COLUMN: Memory, reliability and truth

Al Lehmann

Al Lehmann

“I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.”

Thus goes the joke mocking the unreliability of our memories, combining the assertive confidence with which we often represent past events with the absurd confession of our memory’s fallibility. Who among us hasn’t experienced this juxtaposition of assurance and failure?

Identity is said to be the accumulation of stories we tell ourselves and others about our pasts. Between the signposts of birthdays, confirmations, graduations, marriages, careers (and associated promotions), hobbies, and retirements pile up a detritus of experiences of greater or lesser emotional impact and meaning.

People keep diaries and collections of photographs and home movies, a process now ballooned into a confusion of selfies and stored e-mails and pdfs. Leafing through old albums, we find portraits and group scenes (posed or captured action) often featuring virtually unrecognizable individuals, thankfully identified by a few words or phrases and a scrawled date on the back. We marvel at how much we and our acquaintances have changed.

Such processes apply to nations, cultures and communities, as well, with their foundation myths and records, and the transmissible recordings of events of import: settlement, migration, expansion, conflict, trade, melding and separation. Holidays and celebrations commemorate public figures, treaties and wars, and accomplishments (the completion of a canal or highway, the erection of a building, accompanied by cornerstones and time capsules meant to preserve their significance).

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand our obsession with the past. We cling to it as a drowning person might clasp a life ring in a maelstrom, as if its artefacts and narratives somehow validate our very existence.

News writers struggle to provide accounts of newsworthy events (and in their process of selecting what is “important,” leaving out details that others might find central), all based on the idealistic notion that newspapers are “the raw materials of history.” We like to think of history as an authoritative explanation of how the past somehow turned into this weird period of uncertainty called the present. But even Napoleon Bonaparte understood that history was “a tale told by the winner,” and not to be relied upon.

Suppose for a moment that we all forgot everything, every scrap! Society would collapse. No one would remember how to do things, even such mundanities as how to tie one’s shoes or open a door. No one would know where he was, or why. Talk about a blank slate!

Psychologists assure us that memory is a construction, one based on generalities and often repetitions. According to French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, even as events are unfolding we begin composing our memories in anticipation of sharing them. Events might have been experienced slightly differently (alternate visual viewpoints, diverse details amid the broader flow of events). We typically adapt at least some of our memory to include aspects of the accounts of other participants.

These truths do not imply that somehow there are alternate facts, and that in Trumpian fashion we should buy into any confabulated invention because another story is better than yours. There are bullies in the world who profit from imposing their version of events on everyone else, and he’s an example of someone who has tried it.

And no matter how much we might prefer to forget, as Cormac McCarthy noted, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” We shouldn’t forget that.