V. 3. Natalie Comes Back to Her Senses


If exercising outer attention is like walking down a corridor and receiving sensations from what is outside of its windows (chapter V.2.), our inner attention could be compared to turning to the opposite wall and communicating with the photographs, drawings, and paintings hung on it.

Inner attention is the ability of the mind to create or recreate non-material realities, and analyze the incoming information. The realities brought to life by our inner attention fall into one of the following three basic categories: the past, which we revive through our memory; the imaginary, invented by our imagination; and the abstract – a product of our experience. These three categories overlap continuously; the landscape of the past is interspersed with the shadows of the fictional, and abstract ideas often dwell in memories of physical structures. Yet in their core essence these realities differ significantly from each other. In order to achieve a clear explanation of the working mechanism of inner attention, we first need to explore each one of them in detail.

1. The Past. Regarding their origin both the imaginary and the abstract stem from the memory of our own past. The concrete sensations about what we’ve already experienced are the first our inner attention learns to dig into. Only afterward, based on whatever has been “dug out”, do we become capable of imagining or thinking in abstract categories.

Sense memory is the master of ceremonies in the process of remembering. It is our priceless bridge to the land of “before”. Without it we would be completely deprived of the opportunity to reach any occurrence of the past. By recovering vividly the sensations we’ve experienced in encountering a certain situation, sense memory actually leads us into recreating many of the circumstances of this situation – sometimes to the smallest details. In regards to this process we are all artists. We might not be able to express what we recall: to paint our inner visions like a painter, or describe any of our sensations like a writer or a poet. Yet by bringing back to life what our senses have stored in memory our inner attention can reproduce equally strong and impressive realities. Who hasn’t had the occasion after smelling a forgotten bottle of perfume, or hearing an old song, or coming across a dusty toy in the attic to be directly “catapulted” to a past reality where everything seems unquestionably real? It is our sense memory that not only restores the familiar sensation from another time, but opens up a tunnel in our present through which we, like Alice, abyss onto another earth.

In his “Remembrance of Things Past” Marcel Proust remarkably describes a flashback he experienced, starting with a bite of a little cake soaked in a spoon of tea. The taste of the madeleine, as he calls it, suddenly restored a recollection of a scene from his childhood in a town he hadn’t visited ever since, where on Sunday mornings his aunt used to give him the same treat dipping it first in her tea. This unexpectedly familiar sensation unlocked a door in his memory through which a complete reminiscence of the town and his time there rushed in. “And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers […] immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre […]; and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. […] In that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.”

Certainly for most of the time we don’t recover our past by accident; we use our will-power to get to a certain moment of what we have already experienced. But the mechanism by which we do it stays the same. It is our sense memory that does the job. The better it works, the easier our access to what has happened is.
It takes Natalie almost a week to recover from one of the biggest shocks of her life… The car robbery happened on a small road in the countryside. The man pretended to be hitchhiking, so she stopped her car, but as he approached she had second thoughts and was about to take off when he blocked her way. Jumping to her side he tried to force the door open, and then started banging wildly on the window with a stone, finally smashing it into pieces. From the next minute or so the horrified Natalie remembers just brief unrelated fragments: the man taking her keys out of the ignition, snatching her purse, leaning over and rummaging through the big bag on the passenger’s seat, then – or was it before that – pulling her head back and running his fingers through her hair and across her neck and chest.

Her next recollection is of his dark figure sinking into the woods, and the squeaking noise of car brakes behind her seconds later. Together with the man’s sharp stench of barn sullage lingering in the car for hours, this is all her memory has stored from the incident. Not a face, not even a specific feature or mark. “Pretty insufficient”, is the conclusion of the investigators. After failing to retrieve any fingerprints of the intruder they relied on the help of the victim who turned out to be too scared to remember his face and create a police sketch.

But once the shock is gone Natalie’s horror starts transforming into anger: anger toward the criminal, toward the stupid trip she took, but mostly toward her own fear and helplessness. She decides to do everything in her power to help the police with the investigation.

In an effort to restore her memory of the mugger’s face she asks her husband to go with her back to the crime scene. They both agree that this kind of reaction to what happened will work best for her recovery. With him by her side Natalie visits the roadside spot. Yet her memory remains completely numb. She suggests they go back in the late afternoon – the time when the actual attack occurred. Meanwhile she even rearranges the car’s interior the way it used to be. But the second attempt doesn’t produce better results. Natalie is on the verge of a new crisis. She feels that her inability to give the decisive push to the investigation makes her almost deserving of what has happened to her.

To settle her down Natalie’s husband persuades her to make a last attempt the following afternoon. Subjecting herself to the final challenge Natalie spends the night hectically writing down in extreme detail all she can remember, even though the attacker’s face remains completely hidden from her memory. The next day at dusk they visit the spot for the third time. Natalie stops the car and clutching yesterday’s notes closes her eyes. Her husband quietly gets out leaving her alone with her painful recollections. Suddenly, less than a minute later a loud bang on the window makes her jump in her seat. Mortified she leans back while the bangs continue for another couple of seconds. Then someone opens the door and a horrific stink fills the car as the hooded figure reaches for her purse. As Natalie finally gains the strength to start screaming, the man stops abruptly and reveals his face. It is her husband, who has re-enacted the robbery preparing himself as carefully as he possibly could. He has even recreated the criminal’s stench by putting on an old sack he has found the day before in an animal shed nearby, soiled with dirt and manure – just so he could revive as many circumstances from the attack as possible.

The shock works. Mere seconds after getting over it in a sudden flashback Natalie recalls the face she’s been desperately trying to recover all these days – up to the very last feature.
Taking the risk of returning Natalie back to her nightmare, her husband has jump-started her sense memory by provoking a flare up of a situation similar to the one in question. Her inner defense had protected her sanity by shutting out the details of a destructive experience. However, by going willingly against her own self-preservation instinct Natalie – with the help of her husband – has achieved something more significant: the restoration of her self-confidence.

We are never able to recreate our record in full detail. But whatever occurrence we are looking for has always a certain sensation attached to it, which we pull like a string of a bell. If the string doesn’t break, the porter of our memory sets the door ajar, and grants us a peak to the exposition of “things past”.

© 2010 Peter Budevski

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