[I]t occurred to me…what I was doing in this girl’s room: firming up the present by experiencing it as a memory, by experiencing it from the future as a moment in the past.
–André Aciman, “Arbitrage.”
In mentally revisiting the milieu of a quaint Cambridge apartment, in reminiscence of a day of performance of a favor, of writing on Wordsworth, André Aciman, in his essay “Arbitrage,” also rediscovers and rethinks a product of that fateful day: his conception of “mnemonic arbitrage.” In what is normally a word of financial jargon applied to musings of the mind, Aciman aims to coin a term for the occurrence of, in a moment, experiencing that moment as a memory within an imagined future, as opposed to enjoying that moment for and in itself. However, to say that Aciman labeled this type of thought is not to say that he was the first to experience or address it. It is actually from Wordsworth and his poem “Tintern Abbey” that Aciman borrows the idea, and it is through studying Wordsworth that Aciman recognizes his own use of mnemonic arbitrage: “What Wordsworth remembers at Tintern Abbey is not the past but himself in the past imagining the future; and what he looks forward to is not even the future, but himself, in the future, retrieving the bone he buried in the past” (151). Both Wordsworth and Aciman essentially borrow their experiences from imagination, in lieu of living within the moment.
Mnemonic arbitrage is not a course of thought limited to the minds of poets and scholars, however. Just as Aciman applies Wordsworth’s form of enjoyment to his periods of life in Rome, New York, and Cambridge, expanses of time during which he fantasizes about reliving in the future the ways in which these locales have reminded him of his upbringing in Egypt, so have I lived beyond the moment—most memorably on two occasions within theatrical performance. The first of these experiences occurred during a stunningly successful performance of a doubted play entitled Under the Influence.
A collection of monologues and scenes depicting the effects on and thoughts of those associated with drug and alcohol abusers, I was afraid, in participating in the play, that audience members would feel the show was proselytizing, that the school was producing some kind of after-school special. Much to my surprise, though, when the intermission of our first performance arrived, the audience members seemed very receptive. And in the second act, yet to come, were several very well-acted, poignant scenes. By the time the show ended, and the song, “What a Wonderful World,” began, one felt an electricity within the auditorium. An emotional communion between audience and players had been wrought, and the feeling was vivifying, to say the least. But what is interesting about my experience, or rather nonexperience, is that, as I stood there on stage, what consumed my mind more than an appreciation for that moment was the envisaging of how invigorating this experience would be in retrospect. Ecstatic, my exuberance was being derived not from my immediate surroundings, but from an excitement about the value of this moment as a memory. I could not wait until I could mentally relive this moment.
I had a similar experience when standing on stage during the finale of the closing performance of my high school’s musical my senior year, Crazy for You.The whole process of putting together that musical had been very dreamlike, as it was a fruition of my hopes for high school theatre. It had been my first time as the romantic lead in a show, and the part had several perquisites. I sang more than seven solos and duets, and even led a few tap dances (I have a secret passion for tap dancing). Realizing the opportunity to play such a role was unique, I tried to absorb each rehearsal, each step, each lyric, each nuance of each line. When the bows started for the final performance, though, it is not absorption of the congratulations that I remember; rather, I recall engaging in mnemonic arbitrage, thinking about how affirmative and special this experience would be in retrospect. I was excited about the audience’s receipt of the show not as a thing happening, but because of how vivid and emotional it would be as a memory.
Perhaps mnemonic arbitrage, or the application of it to a particular experience, should be labeled first as an indicator of the significance of an experience, before addressing it as a distraction from immediate appreciation. For me, the execution of mnemonic arbitrage has occurred only at times of extreme emotion, of what would have been a most greatly-felt high: those moments. Those moments are of a special breed, and one is fortunate if he or she can name more than a few such moments in the past few years of his or her life. The application of mnemonic arbitrage might be looked at as a form of mental preservation—at the realization of the uniqueness, the specialness, of a situation or event, the mind seeks to ensure that that moment will be held securely within memory. The subsequence is thought of that remembering, of the product of that mnemonic preservation.
Perhaps, these moments are too precious to be inhabited by our thoughts in the present, as some items of value, some artifacts, are too valuable to be tampered with as physical items. But people are free to observe these objects in museums and in photographs, and it is there that they must be appreciated. It is due to efforts at preservation, and the prohibition of usage, that generations to come may observe and enjoy the artifacts. An archaeologist, in a way, must practice a form of arbitration; however, this act is much less metaphorical and much more practical. In discovering ancient Greek vessels, for example, the archaeologist must preclude and resist handling a vase too much or, needless to say, using the artifact. The archaeologist must concern him or herself rather with the future of the object, and, in the future, being able to be still excited both about the discovery of that object and the actions of that discovery that have enabled the enjoyment of that object to continue.
It seems that in my theatrical performances, I have practiced a kind of mnemonic archaeology, uncovering a significant moment but preserving it for future appreciation. Perhaps there is something to say about the arts and their evocation of arbitrage-like experiences. For Aciman, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” irrefutably a work of art, is a catalyst for mnemonic arbitration. Not only does Aciman recognize Wordsworth’s usage of this line of thought, but in the process of this recognition, Aciman ponders how he will be remembering this experience in the future, valuing his time in the Cambridge apartment and his essaying on Wordsworth as a memory. Perhaps, something about the heightened expression of poetry and theatre lends itself to mnemonic arbitrage. If the application of such thought is, in fact, a barometer of significance, then it seems logical that heightened experiences—expressively or otherwise—would be more likely to be the objects of mnemonic arbitrage.
Someone could very possibly apply mnemonic arbitrage to a ballet recital, thinking on how that last pirouette will be felt in a future memory; to the completion of a long-worked-upon painting, projecting how it will have felt to have applied those last few strokes of color, to have painted on that signature. It is also possible that the probability of such events being objects of mnemonic arbitrage has something to do with the “putting” of oneself into these events. An artist often claims he has put himself in whatever picture, as does Basil in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; an actor might purport that he “exposed” himself within a particular role (or, conversely, complain that a role was frustrating because no point of personal insertion into the character could be found). These events are personalized. And because of this, the artist or performer is made vulnerable. This vulnerability could serve as an alternative explanation for the necessity of a type of “preservation.” But maybe it is not so much mental “preservation,” as it is mental “protection.” In “putting themselves out there,” artists risk something. They risk not only criticism, but also losing a part of themselves in the piece or work or performance. They risk losing themselves to their art, to the audience, to unresponsiveness, poor reception, to un-appreciation. Thus, to live in the future is to shield oneself from the dangers of living in the moment, from the perils of vulnerability.
However, Aciman’s form of mnemonic arbitrage does not seem to involve an issue of protection, per se. One might argue, though, that there is an issue of vulnerability present. The sentimentality of Aciman’s reminiscence might be construed as a type of heightened emotion—as in the expression of artistic endeavors. Early on in “Arbitrage,” Aciman does in fact appear to be “putting” himself into the girl’s Cambridge apartment:
Perhaps a tiny part of me was already lodged here and wished to come back again and again in the days to come, in search of that moment just after sunset when, switching on the first light and letting the windows turn to mirrors against the darkening sky, I’d watch Cambridge disappear and Alexandria rise suddenly upon the windowpanes. (149)
To Aciman, mnemonic arbitrage seems to be, in part, about a displacement of self. By displacing himself out of sentimentality, Aciman averts the parlous nature of sensitivity. The stuff of mnemonic arbitrage is not common. For Wordsworth, it was visits to Tintern Abbey. For Aciman, it was time in a somehow familiar and comforting Cambridge apartment, and time on the streets of New York and Rome, remembrances of a childhood in Alexandria. Personally, I experienced mnemonic arbitrage when in the midst of my passion: theatre. But whatever the nature of mnemonic arbitrage, it indubitably signifies that some event has some importance to whomever goes through it. These events are of such an importance, that there is a desired preservation of them. For memories bring to the present significance. Without memories, there is no basis for comparison, no relation to past events; the present becomes meaningless. Perhaps mnemonic arbitrage is applied when such preservation is most needed. In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth captures and articulates this significance and the elemental nature of mnemonic preservation: “That in this moment there is life and food/For future years…” (Aciman 151). Memories will be the sustenance of life to come, stored away for a winter of possible loneliness of thought.
Aciman, Andr. “Arbitrage.” False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory. New York: Picador, 2000. 147-164.