The words are ringing all around us like sirens sounding off in the night. Carpe Diem. No day but today. Live for the moment. Just do it. Before you die your life flashes before your eyes, so make it something worth looking at. Advertising executives, writers, musicians, and friends all have one thing to say: live your life. However, as human beings we think of old homes and future bachelor pads or of first school days and dream jobs because we have more than just the present; we have the past and the future. We have memories to fall back on and dreams to aspire to. We have then, now, and later, which we jump to and from in our everyday lives. We think, therefore we are. We live in order to have something to think about.
André Aciman understands. In his essay, “Arbitrage,” Aciman introduces and explores the concept of “mnemonic arbitrage” (152), which ties into the idea of experiencing the moment to look back on it. Mnemonic arbitrage occurs when an individual “[firms] up the present by experiencing it as a memory, by experiencing it from the future as a moment in the past” (151). The individual “grounds the present on the past, and the future on the past recaptured” (152), such that riding a bike in Central Park is not ‘the moment.’ Instead, the moment is consecutively remembering the last time you rode the bike in Central Park and anticipating the fact that you will remember this current bike ride in Central Park. You are “not just remembering. [You are] remembering remembering” (152). Mnemonic arbitrage is a more complex idea than memory or nostalgia; it captures the human instinct to save memories for later.
Aciman verbalizes what for many of us may be a passing thought, a second, or a snap. His narrative style conveys this by jumping from setting to setting: an apartment in Cambridge, a street in Alexandria, a street in Rome, and a graveyard in a fictional story. He borrows from time and place, mixing and matching the two, simulating arbitrage, and entering “a realm where memory and imagination [trade] places with the dizzying agility of an entrechat” (162). To Aciman, arbitrage is a gift that can brighten up even the dullest of days: “if nothing were to happen in my life to make me happy, the very act of thinking back on things could make me no less happy than an experienced Ulysses waking up in Ithaca still thinking of the journey home” (164). Here, Ulysses looks back through rose-tinted glasses and finds joy in his homecoming by thinking about the journey home when he dreamed of a future homecoming.
Naturally, “Arbitrage” made me look back on my own memories in search of that dizzying realm. Aciman’s images of sweet nostalgia suggested that I was missing a piece of the puzzle as I tried and failed to think of moments in my past that still resounded within me. The words haunted me: Live your life. Just do it. Carpe Diem, “The very act of thinking back on things could make me no less happy….”Yet I was drawing a blank. My mind was not buzzing with eighteen years of color.
When Aciman writes, “[I]t was not even this moment, or this place, or this girl that mattered anymore but how I’d woven my desire to live and be happy with each,” I imagine the intense feeling of mnemonic arbitrage to be like a film reel speeding past, flashing colors at me as I zoom in on specific stories and jump to another and another, remembering not the past experience but the feeling it gives me now, laughing at the time when I got lost on the subway though the experience itself was frustrating (164). However, when I look back I see my childhood up to the age of eight. I see colors upon colors, memories upon memories—and then I see blank. There are only gray moments popping up here and there on the film reel that is my eighteen years. I find myself trying to force good memories out of things I can’t seem to remember.
The confusion gives birth to questions that come in tens and suddenly I begin to connect dots: I spent my formative years in Hong Kong. I grew up on the furthest point on the globe from Columbia, from New York City, from my favorite bands, from my favorite musicals, from my ideal life. To bridge the gargantuan gap between my obsessions and me, I turned to the one thing that could take me to London (to New York, to Brazil, to Mali) in a mouse click. The Internet helped me indulge in my obsessions. By simulating my ideal life, I could remove myself from the present into my own dizzying realm. But the Internet is only a simulation of reality: we live on our ‘homepages’ and check our ‘e-mails’, as we read a ‘webpage’ and ‘iChat’ with our friends. However, as a child of the digital age the Internet is not just a simulation of my life, it has become my life.
I recently moved to New York to attend Columbia University and saw my then only living idol (Regina Spektor) in concert. As my dream panned out before me, I was thinking of the weblog entry I was going to write about it; I was substantiating the moment, preparing it for the long-term. As an arbitrageur, I was enjoying the concert by performing mnemonic arbitrage, by thinking of myself in the future remembering her performance and documenting it on the internet.
My relationship with the Internet is a vicious cycle. In anticipating my ideal future, I jumped to the Internet to keep my mind in what was coming. But now that I am living the life I anticipated, I have become an online arbitrageur, trying to solidify the present by documenting it for the future. However, this online arbitrage causes me to lose mental memories because I spend my time anticipating the physical documentation of moments rather than experiencing the moments themselves so that I can remember nostalgically.
The two subjects—mnemonic arbitrage and the Internet—are very similar. With the Internet, I remove arbitrage from my mind and put it online. I enjoy a party by taking pictures to put on the Internet and thereby remember it. But, unlike mnemonic arbitrage, online arbitrage takes much more than a split second, and so it becomes my life instead of a mere fragment of it. Aciman’s character (the young man) realizes that “unless he makes an effort to remember where [his grandfather’s tombstone] is, he’ll never be able to find the grave again” and just like the young man, I fear “losing that future memory” (154, 151). But I find myself in a more dire situation. In my life, consisting of the endless saving of these memories, I stop living the moments that become flashes of color on the film reel: my memory draws a blank.
Both online and mnemonic arbitrage can produce a sense of satisfaction and that is what makes them so addictive. However, in the long run, being an arbitrageur can cause a person to forget about life itself. Aciman explores this irony in the quote “I was, in Alexandria, homesick for a place from which I had learned to re-create Alexandria” (157). It is as if the individual is worshipping the image with the real thing at his fingertips. With mnemonic arbitrage a person does not live in the present, but rather anticipates the future documentation of it. In trying to never forget the world, a person ceases to appreciate its presence. The result is irony; reality is not enough, although the process of arbitrage begins as an attempt to solidify it. As an online arbitrageur, I am at a party homesick for the weblog where I will recount the party. I have stopped creating moments; instead I am saving them for the rainy day. But as I put my memories online, I burn the memories onto disc, erase them from my mind, and create a blank mental film reel.
This blank film reel is the result of making a natural thing unnatural, changing arbitrage from an act of memory into the physical act of recording it online. After all, if the smell of fresh soil is meant to take me back to the day I got stuck in a field, how can I remember that moment if, instead of taking in the smells and sights, I was planning a blog entry? The blank film reel is a result of the second-person experiences created by physical online arbitrage. With mnemonic arbitrage, I still have the memory of the present even though I am thinking of the future and past. Alternatively, with online arbitrage, I lose the present. Aciman writes that, in Egypt, “you are forced to squint or avoid looking directly at anything” and this is also the case with online arbitrage (159). Perhaps I have substituted online arbitrage for its mnemonic counterpart because there is something appealing about having my memories available online for everyone to see: like when suburbanites bombard houseguests with family albums because a memory seems more valid when other people can physically see it—it remains unchanged by time and is always remembered as it was.
Mnemonic arbitrage can help a person look at the world in a much deeper way because, through the intricate exchanges of place and time, the world becomes our own. The sight of marbles can take us back ten years to the school playground. But reading a weblog from May 24, 2004 is a completely different experience. Instead of the scent of a burning match taking me back to the time my sisters and I held a séance, I have a write-up of the séance complete with pictures, while the experience of the séance itself consisted of the mental preparation of the weblog. Mnemonic arbitrage allows you the chance to ‘live your life,’ but online arbitrage removes that chance and replaces it with a blank film reel.
The words will continue to ring around us, telling us to ‘just do it,’ ‘live for the moment,’ or ‘seize the day.’ That is exactly what we need to do. Life is a combination of arbitrage and experience. Like Aciman’s “writing [his story] and returning [to Egypt],” they are bound in very intricate ways (159). They cannot be pulled apart because arbitrage is human nature; we will inherently think about the past and future but still have the present. It is easy to fixate on memories and the future when we are unhappy with the present, but as we ponder what ifs and maybes or lust for yesteryears, we are losing moments that could become memories, just as I lost the memories of ages eight to eighteen through online arbitrage. However, the solution is not to banish the Internet from our lives—it is not a tumor that needs to be removed, but a social innovation as fundamentally altering as the discovery of fire, and like fire it contains unpredictable advantages and dangers. I may draw a mental blank because of internet arbitrage, but I haven’t lost the memory of my teenage years – they are online and that is a consolation. Still, reading “Arbitrage” has made me conscious of my problem, has taught me that I need to enjoy the future that I’ve always wanted while it’s happening. Life is never set in the Garden of Eden, and it would be nice to have access to “a realm where memory and imagination [trade] places with the dizzying agility of an entrechat” without having to log online (162). After all, that fantastical realm is the result of a mental contribution—like nostalgia, or rose-tinted hindsight—that the Internet cannot provide.
Aciman, Andr . “Arbitrage.” False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory. New York: Picador, 2000. 147-164.