Essay 50: Rasputin is Dead
I am sometimes accused of having a good memory, but in fact it is quite bad. I get sort of despondent, actually, when people tell me I have a good memory. It’s the same feeling as when I am told that I will love a book that really I know I will hate – I worry about being a disappointment, and I worry that I am wandering this earth as a stranger to the people who should know me best. Of course I will hate that book about a man getting all busted up for 900 pages, the cover of which is simply a photo of someone painfully crying. Of course my memory is bad. Don’t you know me at all, etc. I frequently forget my own phone number. I have been staying at my best friend’s house for a month, and I have driven zestily past her gate every single time I’ve come home, like the antagonist in a Kingsley Amis novel. So full of confidence, and so wrong.
There is no teaching me to follow a sequence. It cannot be done. This is why I still cannot drive a manual car – every single time I got behind the wheel I would look frightened down at my feet like Oh God which one is the brake. I have a trick for telling the difference between left and right, which is that you take what you cautiously believe to be your left hand, and you make it spell the letter “L”, for “left”. In situations of tension, however, I look at my hand spelling “L” and think Is this really the direction L goes in though. It’s obvious that I can’t be trusted with such knowledge. I can’t be taught how to knit. Every time I try, the whole thing is as new to me. I do things by instinct, or I do not do them at all. I get into bad trouble with the middle of the alphabet.
What I do have, though, is a highly receptive ear. There are some facts, some phrases, that I am just ready for. They climb in to my ears and there on the second floor of my brain is a small welcoming party ready to receive them. “The existence of Rasputin” for instance, is greeted with rapturous applause as it clambers on in there. Drinks are pressed into its hands, and there are all sorts of people saying Tell me everything. Just go on and write it all down, and leave it with me.
People talk about experiencing A Thrill of Recognition when they met the love of their life, or when they saw Iggy Pop throwing up on stage in the ‘70s. I read an essay yesterday in which a woman described hearing Tori Amos or someone for the first time (of course I don’t like Tori Amos; of course I don’t like it when people dive right into their emotions and emerge holding some terrible wriggly object), and while I do not in these cases necessarily identify with the direction of the sentiment, I understand the sentiment itself, which boils down to: this thing is for me. This person is for me, this performance where Iggy Pop allegedly threw up so hard he bashed his head into the speaker and passed out, this song, this film, this photograph of an amazing girl on a bus. These things are for me, and I am for them, and I have a purpose-built guest room where they will stay, right here on the second floor. I understand this sentiment to the extent that it is one of the guiding principles of my life. When I know that something is for me, I remember everything. The second floor of my brain is extremely crowded.
This isn’t a very good example, but it is a recent one: A friend of mine told me a story about a home video he found, of someone’s wedding in Mexico. It was already going very well, and then he said “And they were all horrible, and they were para-militaries, and they were thick,” and there went the old flare of recognition. I knew I would remember it forever, because something about the phrase was for me, and I can hear it ringing nicely in my ears right now. It must be how real tough journalists or policemen feel, when they get a good lead: they store it up for later, because they know it will be useful in the larger narrative they are sketching out. They will come back to it. I do this with all kinds of stuff. I have written about this before: I make lists, I remember irrelevant details, I build a Beautiful Mind style web between them up there on the second floor. I can take you from Kim Philby to Gary Gilmore in two steps, give you more that you know what to do with, and I can do this because I saved these things up, somehow, as mine. My Rasputin. My disgusting array of information about how he died, and what his daughter was like, and although I will not say that he had extremely sensual sex with the older Princesses, I also will not say that it definitely didn’t happen. I can tell you all their names, as well as too many things about Siberia. All mine.
I have very particular tastes, but at the same time my church is very broad: I like all kinds of things, and I like them so much. I move through the world like a young magpie, picking things up and placing them for safety in my little magpie boots. This is very nice when we are talking about things, but it is not so nice when we are talking about people. I have, in the course of my life, recognised several people as being for me. Not several. Four. It’s fine with Rasputin, to think of him as yours. Rasputin is dead. It’s not so fine, I only very recently realised, to do this with real people you know. They do not care for it, on the whole. It tends to end in tears.
I am talking, I think, about possessiveness. It used to be that I couldn’t care about someone, couldn’t remember them, unless they were for me, happily installed there on the second floor. This is no good. I hope that I do not sound hectoring, here, because the only person I am intent on hectoring is myself. I hope, too, that it does not sound like I am saying that If You Love Someone You Must Set Them Free. I don’t know what I mean, exactly, other than real people are not Rasputin, and that moreover you couldn’t set them free even if you wanted to, because they were never really up there on the second floor to begin with.