The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Lost Objects from Another Life Are Restored to You

Memory runs in reverse on the Internet: it improves over time. Fragments of ideas that once were irretrievably shattered jump up back on the shelf and reassemble themselves, intact and entire. What has gone, instead, is the numinous sentiment of forgetting, the possibility of a chord that is more beautiful because it is Lost.

In the spring of 1995, as an eager young admitted college student, I went to an a cappella concert. I was rapt; the whole weekend felt like a portal temporarily opened to a wondrous new world. (Yes, and no.) Somewhere toward the middle of the program, if I remember rightly, the Radcliffe Pitches took the stage, and performed a song that was etherial and haunting.1 It had suggestions of fairytales, and snow, and childhood and the sadness of time and growing up, and it hit me somewhere a few inches above and behind my heart.

Then, of course, I forgot it. I tried to hold it as best as I could, but between the whirl of the rest of the program, and the whirl of the rest of the weekend, and the whirl of senior spring, by the summer the melody had gone and so had most of the lyrics. Open fifths and something about a snowman, but that was close to it–that and the feeling of the song in its chill and wistful beauty. That the song itself was partly about forgetting and loss and trying to hold on to memories only made the feeling sharper.

But this was the dawn of the Web was we know it, that period of a few years when it went from being a specialized repository of weird and wonderful things to a reliable storehouse of just about anything. I started prowling through search engines and lyrics sites trying to find a trail back to the song. Given the technology available to me, it was something of a long shot: I was clicking through every site in promising sections of the Yahoo directory and punching random combinations of possible keywords into Altavista in the hopes that its inscrutable way of expressing itself would for an instant line up with my own and the song’s.

Sometime in the spring of 1996, after following a research trail I couldn’t have reconstructed even at the time, I got a hint that what I was looking for might (or might not) be a Tori Amos song. This was 1996. I couldn’t go to YouTube, or iTunes. So I started working through Tori Amos fansites, one after another, page after page, looking for plausible song titles and reading lots and lots and lots of lyrics. After looking at more B-sides and Tori Amos ephemera than I care to remember, I had just about convinced myself that I was barking up the wrong tree.

And then I found Winter:2

Snow can wait
I forgot my mittens
Wipe my nose
Get my new boots on
I get a little warm in my heart
When I think of winter
I put my hand in my father’s glove
I run off
Where the drifts get deeper
Sleeping beauty trips me with a frown
I hear a voice
“You must learn to stand up for yourself
Cause I can’t always be around”

I was about 60% sure from reading the lyrics that this was the song I remembered. (I told you that I had forgotten more of it than I remembered.) That was enough to send me off to buy the CD, and when I hit play, was 100% sure. I sat in my dorm room, completely silent and completely still, and let that sense of growth and loss, of sadness and memory and otherworldly beauty flow through me. It was a very first year of college kind of experience, and a very first year of college kind of song.

There is more to the story of me and the song, but not to this memory. The memory ends there, on that early spring afternoon (yes, it was exactly the right time of year, too) when, a little miraculously, the music that had disappeared from my life came back into it. The circle closed, the emotion recapitulated itself, the moment was complete.

Years later, I realized what bunkum my search for this “lost” song was. It wasn’t as though I was trying to reconstruct a fragment of music I heard once while passing through a tiny village in a country that no longer exists. It was a pop song, performed by a vocal group, at the college I was attending. A girl down the hall from me was in the Pitches. I could have asked her. It wasn’t even that asking would have felt like cheating, or that my connection with the song was too personal to speak of to another living soul. No, I never even considered that it was something I could ask about. Like I said, it was a very first year of college kind of experience, from start to finish.

But even if this particular search was a snipe hunt I sent myself on, the search was still a kind of experience that’s increasingly rare in my life and in others’. Search engines give much, but they also take away that ephemeral sense of something amazing just beyond one’s fingertips. If you go looking for something, you’re likely to find it, and quickly:

I don’t want to say that my aesthetic experience is poorer now, or that life online is emotionally flatter than it was two decades ago. It’s just different, is all. New kinds of experiences have taken the places left empty when what once was hard became straightforward. Calling them “better” or “worse” isn’t really true to the spirit of the old ones, or the new. I can feel wistful for the time when I knew a Tori Amos song without knowing what it was, without wanting to go back to that time. Just like in the song.

I love that in 2014, the Pitches’ website still has a Harvard Computer Society URL.

The 1996 me would have been stunned and delighted to learn that someday there would be a free online encyclopedia so absurdly comprehensive it would have a 500-word entry on the very song I was looking for.