June 16th, 2020

In the end, all stories remain untold

A widely-told anecdote has it that Ernest Hemingway once won a bet by writing a "story" in just six words, the story being: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." The notion that the story was written by Hemingway is almost certainly apocryphal, and it is likely that the association of the story with Hemingway originates from his famous "iceberg theory" style of writing, in which only 10% of the story is actually told and readers are left to gather the remaining 90% for themselves. While Hemingway's authorship of this story is doubtful, it is likely that the story itself originates from the true story told in the May 16, 1910 edition of The Spokane Press about a selloff of baby clothes following the loss of a baby who did not survive birth. This story would likely have been forgotten because thousands of miscarriages occur every year and nobody can commemorate every one of them, but someone saw fit to start a little urban legend, perhaps to bear the memory of that lost child in the collective memory a little longer. The impact of the six-word story is so effective precisely because it tells you everything you need to know but not what actually happened.

The other day, while walking in a suburb, I saw a cardboard box which someone had left on the sidewalk with things which were being given away for free, a common sight in some areas. I gazed with passing curiosity at the items in the box, and although I did not take anything, I noted that among the contents were two birthday cards for someone's 50th birthday. This reminded me of the six-word story, because these items seemed to tell the same story: Why had someone bought two birthday cards in anticipation of someone's 50th birthday, then ended up not using them? Of course, there are many possibilities: In real life, the most obvious interpretation of an outcome is not necessarily the correct one. But it did occur to me, of course, that those birthday cards might tell the story of someone who almost made it to 50.

When we lose someone or something which is very valuable to us, we sometimes try to create a memory of the lost, because we do not want the world to forget them, and we hope that maintaining a valuable memory, something worth remembering, will make that loss more meaningful or easier to bear. But the truth is, of course, that in the end, most stories remain untold. Around the world, about 150,000 people die every single day, and obviously no one can remember all of them. People lead wildly different lives, and perhaps some are more worth remembering than others, but despite our best efforts to remember what the world has lost, eventually all these events pass out of the world's collective memory.

An example which is particularly striking for a couple of reasons is the story behind Pearl Jam's early-1990s hit song "Jeremy". The song is inspired by the true story of a 15-year-old boy who inexplicably walked to the front of his school classroom and then shot himself dead. The students who knew the dead boy had various theories about why he did it, but there don't seem to be any real answers; it was an act as senseless as one could imagine. Eddie Vedder, the band's frontman who wrote the song, noted that he'd seen a newspaper article on this story and felt "the need to take that small article and make something of it", because otherwise that boy's senseless action would have been entirely forgotten, amounting to nothing but "a paragraph in a newspaper, 64 degrees and cloudy in a suburban neighborhood." I say this example is particularly striking first of all because of the obviously dramatic content of the story itself, but also because of how forgotten it has become despite Vedder's best efforts: "Jeremy" was a big hit in the early 1990s, and everyone who listened to rock radio back then probably remembers the song, but that was almost 30 years ago. How many people still listen to Pearl Jam today? Despite a big hit song which tried to "make something of" a senseless suicide, a few decades later the world has forgotten anyway. Ask almost anyone who's under 30 today, and chances are that they won't even know the song, much less the story behind it.

Of course, this is nothing new. It is known, and has been known for thousands of years, that eventually all events, people, places, and things pass into obscurity. It is known that the public's memory is constantly in the act of forgetting. Anyone who's studied History knows this, and even anyone who hasn't can intuitively presume it. In the end, all stories remain untold; if they don't start off being untold, they become that way soon. But sometimes, it's still quite striking to notice what the world forgets, and the different ways in which the world forgets.