Reading Canetti
Same Old Same Old, part 2

What can we do with the people from our past, with all those we have known? They keep turning up, more and more of them, a kind of transmigration, not of souls but of faces, and not in the hereafter but here. Years ago I was so astounded by their turning up in totally new places, with different ages, jobs, languages, that I was determined to write down every occurrence of this phenomenon. But I did so only rarely, and they have gotten more and more numerous. Now they are proliferating so fast that I could never record them all.

What is it about these constantly recurring people? Is there really only a limited number of possible faces? Or can our memories be organized only with the help of such resemblances?

Canetti writes about this experience often -- that a totally new person we meet is just like someone else we have known elsewhere; sometimes the similarity is so striking that we refuse to believe that it can possibly not be the same person. (And it s not just faces: it is gestures, grimaces, the timbre of the voice – the works). The intuition is not false: those who see more faces – the well travelled, the elderly have it more frequently – as the number of faces they have seen accumulates.

Canetti asks his questions right – first, he asks: is it possible that there is only a limited number of human faces? Had he been familiar with evolutionary psychology it would have been obvious to him that yes, of course, it is: the human gene pool is vast but limited; even accounting for all possible permutations of all possible genes – 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 etc. -- (but note that not all possible permutations are viable) -- given 6 billion of us on earth, there are bound to be repeats; a little math shows that there are probably far more repeats out there than we intuit possible.

Canetti’s second question is also relevant: I suppose he is right in guessing that our brain capacity to remember faces is limited; were it not we’d probably spot a lot more of the repeats than we do.


But Canetti opens the paragraph with a sentence which could be interpreted differently; and which, so interpreted, seems to me a much more interesting philosophical question. For, if you stop to think about it, indeed, what shall we do with all the people we have ever known – all the women we have slept with, say – who have gone, disappeared among the other 6 billion, never to come back, never to be recovered?

Yet, they live on in our memory; and we never quite cease interacting with that memory; we hear their voices; imagine what they might say. We pick shoes, for instance, and we think, she’d like this one better than that. How odd: these people -- for all intents and purposes as good as dead -- they continue to affect us deeply decades after they have disappeared.

It seems like a one way interaction, too, and as such a little unfair – we can’t talk back to them without – well, visibly talking to ourselves, it would seem. But perhaps not? Perhaps we affect them, too, in the same manner in which they affect us, affect them, so to speak, unbeknownst to us?

And if we do, how strange to know that there is something we do without having the least inkling of it.

And another thing: if we do affect them in some way, it is probably all wrong. I mean: my girlfriends, when they were still around, usually guessed things about me wrong – in their expectations of what I would like or say they usually erred in most surprising ways. I’d tease them saying “I am like no other man you have ever known” (which was probably true, actually, given that I came from a place which was a lot like the other side of the moon).

So what chance that, if they continue to interact with my memory, they do it all wrong? What chance they imagine me choosing a pair of shoes I never would?


Reading Notes from Hampstead is not entirely a waste of time: bon mots – books of maximes -- epigrams – have seemed more interesting to me lately than either novels or books written to make a point (say, How Great Empires Fall) -- in part because the epigrams' succinctness makes them not entirely transparent: the thought they seek to express being incomplete works a bit like a Rorschach test -- and stimulates my own thoughts in new directions, directions unforeseen by the author. And these directions I often find a lot more interesting than being guided exactly through that author's thought process.

Canetti works this way for me: the thoughts he stimulates in me seem to me a lot more interesting than his own.

Indeed, I seem to myself a lot more interesting than most famous intellectuals of our day. Not that this is their failure: perhaps being not too intellectual is what it takes to become a famous one. (Certainly, one cannot be too demanding of one's thought processes if one is to prepared to opinionate on TV).

I long to read the books of the unfamous intellectuals.


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