differently than it does under ordinary circumstances, probably for reasons readily enough explained by the invocation of Darwin: it is a positive survival trait to be able to remember how one found one's way to safety under extremely frightening circumstances.
This certainly correlates with my own experience, and that of others, during extreme situations: I remember quite clearly the moment after a suddenly opened car door collided with my bicycle and sent me flying through the air. When my helmet hit the pavement, it seemed to drag along the surface for a long time, and I remember thinking "why can't I pull my head up? I've got to pull my head up!" Of course there was no chance to pull my head up: the moment of impact was barely a second, but my brain, through some complex form of chemistry, was processing the experience differently than it would otherwise. Time seemed stretched out, and sensations that would have seemed instantaneous under ordinary experience came to me in great detail. Simic's brain, in that ditch in the war, would have been working quite differently than it normally would have.
But why the pebbles? Here my colleague invoked the thinking of C.D. Broad, the man Aldous Huxley famously quoted in The Doors of Perception. Broad, a Cambridge-based philosopher of mind, had said:
...the function of the brain and the nervous system and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive.... The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.In extreme circumstances, said my colleague, the mind doesn't know what is likely to be useful, and ceases to filter for probable relevance—hence the better visio-spatial perceptions and memories of frightened rats; hence the strange experience of time and space I had during my cycling accident; hence the openness of Simic's mind to levels of detail, and to things in a scene not deemed relevant under ordinary circumstances. Hence, too, Simic's sense of time having stopped, and the searing of those stones into his memory. Of course he would be haunted by them, and wonder what they meant—of course they would become uncanny. And a sense of the uncanniness of those pebbles would form the habitual patterns of his imagination, populating his poems with eerie, uncanny stones.
The Faces of the Dead
But one detail still remained unexplained: why would Simic not remember the faces of his mother and the other people in the ditch with them? It seems one wouldn't forget the expression on one's mother's face at a time like that, especially if you were, as Simic was, a child. One possible answer as to why Simic wouldn't remember comes from a small verbal tic in another of his essays, written two years after the essay about the bombing, and dealing with the end of the war:
It was the day after the liberation of Belgrade. I was up in the fairgrounds by St. Mark's church with a few older boys, more or less snooping around. Then, all of a sudden, we saw them! Two German soldiers, obviously dead, stretched out on the ground. We drew closer to take a better look. They had no weapons. Their boots were gone, but there was a helmet, which had fallen off to the side. I don't remember what the others did, but I went for the helmet. I tiptoed so as not to wake the dead men. I also kept my eyes averted. I never saw their faces, even if sometimes I think I did. Everything else about that moment is still intensely clear to me.Everything remembered with intensity: this is consistent with the way memories are often formed under conditions of fear. But the faces are somehow not remembered. Or are they? "I never saw their faces, even if sometimes I think I did," he writes. Why would he think he did? Why would everything else have been seen, but not the faces? One answer, which can only be speculative, is that he did see the faces of the dead men, and that the memory tries to come back, to swim to the surface of the conscious mind—but that Simic will not, or cannot, admit such a traumatic sight into his known world. He needs to admit something else, something less horrible, in place of those images, remembers the rest of the scene with great clarity instead. Everything brightens, to help dim the unacceptable image, which refuses, entirely, to go away.
We might apply a similar speculation to the scene in the ditch: the unremembered faces must have been seen, and the sight of one's own mother in terror would be too much for a child—such a sight reveals the ultimate powerlessness of one's protector, the ultimate exposure of us to deadly forces beyond our control. It's not a sight to remember: and one must put something else in its place, something less threatening, something that connects us, somehow, to a world beyond the context of the war. And then there are the pebbles, waiting, there, in but also outside the war. They fill the space otherwise inhabited by trauma. And they'll fill that space in Simic's poetry until the day he dies.
The review I was working on when my friend came to the door will cover Simic's The Life of Images:Selected Prose and his collection of poems The Lunatic. It will appear in Boston Review later this year.