:: Article

Living Memory

By Liza Michaeli.

Photo courtesy of Elias Rovielo via Flickr.

What holds on tightly, the past to us or vice versa?  Is it fair to speak of a past? And of memory?

We do not readily admit the parameters of the past, which is suffered by us to remain open.  An armless embrace, holding without hands, touch felt in the skin years later.  We remain together, inside one another, through the privilege of dependence.  There is a stillness, here, a still. Life “holds” its own standard of participation.

This is the phenomenology of the poet Fernando Pessoa’s “untouching memory of touch.” A thing once touched cannot be untouched. Caressing yet restrained, the touch recuperates itself in “memory real” and “outward known.” [i] Held back, we are undone in slow motions of exposure to this anterior present.

What does life look like if we accept that we are not in control of the return of the past and for how long it stays? The reverberation of the past is not an attaca subito.[ii] It is a gentle crushing. And it may be muffled, but it does not struggle to survive.

We are struggling to survive the vulnerability of the body.  Life today is trembling with the past.

That we are disturbed in ways we cannot register, that experience presses forward at a lower (I do not say weaker) frequency, is not sufficient proof that the past is not still living. The feeling of the past is subfebrile, somewhere in the skin, but barely visible.  A pain may be so significant that it is, paradoxically, unapparent to the eyes; that is why it is not actionable.  There is a recovery life itself does not admit.  The real standard of admissibility for experience is not relevance, but significance rendered through pain.  Intimacy with this experience is not a relation that can be grasped quantitatively and yet there are ways to be occupied in a more active way in relation to the consequences of the hold.

Will we doubt this sensation lodged in, though unapparent on, the surface of the body? What is the standard of admissibility for living experience? And for the designation real?

This is the paradox of “living memory.” To be caught tight, taut. To be trapped between the inability to go backward and the inability to go forward. When you are held in this living memory, your body is living this memory. The past is real, for the body is itself the weight of accumulated years. It is the body that bears the physical burden of memory.

This is not life on hold, this is life holding. This is life in the fermata.[iii]


Then the question shifts, somewhat, to survival. For if the affectation lingers on, is it within our power to be invulnerable?

Psychologically, socially, we know that certain feelings are not “relevant” and that it is not viable to continue nourishing them. We force ourselves to forget, to act “as if” there is a past we are no longer living. In the deranged motion of recovery, we emaciate ensuing pain, or rather, “allow” it to die slowly.

That is why the tomb into which we deposit life post-mortem is not the only tomb about which to speak. The autopsy, the burial, occurs in life itself, when we entomb living experience, when we carve meaning into pain.  Life is not possible if we do not bury the most significant parts of its experience.  Meaning is the first “form” of this burial, in the service of which memory forms the borders of the tomb. In order to make real progress” in the form, we must force life to resolve there.  To bear, we must bury.


The need for protection leads to the imposition of an end. Ripping, splitting, tearing ourselves from life, we are seeking a new feeling to “supplant” the still effective feeling of the past. We make manifest a median line upon two imagined segments of experience. But this median line where memory is driven into the motion of life is itself an attestation to the fluid limit between a relative present and a relative past. And if this delicate line is not everywhere visible, it is necessarily implied.

When the borders of the tomb feel sensitivity from a diminution of contracting powers, the cutaneous covering of the body itself softens.  The shape of the body is augmented by the “sum total” of feeling.  Contact harnesses the real; phenomenologically, life is a “harness-maker.”  It is from the passion that we read this pathetic limit.

Is a “better formed” memory, then, a “better tortured” life? We do not choose today without hurting yesterday.[iv] We do not live on without moving forward from the place in which we’re held. These prepositions imply an abuse, a schemata of cremation in which the only form of bearable life, the only livable form, is memory’s tomb.

Is true life erased behind the beautiful report of memory? Are we living or are we dying when we pretend as if the past no longer hurts?


This is neither a plea against entombing life, nor a call to become living memory. Genuine vulnerability is not a “practice” and the fact that something demands so much effort to forget already confirms that it is still alive. We remain open to the past. But more than that, we are the past, carrying it, embodying it. And the living memory to which we occasionally forfeit—on the occasions we “allow” ourselves the luxury of going mad—is already holding us, held in us.[v]


[i] C.f., Pessoa, “The Untouching Memory of Touch,” in English Poetry—35 Sonnets: “The thing once touched, if touch be now omitted, / Stands yet in memory real and outward known.”

[ii] The musical imperative to accelerate suddenly or quickly.

[iii] From the Latin fermare, to stay, stop, or make firm, fermata is the musical notation indicating that a note should be (that is, calls to be) prolonged beyond “normal duration.” To be “on hold” is inseparable, here, from being “being held” in an excruciatingly impractical lunga pausa.

[iv] Here, care is inseparable from neglect.

[v] The crucial difference, then, between first- and second-degree vulnerability, between the given experience of life and the practice which would seek to manage it in an “economy of participation.” But do we choose to participate in the feelings inhabiting us?

Photo courtesy of Michaeli.


Liza Michaeli is a writer, originally from Jerusalem.  She is earning her PhD in Rhetoric, with Designated Emphases in Critical Theory and Jewish Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley, where she works in psychoanalysis, embodied theology, pathophysiology, phenomenology, and Jewish ethics.  Her writing has appeared at The Philosophical Salon.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 6th, 2021.