Monday, August 24, 2009

According to Mr. Doyle...

Arthur Conan Doyle, through his creation Sherlock Holmes, put forth the theory that a man's (or a woman's) memory is limited. We have only so many little cubby holes to fill in a lifetime, and when all those are occupied by images from the past, we can make room for more only by emptying full cubbies. When he reached his late 60s, Doyle became even more convinced regarding the validity of his belief. He could remember the long ago past of his youth but not last week's events. The cubbyholes, he thought, were overflowing with memories and he could not empty them quickly enough to accommodate the present.

In Victorian England, it was common knowledge that a man could only have so many ejaculations in a lifetime. These nature-driven limits encouraged men-about-town to carry small notebooks so they could document their encounters, and the general consensus was that a male could hope for between 7,000 and 9,000 orgasms in his life. Following this, he would become inured to the baser pleasures.

Nowadays, I wonder if indeed there are limits not to memory or sexual events but rather to emotions. Do we, can we, after a certain amount of time, become no longer capable of dealing with love or hate, acceptance or denial, kindness or cruelty? Or are we designed to repeat emotions, regardless of the passion or pain they might engender?

This topic comes up because I recently had lunch with a friend whose life, in the last year, has been a series of brutal events--deaths, illnesses, a tax audit, financial setbacks, separation and imminent divorce. We were at a local coffee shop; she sat across from me toying with a cranberry muffin and said, "I don't think I have the capacity to feel anymore."

So we talked about that, and she agreed with Doyle, though she smiled for the first time and added, "That's one of the more ridiculous theories I've heard." Her thoughts were that we get calloused, we harden, and what might have been devastating a decade ago now is merely painful. Or, in her case, the convergence of events have made it impossible for her to feel anymore. Right now, she is thankful for the emotional anesthesia. "If I were to feel anything right now, anything at all, I think I would go postal," she said.

I've had times like these, although never have I been subject to such an onslaught as that of my friend. I wonder if, after all is said and done, this is simply the mind's way of protecting itself, like an overheated circuit with an automatic shut-off.

I do think there can be a deadening of the spirit. Call it an anhedonia of sorts, an inability to feel pleasure. We all go there sometimes, particularly following overwhelming losses when all the cubbyholes capable of harboring pain are filled up. It makes sense. What we can no longer feel, we can no longer remember. Which may after all be a blessing.

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