I’ve touched on the strange nature of memory before (Memories Like Ghosts) but here I am about to dive into it again.
So, I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and it’s safe to say that she goes on the list of women I’d sleep with if time travel were possible. (This list may or may not really exist.) But at the same time, I’ve been having trouble finding something to write about. That’s due more to my state of mind than to Didion’s writing.
Today I ran across this passage in her essay On Keeping A Notebook:
‘That’s simply not true,’ the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. ’The party was notfor you, the spider was nota black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.’ Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.
Does it really matter that we remember events exactly as they happened?
I watched a TED talk with Deb Roy called The Birth of A Word. Roy was a cognitive scientist & MIT Researcher trying to study the birth of words & language in his new born son. (I say was because Roy is now on leave, wastefully chasing the white whale called social media analytics.) For over two years Roy installed overhead, continually recording cameras & microphones throughout his house which he & his team at MIT studied.
My first thoughts, watching this were: Doesn’t this guy jerk off? Doesn’t he grunt when he shits? Or dance like an ass when nobody else is home? Don’t him & his wife argue? He must be the nicest guy on the planet. I know that if I got into argument about what was said or what happened in the past & I lived in a house that was recording everything, the first thing I would do is pull up the footage.
But there comes an interesting point. Say I did do just what I described. How would I respond if I found out that I was wrong? Most of us would do one one of two things, we would declare the evidence false (Hello, Republicans) or we would say something along the lines of “That’s not the point!”. Why? Why is it so hard for us to drop the heat of the argument & accept the facts that lie before us?
Because communication & human interaction have little to with facts. They have to do with truth and the truth is beyond the simplicity of evidence. It’s innate within us because of the liquid state of memory. By nature our beliefs mean more to us that our histories, because our beliefs not only interpret our history but they literally re-write the records in our mind. As Ethan Hawke’s character says at the beginning to the 1998 film Great Expectations:
I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.
In reality, the past is a concept. We can’t prove that anything actually happened. The universe may have come into existence one second ago filled with false artifacts & false evidence and we in turn could be filled with false memories. But ultimately that doesn’t mean a damn thing. You could not live doubting everything that came before. You couldn’t finish a sentence is you were unsure whether you spoke the last word or just thought you did. So the past, is a possible illusion which we have all chosen to accept. The evidence we treasure is metaphysically suspect, so we must believe. We must use logic to discern what to believe & what to deny. That is why reading & learning are so important. Because the more you are exposed to, the better suited you are to making these choices. Those who chose to remain ignorant, are forced to accept someone else’s reality; someone else’s evidence. They are forced to follow blindly. Read or die a slave.