A Philosophy of Memory, or, A Treatise on How to Die Well

by Jacob Warn

Here is a little philosophy of memory, or, a treatise on how to die well.

When I was two months old, every November day I woke, cried, swallowed, and occasionally perceived this or that. Then I slept. Those verbs just about encompass the entire scope of my quotidian existence. Ah yes: on Sundays, I giggled.

When I was four years old, I struggled to tie knots. Every day, I lined up with the other nursery children, wrapping a chequered apron around my little body, and every day failed to secure it. Every day, after lunch, we napped.

When I was thirteen, my back erupted and out spread two glorious feathered wings. I shied from country schools and tried the city ones; I took buses, and took out library books; I acquired the onerous title of Head Boy, and simultaneously lost my head for girls. She and I dived into love that summer, heedless and headless. Each day, South Gloucestershire’s summer fetes welcomed us: Elberton, Titherington, Olveston, Aust. Then Autumn drew in and we parted ways. 

When I was nineteen, I began to philosophise. I was imbued with a new sense of temporal perspective, and looked to my past with furrowed gaze as I tried to distil all I could from those early years. It was at this point that I began to lose friends, to take up yoga, to accept the canonical prestige of Wordsworth, and to cultivate my own sourdough starter. I realised that memory could be bought and sold with a very particular sort of currency, and it was no sweet coincidence that these augmented cerebral skills increased in proportion to my freedom from institutional routine. At nineteen I revelled in extended vacations, the plethora of university societies, and a vastly larger pool of acquaintances.

My philosophy of memory, or, this treatise on how to die well, is easily imitable by you too. It preferences difference as the primary currency of life, capping the capitalist or social currencies that too often take pride of place at the banquet of life. Only with change does memory manifest itself in its most vivid garments. Ask me to name a detail from my first Friday lunch at Oriel, and I could only tentatively suggest Macaroni Cheese. Ask me about my family dinner as a Fresher in 0th week, and I can virtuosically specify place, person and pizza topping.

It is in moments of novelty when we take in information, when we are at our most sentient, when we are able s’echapper de la vie mecanique.

The mind has a remarkable ability to retain separate memories. What it isn’t so good at is separating those that become habitualized. Yet we persist in activities that dissolve into our vapid minds, since it is easy, since it is social, and since it’s a part of a capitalist via vitae.

Camus’ vie mecanique is the nemesis of memory. And childhood is one long Fall. But salvation is not unattainable, but we must be quick: we are on the limen of adulthood. 

How to live well? Die with the wealth of a thousand memories stored; of a thousand thousand accumulated experiences; of a million felt, tasted, heard, digested realities.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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