Discover more from the pillow book
Am I sort of a forgettable person?
I was standing outside a campus building and this Goth-lite looking philosophy PhD came up, harried, asked breathlessly, Do you have your ID?
Yeah, I said, and let her in. By the way, are you in Philosophy?
She looked taken aback. Yeah, how’d you know?
We’ve met, I said. Briefly at P’s party, I added quickly, in case this would seem like an admonition otherwise.
The party had been last year, in a big Victorian that looked haunted, completely dark out front. P’s division of the house was in the back and we entered through someone’s bedroom. It felt a little sacrilegious, stomping in like that. There was a big heap of coats on a plaid duvet-covered bed under a flag no one recognized (maybe Scotland or a Southern state, someone said). Inside there were massive binders with labels like “CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY” and someone brought a platter of honest-to-God gourmet sandwiches from one of the posh little neighborhood markets. The woman who didn’t recognize me today plus three other people and I stood around in an oddly-shaped office nook, listening to the hot takes of someone who was more of a Character.
The day after that party I went for a run and the woman who didn’t recognize me today and I saw each other on a trail in the forest. We nodded at each other. Some time between then and today I drifted out of her mind, as happens often to the clutter of life. Between then and today I did actually see her another time, at a dance party in an Indian restaurant, totally dissonant with the party theme but rented for the occasion. I was there on a different philosopher’s invitation. I stood bobbing to techno the DJs had chosen to approximate a Berlin nightclub and thought resentful thoughts in my complete sobriety about how the repetitive music made me feel primed to march or do factory work, raise my legs like an automaton, and then I thought more resentful thoughts about how I recognized people who didn’t recognize me.
There are no innocents. At the sociology office the other day I ran into someone who I couldn’t remember and introduced myself. She said politely, We met. I apologized profusely.
I really hate forgetting people’s names, or anything about them. I try hard to remember things like where they grew up and what they study. For a while I kept notes about friends with their addresses in a small black journal, and then people moved around so much I gave up keeping track on paper.
I TA for a big lecture class, and that entails teaching two discussion sections a week. On the first day of each section I asked students to introduce themselves and share their majors and their reason for taking the class and one good thing about the place they grew up. I wrote down everyone’s answers. Despite the assiduous notetaking I remember certain students in my sections more easily than others and this feels terrible: not only because the (/my?) pedagogical ideal is to remember everyone’s name but also because there’s no meritocracy to attention and memory. I couldn’t tell you why I looked at one person and knew somehow I would remember her name. It wasn’t an uncommon one. Attention and memory aren’t fair. Maybe they’re also not that random, and we afford both more to people who we think are interesting or powerful (you could say some version of this for attraction too.) I worry that if I fade into the background in people’s heads it’s somehow my fault or something I could control: that perhaps if I dressed flamboyantly or uttered very memorable remarks I would be unforgettable all the time. I worry that it’s also about things I can’t control. Even when I wear my cow-print jeans and sweater that says “SEX HOUSE” to school, multiple professors have gotten me mixed up with my friend in a different department who’s a head taller than me, because we are interchangeable Asian women, I guess?
In my feminist philosophy class today we read papers about racial ambiguity and thigh gaps by the philosopher Céline Leboeuf. To start out our class divided into pairs and we stared at each other, an exercise in directing attention to someone else and to ourselves. It was hard not to laugh, especially when other groups began to laugh. It rippled out, the way water does when you skip a stone. My classmate and I dissolved into giggles. If you’ve ever tried to maintain eye contact with someone for a full minute you know it can be nerve-wracking. The instinct of laughter to defuse the uncomfortable makes sense, though; it is rare to pay such close attention to someone who isn’t your intimate. Attention is erotic (by which I don’t mean sexual, though it could be, but erotic as Lorde uses it in “Uses of the Erotic” — “a well of replenishing and provocative force [...] an internal sense of satisfaction”). As I looked into my classmate’s eyes and tried very hard to pay attention to her, I found I wasn’t laughing anymore. There was something meditative about looking. It feels nice to be seen. It feels nice to see carefully, too.