Elizabeth Bidwell Goetz

Afterthought on “A Finite Number of Things”


This article responds to Casey Lange’s piece, A Finite Number of Things.

It is a little past nightfall one Friday in September. I am sitting in the backyard of a bar on Flushing Ave. in Brooklyn with my roommate Casey, a floppy-haired blond boy busy twirling a beer between his fingers. When we’re not both in Bushwick drinking together, Casey listens to my anxieties via Gchat, but now we are in the same place, and beer is better than the internet, and I ask what he has been writing about today. (I give you, my reader, details that might not return to our conversation because I want you to be able to reconstruct my life, even if you do so with some degree of inaccuracy; I want you be able to miss me.) Missing, he tells me. Oh! I say. Can I see a draft of that when you have one? Missing is something I’m very interested in, I tell him. Casey tells me he knows this already, that I miss “everything that has ever happened” to me.

Casey writes,

My desire, at every moment, was to more and more vividly recall more and more of my happy moments with the missed person. Whenever I unearthed a “new” memory—ideally so fresh that I had not re-imagined it since it happened—was like a prize, a treat, another welcome, anxiously anticipated opportunity to meet the person in all of her newness. Anxiously because each success evoked the fear that it was the last, that my memory had exhausted the history.

Missing is so scary. I fully agree with Casey on this—but we have to miss; missing is necessary to our intimacies. To experience a sufficiently deep connection with the people around one, one has to remember them actively, aggressively. Casey writes that “each success” in missing a person “evoked the fear that it was the last, that my memory had exhausted the history. At that point, even the love in my memory would be as dead as the past, as dead as a fact.” That is, the more you miss, the less there is to miss, the fewer yet unrecalled aspects of the missed person there are to recall. Can you miss a person away? Once, as we walked down Graham Ave., my friend Jake once told me Honoré de Balzac wrote about an idea Félix Nadar had (and now I am relating it to you; this is our genealogy; these are our kin; these are only some of the material things we can miss) that people are composed of layers of film and whenever they were photographed, a layer would be stripped away. I feel like missing does something similar to what Nadar thinks photography does: it peels critical material from the thing we find beautiful and worthy of capture.

As I wander back down Humboldt after Jake tells me this, I think about how the more you try to preserve something, the less there is left of it. (Imagine a wild-animal refuge where the animals have nulled libidos and so reproduce much less than they would in the wild: they are safe and alive, but they cannot endure.) That which we try to keep safe goes extinct. (You take the book I gave you everywhere with you, which means you lose it in a bar. I spill coffee on the postcard from you I’ve left on my desk and reread your e-mails so often I forget they come from you and assume instead that the ideas they express are things that everyone thinks. When my grandmother dies, I tell my father everything I can remember about her because I am very, very afraid that if these vestiges scattered in various people’s minds do not coalesce immediately, she will disappear. Her body burnt to ashes, only by active missing can we reassemble the corpse.) The more we try to preserve, the more we erase, and the less remains of far-away friends, lost girlfriends, dead grandmothers, the way the people we think we still love used to be, the sparkling red wine we drank in bed like a picnic last July, the way your voice sounds singing beautiful, beautiful brown eyes recorded on someone’s iPhone, or the neon lights in Bed-Stuy one night last week. But the less that remains, the more there is need to preserve. It is a paradox.

One time, more or less a year ago, I was walking with my friend Cat alongside Prospect Park in search of the subway. I had just related to her the barbecue we had just enacted, framed by “remember that time . . . .” Cat told me as we walked and that I was nostalgic for the present, that I should wait before recalling things until they were more certainly contained within the past.

Maybe people like Cat are really just ahead of me insofar as they are more active in defending that which can be missed from being overmissed; perhaps they realize the dangers of overhunting in the game park: eventually there aren’t enough buffalo left to shoot and those who dare do so are incriminated as poachers. Missing strips away essential material from its object much the same way confession denudes its object (who is also, of course, its subject). Rainer Maria Rilke is good on this idea of stripping away applied to self-disclosure or confession: In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which I read again and again last winter, Rilke’s eponymous narrator, Malte, writes of ‘lost fears,’ which include ‘the fear that I might betray myself and tell everything I dread, and the fear that I might not be able to say anything, because everything is unsayable.” Writing makes me identify with Malte: I grow so concerned of disclosing so much of myself, that when you read the things I have to say, you will know me so well that there will be nothing left unknown of me that is worth knowing. When I tell you my sins or my secrets, I am peeling outer skins from my corpus; I am stripping; I am naked; I am bleeding. Does your knowing more of me mean you can miss me more?

I worry about the danger of remembering something or someone too much. I worry about rendering the past no longer novel and foreign in the intimacies it contains. As Casey puts it, “there is only ever a finite number of things that have happened”; we can so easily exhaust what remains.

If we see a person frequently enough, are we like bears eating away at the berry bushes to store their juices up for their winter respite? When we too often see the people we love but know might go away all too soon, do we get stomach aches but know they’re for good reason, to tide us over through the gray lovelessness of winter when we go dormant, hibernate in our caves, twitch our paws in our sleep as our fur grows clotted with frost?

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