Paul M. Willenberg
Senior Honors English
15 January 1996
The Imperfect Memory and the Excessive Imagination,
Creators of Consciousness:
Traced through Funes the Memorious and Meursault
Consciousness separates humans from sense perceiving “garbage heaps.” Jorge Luis Borges, in “Funes the Memorious,” and Albert Camus, in “The Stranger,” explore the causes of consciousness. They are philosophers who write fiction to answer the question, “What makes us aware?” An imperfect memory and imagination define our reality. Funes can be aware of other realities because has a perfect memory. Meursault reveals that the missing element for Funes to possess consciousness is imagination. I will define consciousness, assess memory and imagination as essential, discuss metaphor as a manifestation of consciousness, and isolate the affect of the awareness of other consciousness’.
Without memory, we could not compare a past object or idea with a present one. Memory allows us to enhance past objective observations with present sensory perceptions. Because we have an imperfect memory, that is, we cannot remember every detail, we embellish. We give a past idea or object an identity independent from the external world because we perceive and imagine it differently than our initial sensory reaction. We change our original reaction with our imagination. Thus, creative people experience life more vividly. In the process of consciousness, we first remember something imperfectly, and then qualify it with other embellished thoughts. The act of thought, then, is not consciousness. Thought is the comparison of one object to another. We are not conscious because we notice a difference between two things. Once, we embellish the relationship however, we create an internal reality that is an imperfect copy of our true sensory reaction. We possess consciousness when we discern our personal, dynamic reality from the outside world. Thus, consciousness of multiple realities creates a sense of self. We are conscious individuals because our senses do not limit our perception of the external reality. It is undeniably ours because we use our imagination to alter it. Therefore, consciousness is the awareness that our created internal reality differs from the external reality.
Camus’ introduction of Meursault devoid of an effective memory reveals how close pre-accident Funes is to consciousness. Meursault realizes that, “I did it as it came to me, but I tried my best to please Raymond because I didn’t have any reason not to please him” (32). He does not write the letter for Raymond because he can remember Raymond being a great friend in the past. He writes it because he can think of nothing better to do. Because he lacks an active memory he has nothing to compare current feelings to past ones. He lives from moment to moment because he lacks memory. Camus reveals the reason for Funes’ frustration of his past life. Borges writes that Funes, “had been what all humans are: blind, deaf, addlebrained, absent minded ... he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything” (63). Funes’ frustration was that his imperfect memory and senses mapped a distorted reality into his mind. So, Funes was neither happy then, nor is he happy now. Thomas R. Hart Jr. cites Borges himself when trying to resolve the effect of memory on Funes. “The very act of perceiving, of heeding, is of a selective order; every attention, every fixation of our conscience, implies a deliberate omission of that which is uninteresting” (8). Meursault, however, illustrates that Borges does not consider the true effect of imagination on memory. Meursault remembers trivial things but uses his imagination to attribute significance to them. Camus extends Borges in regarding memory not as voluntarily selective but as simply imperfect. True, Funes would like to forget unimportant details, but so would Meursault -- so does every one. When Meursault must make moral decisions based on immediate circumstances (such as having nothing better to do), he fits Funes’ description of pre-accident Funes. Indeed, Meursault is the extreme of Funes’ lament. He is blind and deaf to the reality and morality of the society in which he lives. He forgets: his mind is imperfect in every way. Therefore, Meursault mirrors Funes. The humanity of Meursault reveals the relative inhumanity of Funes after his incredible progression away from consciousness.
Memory creates internal reality but does not make consciousness. Funes’ internal reality is an exact copy of the external reality. Ronald Christ notes the significance of Funes’ memory when he writes that, “our principle antidotes to universality and immortality are death and forgetting. Because they confirm our mortality and our individual identity, death and forgetting make the universe bearable, real for us” (212). Christ’s analysis of Funes’ condition emphasizes the importance of Meursault’s development of memory to his development of consciousness. It is obvious from just Camus that the forced confrontation with his past (by the court) leads to memory becoming an active part of Meursault’s mind. Ronald Christ’s interpretation of Funes, however, reveals that the mere existence of memory is not enough. Imperfect memory invites imagination and creative embellishment. Meursault cannot explain all the details of the killing or his mother’s funeral. His memory stimulates consciousness because it is imperfect and selective. Meursault comments that, “once I learned how to remember things, I wasn’t bored at all” (78). He can entertain himself by filling in the holes of his imperfect memory with imagination. He provides a personal, creative touch to reality. Meursault comments that, “I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored” (79). Meursault has come to an almost Borgesian realization. By remembering his experience in one path, he can imagine the other possibilities. He is happy because his memory is imperfect. This happiness reveals the frustration and “congestion” of Funes. Borges chooses the name “Funes” because of the akin Spanish word “funesto,” meaning sadness. Meursault’s ability to entertain himself with his imperfect memory and creative imagination makes Funes’ sadness even greater. Funes has no freedom of interpretation or embellishment because he remembers every possible detail. Borges writes, “two or three times he reconstructed a whole day ... but each reconstruction had required a whole day” (63). When Funes recalls the past there is nothing new. He finds no new perspective in recreating the past because it hold the same experience. Funes has no joy in remembering because his experience does not change when he remembers it. Funes’ perfect memory dooms him to live in the present. Meursault’s pre-memory state compares to the total memory state of Funes. They both lack effective consciousness. Hence, Part Two Meursault becomes happier, less bored, and more vividly consciousness when we compare him to Funes.
Imagination subjectivizes memories. Borges reveals that it is Meursault’s imperfect memory that allows him to associate embellished feelings with memories. Funes shows that the emotions Meursault feels are a direct result of his imagination. The insightful narrator of “Funes the Memorious” states that,
“I shall not try to reproduce the words, which are now irrevocable. I prefer to summarize with veracity the many things Ireneo told me. The indirect style is remote and weak; I know I am sacrificing the efficacy of my narrative; my readers should imagine for themselves the hesitant periods which overwhelmed me that night” (63).
The narrator provides the link between Funes’ stark world of details and sensory perceptions, and the relatively exciting moment to moment life of Meursault. Meursault, then, is like the narrator. Borges gives new emphasis and evidence to Camus point that Meursault is representative of every consciousness. We, and Meursault, have imperfect memories. The narrator encourages the reader to interpret and create a perception independent of the actual conversation. Similarly, Meursault uses his imagination and personal creativity to embellish his imperfect memory. Thereby, creates an internal reality that transcends the external reality. Borges reveals that an imperfect internal reality is more personally vivid. Camus’ representational use of Meursault takes on new meaning. In the dark of his cell Meursault observes that, “sometimes I would get to thinking about my room, and in my imagination I would start at one corner and circle the room, mentally noting everything there was on the way” (78). This is, quite literally, a creation of reality through imagination. Through our memory and imagination we create a new essence for an idea or object, such as Funes meeting with the narrator, separate and independent from its existence.
Funes’ exact copy of the external world emphasizes why Meursault’s use of metaphor manifests his consciousness. Together, Funes and Meursault illustrate that comparison is not consciousness. Funes “was ... incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort ... it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as a dog at three fifteen (seen from the front)” (65). His mind consists of such perfect memory that no room exists for human creativity to link two dissimilar objects. Borges writes that, “I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions” (66). Thus, he cannot develop consciousness if he cannot communicate using the external reality as a medium. Jean-Paul Sartre addresses Meursault’s use of metaphor as it relates to experience when he assesses that, “we have, on the one hand, the amorphous, everyday flow of realities as it is experienced, and, on the other, the edifying reconstruction of this reality by speech” (115). So, according to Sartre, Meursault experiences and then creatively translates into communicable metaphors. Sartre misses, unfortunately, the critical effect of imperfect memory to Meursault’s use of metaphor. Indeed, Meursault’s use of metaphors expands exponentially as he develops a consciousness. Sartre reveals why Funes’ invention of a numbering system is essentially mathematical comparison and not a creative manifestation of consciousness. Funes’ numbering system links numbers with specific signs. His system is pure association. It involves no imagination or abstraction. Funes does not perceive the world as creatively or personally as Meursault. Max Müller writes that “no one ever saw a tree, but only this or that fir tree, or oak tree, or apple tree ... Tree therefore is a concept, and as such can never be seen or perceived by the senses” (78-9). This reveals the reason for Funes’ sadness (he cannot conceptualize). Müller also provides a deeper philosophical twist to Meursault’s memory. Perhaps when we think of the word “tree,” we envision a particular tree, not a picture of the abstract and intangible image that “tree” represents. Indeed Meursault remarks that,
“I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn’t mine anymore, but one in which I’d found the simplest and most lasting joys: the smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie’s dress and the way she laughed” (104).
Camus takes the application of Müller’s theory one step further. Meursault associates the intangible idea of “joy” with, among other things, “Marie’s dress and the way she laughed.” Instead of thinking of all the “joys” he ever experienced, like Funes might, Meursault isolates her dress as representative of what “joy” means to him. So, by measuring all other “joy” with this abstract, distorted image, Meursault reveals how Funes is both incapable of distancing himself from the reality of his senses and from making generalizations that limit or ignore details.
Through Meursault’s seemingly odd desires, Camus shows why Funes attempts to concentrate the external reality. Meursault tells the priest that he, like many other people, wishes for a different life. “One where I could remember this life!” (120). Meursault desires to transcend his current consciousness. It is no coincidence that Camus works the priest into his physical transcendence theme. He comments that part of the human condition is the frustration that the physical realm limits our awareness. If Meursault could remember the perceptions and ideas from the first reality, he would know and directly perceive two internal realities. Thus, he could eliminate the variables and isolate the external constant. Through Meursault’s desire, Camus reveals Funes’ intention for sitting in a dark room. Borges writes that, “She told me Ireneo was in the back room and I should not be surprised to find him in the dark, because he knew how to pass the idle hours without lighting the candle” (62). Funes, too, tries to isolate and focus the external reality so that it does not overwhelm him. Camus exposes Funes’ hope that by limiting his scope of reality, he could experience reality more vividly. This also explains why he becomes fixated with the seemingly simple smell of a santonica sprig. Since Funes experiences all sensory perceptions immediately, he merges with the external reality. By living, rather, experiencing, in the dark or focusing his attention on a singular sense, Funes attempts to combat the chaos in his mind. Borges writes that, “Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me” (65). Funes has enough trouble dealing with his own mind. Exploring the infinite possible meanings, perceptions, or ideas of another consciousness becomes undesirable and impossible. Borges provides another perspective on Meursault’s battle with the priest. The priest’s talk with Meursault in the prison represents an intrusion into Meursault’s consciousness. Meursault cannot deal with the introduction of another perspective on, while trying to contemplate the reasons for, his doomed fate. Consciousness confuses both Funes and Meursault. Meursault’s emotion and desire to transcend the physical realm, however, show how he uses his memory and imagination to tackle the existence of other consciousness’. Camus reveals why Funes’ life without a different and imperfect internal reality is so sad.
Memory, and then personal creativity, precedes and directly leads to consciousness. Borges provides a finish to Camus awareness progression. Meursault begins without memory, develops one, develops an imagination, and then becomes conscious. Borges continues with adding total memory. Therefore, Borges embellishes Camus’ point by showing Funes is aware of every detail, but conscious of nothing. We may compare Meursault and Funes to a child and a computer. Even though Meursault’s consciousness is incredibly limited, he is still aware of the difference between the internal reality his memory creates and his imagination embellishes. His consciousness is infinitely greater than Funes, who, like a computer, has perfect memory but no imagination. Quite simply, there exists nothing left for Funes to imagine. He is the same as the emotionless external reality. His sense of self ceases to exist. Together, Camus and Borges show us that through our imperfect memories and our distorting, lying imaginations, we obtain an individual identity.
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Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Random House, 1988.
Christ, Ronald. The Narrow Act: Borges’ Art of Fiction. New York: Lumen Books, 1995.
Hart, Thomas R. Jr. “Borges’ Literary Criticism.” Modern Critical Views: Jorge Luis Borges. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 5-20.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton, 1976.
Müller, Max. The Science of Thought. London: Longmans Green, 1887. 78-9.
Sarte, Jean-Paul. “An Explication of “The Stranger.” Camus. Ed. Germaine Brée. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1962.