Monday, February 09, 2009

Remembering to make sense

When I was younger, I think I had the belief that remembering something was a matter of going into some kind of archive and retrieving information about something from the past. So if I wanted to know what my grandfather said right after the car we were in was hit in an intersection on Silver Avenue as we were on our way to see a baseball game, all I had to do was check the archives and pull that record out and examine it. I'm not sure I actually believed that, but I seem to remember believing something of that kind.

About twenty years ago or so, I witnessed an animated discussion among members of my extended family. They were trying to recall something like who lived in which room of the house they had lived in together in 1935. Each party in the discussion examined the archives, and each pulled out a different record. There was no way of settling the dispute, since no one had access to anything except someone human being's memory. The more the original disputants drew others into the discussion, the more inconsistent memories there were. All avenues to finding a solution were closed. Tempers flared. Voices spoke ever more loudly. Unpleasant expressions began to appear on faces. Whether my memory of the dispute is accurate, my account of it illustrates how conversations tend to go when different people remember things differently and there is no reliable authority to consult to settle whose memory is accurate and whose is at fault.

The dispute accounted above, and dozens of others like it, have inclined me to think of memory not as a passive mental activity of simply receiving images of the past somehow, but rather as an active act of telling stories that make sense of our present experiences. This is not to say that remembering something is deliberating concocting a pure fiction (if there is such a thing as as story that is purely fictitious). It is not like telling a deliberate lie. Rather, it is more like adding a few embellishments and removing a few apparently irrelevant details from a dim and nebulous and mostly incoherent hodgepodge of impressions. It is perhaps a little like solving a jigsaw puzzle. It is more like putting forward a possible solution to a mystery. Telling a story to oneself about the past is not done to deceive anyone, but to make private sense of things that have taken place more recently than the event being recollected. Perhaps instead of saying that I remember something it would be better to say I am making up a story about something in the past that is compatible with the beliefs I hold today.

For the past several months I have been reading the journal of George Fox, the man who is given credit for having founded the movement called the Children of Light, later called the Society of Friends and derisively called the Quakers. Fox's journal was not written as events unfolded. He did not write down his memories of each day at the end of the day. Rather, he dictated his memories of events in his life years after those events had taken place. It is fairly clear to a reader of the journal that Fox, in dictating his journal, was trying to make sense of how the Quaker movement had evolved. He was also trying, perhaps unconsciously, to give legitimacy to a religious movement that had been at the center of a great deal of controversy. Given the large number of quotations of and allusions to biblical passages, it is also obvious that Fox was showing that his story of the Quakers was a continuation of the story of Jesus Christ as told in the gospels and the letters of Paul and other apostles. The stories (for there are more than one version) told in the Bible of the life and teaching and death of Jesus are themselves recorded memories of events that had taken place decades before the memories were written down, and it is pretty clear that they are attempts to show that the story of Israel was still unfolding in a particular way that involved the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. They are making sense of what might otherwise seem a meaningless and pointlessly brutal death.

George Fox and the authors of the Gospels may have been innocent of the extent to which they were making up stories to make sense of present realities. They may have been naive. They may also have been, to at least some extent, calculating and crafty. Whatever the case may be, taking the stories they told at face value, without taking into account the story-telling nature of what we call memory, would be to participate in a naivety that verges on being inexcusably careless. There is only one way to read memories: carefully, critically and skeptically.

My skepticism about memory (my own and everyone else's) may account for why I prefer to avoid religious doctrines that are based mostly on historical narratives. They feel too much as if someone is trying to sell a particular story and to preclude other accounts. Making one's own story legitimate almost always entails making someone else's story illegitimate. And that usually leads to tempers flaring, voices speaking ever more loudly, and unpleasant expressions beginning to appear on faces. Such things make life unpleasant. Or so it seems to me.