Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

I think I’m finally over France

I may have been trying to relive my experiences in actuality because I can’t recapture them in memory

I’ve just spent the last 7 weeks living in a succession of cheapish hotels in Pau and Tarbes, towns in the southern French regions of Nouvelle Aquitaine and Occitanie respectively. I had intended to move from Ireland to France back in March, but then the restrictions on movement were suddenly introduced, and I ended up spending 5 months as an unvited guest in my sister’s house in Dublin. So, once the restrictions were lifted, I had to move quickly.

A lot of my time over this 7-week period has been spent trying and repeatedly failing to rent a studio apartment for the next year. I don’t intend to bore you with the reasons why I can’t find a place to live but, partly because of them, I think I’ve lost my enthusiasm for living in France.

I spent 6 months in Bordeaux in 2015 and found somewhere to stay within 10 days. The difference is that, at that time, I was looking for a houseshare, whereas now (partly because of the virus, but also because I’d like to have my own place to myself) I’m trying to find a studio apartment. I’d have expected that people would be more wary about sharing their own homes than about letting out an impersonal property asset, but I got that quite wrong.

So where do I go from here? There are practical problems about going back to Ireland (I’d have to have somewhere to wait out 14 days’ isolation, for a start, and then find a place to live long-term). And then there are the emotional obstacles.

In 2011, I moved back to Ireland, having lived outside the country for 24 years, 18 of those in London. Throughout my time away, I had felt nostalgic for Dublin — for that city specifically, not for Ireland as a country. But I wasn’t able to attach that feeling of nostalgia to any particular place, event or experience. (From this point on, I’m going to refer to that feeling as “unspecific nostalgia” for reasons that I hope will become clear.)

I used to say to a very good friend of mine from Holland (who also lived in London and who died in 2006) that he must come to Dublin; he’d really like it. What would he like about it? he would ask me. I’d go blank. It was hard to say what was so good about the place, apart from a fleeting feeling as one walked along a particular street. It was a generalized atmosphere, impossible to put one’s finger on. But he’d see when he got there. (As it turned out, he never did.)

When I’d go back for visits (and for my mother’s funeral in 1999), the anticipated generalized atmosphere and fleeting feelings would elude me; but I’d tell myself that this was because I was just passing through, it would be different if I were living there every day. So, when the chance to return to Ireland came up at the end of 2011, I took it.

I soon began to believe I’d made a dreadful mistake. Dublin was not the place it had been in my imagination. (It hardly could have been, because my imagination was, as I later discovered, incorrigibly nonvisual, and therefore the incapable of capturing certain fundamental characteristics of the place.) Again, it was hard to put my finger on what exactly was wrong. The colours were all off, for a start. The trees were too green to be natural (as, indeed, were many things.) To me, the air in Dublin suggested an alien atmosphere, tinged with a purplish blue, possibly poisonous and certainly inimical to life, whereas that in France had been warm, brown and orange, welcoming. I had to get out of Ireland and go back to France.

Again, brief visits should have allowed me to view my fantasies with a clearer eye. I spent a few days at a time in France in each of the three years following my return to Ireland, mainly for jazz performances (the Brad Mehldau trio near Toulon, several pianists in Marciac, Enrico Pieranunzi at the Sunside and Martial Solal in Aix) but also for my youngest sister’s 50th birthday. The France of brief visits didn’t match that of my nostalgic imagination but that didn’t stop me from wanting to back permanently.

I’ve also just recently noticed that I’ve been feeling an inclination to return to London, which I’d happily left for good in 2005 (and again in 2006). I think a pattern is becoming clear, according to which I develop unspecific nostalgia for places where I used to live, and this nostalgia makes itself felt in the form of a strong desire to go back to that place and relive the experiences I had there. I know, theoretically, that the past can’t be relived. I believe it’s because of this cognitive awareness that I didn’t attempt to move back to Dublin during the 1990s or 2000s, despite the feeling that I’d be happier there than in London or France. The feeling was always resistible — until 2012 when it hit me with a double whammy: I was back in Ireland at last, simultaneously “missing” France and learning that the Dublin that I thought I’d been pining after for the past 24 years had very little correspondence with reality.

Of course, when I was living in London in the 1990s and longing for an idealized but vague and curiously featureless idea of Dublin, or in Dublin in the early 2010s, desperately missing an equally abstract notion of France, I didn’t yet know that I have SDAM: I learned about that only in 2018. Now that I’ve been back to France with an awareness of that condition, and have again found it a disappointment, I’m speculating that the mismatch between my expectations and observable reality has something to do with my lack of vivid memories and my inability to form mental images.

I now suspect that the unspecific nostalgia comes from feelings of pleasure, enjoyment and validation that were originally stimulated by incidents and experiences that I can’t remember except as forming part of a dry, featureless narrative. The feelings are still there, even though they’re not attached to memories, as I assume they would be for someone who doesn’t have SDAM. Lacking a grounding in memory, they’ve instead become associated in my mind with the abstract notion of the place (Dublin, certain parts of France). Not being able to relive the experiences in memory, I’m drawn to try to relive them in actuality, which of course is not possible.

Now that I think I know what’s happening, I should be better able to resist the urge to “go back”. The attempt to substitute equivalent new experiences for my nonexistent episodic memories is irrational and doomed, but it has taken me at least the last 9 years to understand that. I thought I was missing France or Dublin. In fact, what I lacked were the memories of incidents that had occurred in these places.

The lesson to be learned from this is that it doesn’t matter where I live. Wherever it might be, I’ll have some good experiences, and some not-so-good ones there. While I’ll certainly remember that some of them happened, I won’t remember them in such a way as to recall them to mind, or “relive” them. The good experiences will evoke pleasant feelings which will not, unfortunately, be connected to memories of the occasions that gave rise to them, and will therefore merge into another bout of unspecific nostalgia. There’s nothing I can do about it but recognize it for what it is.

I’ve been attaching too much importance to the question where I want to live. Really, the important thing now is to find a room somewhere with a desk, a chair, a reasonable amount of space for the books I need in the medium term, and a supply of electricity and water. I have at least one book and several shorter writing projects that I’d like to finish while I can still write. They’re my priority now. I don’t want to spend any more time looking for the ideal surroundings in which to write them.

It may even be the case that being in the “wrong” place, the place where I don’t want to be, may be good for my writing. 2012, the year of the double whammy, when I was at my most unhappy since I left school 38 years previously, was the year when I finally finished, submitted and defended my doctoral thesis and got started on the publication of which I’m most proud (so far). I continued to work on that essay over the following year and in 2014 I wrote the first draft of A Falling Body.

From the beginning of 2016 through to September 2019, I was flat broke and living in a borrowed apartment in a dull, uninspiring Irish town where I wrote several short stories, some critical discussion of books and ficton and my posts about aphantasia/SDAM as well as a bunch of more ephemeral stuff. So, if writing is really to be my priority from now on, maybe it’s time I went looking for a bare, cheap studio or bedsit (if such a thing is to be found) in another uninteresting Irish town. But first, I need to figure out what to do about the 14 days’ isolation. Je vous tiendrai au courant.

Posted by Art on 17-Sep-2020.