For Alexander Aitken (1895-1967), a prodigious memory was both a blessing and a curse. He memorized the Aeneid, knew π to a thousand places, and could quote long passages from Milton. But he was plagued by vivid memories of World War I, which haunted him until the end of his life:
I slid the rifle-sight to ‘450’, aimed and fired. … The Turk plunged into the trench in a swirl of dust. … This, of course, was what I was there for, but it seemed no light matter, and kept me awake for some time. I would come to no conclusion except that individual guilt in an act of this kind is not absolved by collective duty nor lessened when pooled in collective responsibility.
Unable to escape these visions, he suffered a chronic depression and had a complete breakdown in 1967, the last year of his life. “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory,” wrote Montaigne, “as the wish to forget it.”