The Contours of Memory

Roy Batty, Rutger Hauer’s character in Blade Runner, dies after giving one of the most famous monologues in modern history:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Watching Blade Runner last week forced me wonder what makes us human. And after turning the human condition over in my mind again and again, I think it’s the ability to revisit our memories over and over. After all, we are literally composed by the contours of our memory.

We live most of our days on autopilot and second by second the daily tedium fades into dust. It can be impossible to recall our lunches or our outfits or our school days. But sometimes memory persists. Our most emotional, significant memories are either encoded in the starkest detail, or dashed into polished fragments. In both cases, these most spectacular of our memories crystallize into prisms, magnifying our lives’ details in ways that others could care less about.

Our minds form our models of the world brick by brick based on memory. And these models exist to help us navigate our daily lives. But sometimes our models get disrupted and then, at once, we know we are not magnificent.

The “sublime” in literature describes beauty on a grand or elevated scale. In the sublime, the world has a way of making us feel small. And we can see the enormity of this beauty in even the smallest details if we pay attention. Perhaps it’s in the way the wind ruffles your hair affectionately in late autumn. Or perhaps it’s in the goosebumps that a lover raises on your skin with just a touch. Or in the way that waves lap against your legs on the shoreline. These are stunning moments, seldom truly felt.

And just as quickly as they appear, they’re gone. In the sublime’s place sits the arresting feeling of forgetting something beautiful. You lose the vocabulary for something you once knew intimately. The words stop on the tip of your tongue, and indeed so too does the electricity blazing on the tips of your neurons. And so you sit, silent and dumb, your breath slipping into wind. Like tears in rain.


Also published on Medium.

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