The uncanny and the sea of rememberance

“Tell me whom you haunt and I’ll tell you who you are”

Although as old as cities themselves, the hazy, dream-like urban explorations of tormented young men was best popularized by Charles Baudelaire. However, I would argue that it is André Breton’s 1928 novel Nadja that remains the best example of the chance encounters that are a staple of the urban experience.

The semi-autobiographical, self-proclaimed love story begins when Breton finds the eponymous, intriguing (and mad) Nadja while coming out of the Gare de Lyon. The novel takes place over the course of 10 days that feel both like a moment and an eternity. This fleeting encounter challenges the  perception of memory–for characters and readers alike. Do we know each other from another place, another time? Have I read this book before or just lived/dreamed this experience?

In the novel, it is only Paris who seems sure of her linearity of memory.

In the urban environment, it’s impossible to predict what small detail your eyes will fix upon. It may be an object, it may be a person. It’ s not by accident that most of these encounters take place in train stations, and subways. Transportation is a nod to the movement of time. Our state of flux allows us to better catch the fleeting details of daily existence.

I experienced this sensation today. Last night, riding the B train all the way down to Dekalb Avenue I observed a man diagonal to me. I first noticed him because he looked like a friend of a friend who now lives out in LA. But what stuck me was his gate. Although stocky and in heavy shoes, he appeared nimble as he offered his seat to an older woman. He wore a yamaka and held his iphone in his hand.  As soon as he exited the subway, I dismissed his existence.

Until this morning.

While biking to work in a completely different part of Brooklyn this morning I saw him again. I had stopped at a traffic light and he walked across the street. The same shoes, the same yamaka, the same gate. I was seized by the memory of my 30 second subway encounter from the day before. But where had it come from? I could suddenly remember everyone in the car, the woman next to me on page 36 of her Soduko book, the man with the tired briefcase. It was the Freudian uncanny, the experience that is familiar yet strange, only without the outcome of feeling uncomfortably strange, rather, a feeling of momentary unison with my urban surroundings.

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