Last night I was lying in bed, letting my thoughts wander aimlessly. To try to inquire why the name Juan José de Soiza Reilly came to mind would be as futile as to inquire why an ace instead of a five showed up at a throw of a die. He was a writer or journalist whose name, perhaps because of its unusual combination of Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish elements, I happen to have retained from my childhood in Buenos Aires. Since I didn’t remember anything about his life or what kind of journalism he practiced, other than I vaguely recalled hearing the announcement of his name on the radio, I told myself that I would google him in the morning. Not now. I avoid the screens of my phone and my lap-top when I’m ready to sleep; their pale glow and the exhausting regress of information will keep me awake for hours. So I just lay on my back, letting my thoughts leap about like bunnies on a field of alfalfa, hoping that I would soon fall asleep and dream sweet dreams.
A French song then came to mind. I recognized it immediately: it was Fauré’s « Après un rêve » (After a Dream), and I sang it to myself, « Dans un sommeil que charmait ton image... » (In a sleep enchanted by your likeness...), but even though I listened to it only with my mind’s biased ears, I was not satisfied by the result. I tried again, in a tenuous sotto voce so as not to awaken Isabel, and judged mine had become the rough and cracked voice of a decrepit man. Disgusting. Ah, how beautiful was that song sung by the famous French baritone – that most famous, the most justly famous French baritone back in the days when I was young... But my efforts were vain, and I could not recall his name. I tossed my body to one side, then to the other, I scratched my legs, then my head. How could I have forgotten the name of one of my favorite singers? Wasn’t this the sign of a decayed brain? After a while I decided that the French baritone would have to wait, like the journalist Soiza Reilly, until the morning, when I would you-tube Fauré’s song too, and surely find the old recording.
It was impossible. The urge to recall the French singer’s name was stronger than any resolution I could make; it was stronger than the urge to pee which assails me from one to three times every night, except that the present mnemonic urge couldn’t be assuaged by going to the bathroom. Still refusing to get up and grab my lap-top, I proceeded to go through the alphabet in my mind from A to Z, and tried to sense if any letter sounded like the initial of the baritone’s first name or of his last name, since I couldn’t remember either. The method wasn’t working. No letter appeared more likely than the others, and the recalling process seemed sterile. I was angry with myself, miserable, powerless. There was nothing to do but go slowly through the alphabet again. This time, tiny lights went on at a few of the letters; perhaps it was only wishful thinking, but comparing those carefully, it seemed the lights shone stronger around the G. Georges? No, silly, that’s Brassens. Guy? Gaston? Gilles? Guillaume? No, no, no, no. Gérard? Yes, Gérard sounded right. So Gérard seemed to be the first name, but the last name still escaped me. I repeated in my mind, Gérard... Gérard... until, like a thunderclap, the complete name burst from heaven: Gérard Souzay.
Taking my arms from under the covers, I raised them in a triumphal gesture, much like a tennis champion after winning a match. I’ve done it! I’ve done it! Ah, the exhilaration!
On second thought, what am I bragging about? What deed have I accomplished? Certainly, I have not proved that my brain has not decayed; if anything, I may have proved the opposite. And then another illumination, not sudden like the thunderclap I experienced when I found the name Gérard Souzay, but a slowly brightening, soft, rosy-fingered dawn, shows me what I have really proved, proved to myself and to my own satisfaction. In today’s New York Times there is an obituary of Isadore Singer, the MIT mathematician, who died at ninety-six. A phrase from that obituary puzzles me: Singer, it says, “changed how people viewed mathematics by showing that seemingly different areas have deep connections.” No doubt Singer had unusually wide mathematical interests and formidable talents, no doubt his Index Theorem with Atiyah is a beautiful result, yet I wonder: Who are the people out there – I mean people able and willing to think – who might need to be reminded “that seemingly different areas have deep connections,” both in math and elsewhere?
My little night journey from Soiza Reilly to Gérard Souzay – two seemingly different areas – has shown me that my conscious, easily accessible memory is only a minute portion of that which lies mostly buried and of laborious access: layers upon layers of forgotten or barely registered connections. The similarities between the two names, Soiza Reilly and Gérard Souzay, were never noticed by me – or by anybody else – as far as I know. Yet they played a guiding role in my way from the Argentine journalist to the French baritone. And perhaps they had previously guided me, slily, subtly, undercover, the other way around. Perhaps they had misled me to think that the journalist’s appearance was like a throw of a die. The mind (let us generalize from only one instance) is abyssal, and oh, how sweet it is to sleep leaning over the abyss!