I'm not sure I can express how very strongly this resonates for me. I went through a phase in my younger days when I was near-obsessed with the idea that I won't be remembered after my death. I'm still bothered by it from time to time, to be honest. And in fact, now that I think about it, that's been a concern of mine off and on for many years. I remember signing a lot of high-school yearbooks with the phrases "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)" and "Don't You (Forget About Me)"; at the time, I thought I was being impossibly clever by referencing a couple popular songs of the day, of course... but thinking about it now, in context with Ebert's post and a bit more self-awareness than I had at 17, maybe there was something more serious lurking underneath those seemingly innocuous taglines. And then there's the way I still sometimes think of certain ex-girlfriends and wonder if they ever think of me, and if so, what they think about me. I suppose everyone probably does that from time to time, and I don't think I'm unhealthy about it -- it's not like I'm constantly mooning over girls I haven't seen in 20 years or more, and I certainly wouldn't trade the good thing I have now for anyone from my past -- but I do hope I'm well-remembered by those I used to love. Hell, that I'm remembered, period.
The photo showed a family gathering in front of a small house in North Champaign, on some land where there's now a shopping mall. In the second row, much taller than anyone else, was Uncle Ben. He was married to Aunt Mame, my father's oldest sister. He drove an oil truck, and when he passed our house he sometimes tooted his horn and I'd run out in front and wave.
I think there's a chance I was the only person in the room who knew it was Uncle Ben in the second row. There were probably a dozen who knew in general who the picture showed--ancestors on the mother's side--but does the name or an idea of Uncle Ben linger on earth outside my own mind? When I die, what will remain of him?
Memory. It makes us human. It creates our ideas of family, history, love, friendship. Within all our minds is a narrative of our own lives and all the people who were important to us. Who were eyewitnesses to the same times and events. Who could describe us to a stranger.
...On and on, year after year. I remember them. They exist in my mind -- in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. Nobody will be able to say how we sounded when we spoke. If they tell our old jokes, they won't know whose they were. That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.
I used to imagine I would acquire some degree of immortality through the bestselling novels I was going to write, which would of course become beloved classics that would still be read and discussed and possibly even -- God, I was so arrogant! -- taught in classrooms a century or even two hence. But of course I haven't actually gotten around to writing those novels, have I? And even if I had, and they'd been as successful as I had ever dreamed... well, chances are they'd still be forgotten in time. And a fairly small period of time, too. Consider the bestselling novels from 50 years ago. Not really so far away when you think about it, but how many of those books are still read -- or are even familiar -- today? I know the names of several of the authors on that list, and I've heard of a couple of the titles, but I personally have read only one of them, Fail-Safe. (I sought it out back in high school after catching the movie version on late-night TV.) And I'm willing to bet I'm in the minority on that one, certainly among people of my generation. Now go back another 50 years to the list from 1903; recognize anything? Anything at all? Once those titles represented the blood and sweat of the people who wrote them, and they were popular and read in parlors and on front porches all across the country, and readers must surely have discussed them and loved them... and today, they're all completely obscure.
If my writing won't live on, how about other forms of recording a life? Photographs, perhaps? We are in a golden age of photography right now... there are more cameras, more photos of the average person, than ever before, and I, like everybody else in the industrialized world, have lots and lots of photos of myself. But a generation or two from now, assuming those digital photos don't just evaporate in the wake of a big electromagnetic pulse or something, will anyone remember my face any better than any of Ebert's relatives recall his Uncle Ben? No, of course not. I have in the fabulous Bennion Archives several photo albums that belonged to my grandmother, packed with images from her teens and early twenties. I love looking through them... but I don't know a soul in them, except her and my grandfather. I'm sure some of the other faces in those snapshots belong to family members, ancestors of mine, I imagine... but I don't know their names. I am diligent about writing the names of people on the backs of my own printed photos, and I tag every digital shot I take to a ridiculous degree... but I can't help thinking even that won't make a difference. People in the future may have my name, but no one will remember who I actually was. And that's a factor too, isn't it? Not merely that we are remembered, but how? My memories of my Grandma June are mostly constructed from her latter years, after a stroke robbed her of her mobility and her speech. My mother, however, remembers her very differently... as a young, vivacious, fun-loving woman who liked to play boogie-woogie on the piano and throw parties cook for 20 people while they were all camping. But that woman was a stranger to me, and after my mother is gone, all that will be left -- for a time anyhow -- is the memory of the stroke victim.
You know, it occurs to me that my instinctive resistance to remakes of movies and TV shows I loved when I was young could be rooted in this as well. I always identified with those things so strongly, considering them core parts of what made me me, that the idea that they are now somehow obsolete and need to be replaced... my fear being of course that once replaced, the originals will no longer be seen and will start to fade from memory... and where I'm sort of made up of those things, what does it say about me? Maybe what that's really all about is my own fear of obsolescence and irrelevance. And ultimately oblivion.
The basic existentialist dilemma, especially for the childless: will I have made any sort of impact on the world for having lived? Or is it all futile noise screamed into a windstorm? Is it any wonder that the single word Mr. Spock utters to Bones as he prepares to sacrifice himself for his shipmates in Star Trek II is "remember?"
Forgive me. It's late, and I've had something of a downbeat day anyhow. If I haven't depressed you too much, go give Ebert's essay a read. It really is a lovely piece...