Memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings.
(Alessandro Portelli) 1
The relationship of memory to reality is something that we have all, at one time or another, had to face, not just the fact that our memory is unreliable, but that even our most cherished memories can turn out to be partly – even sometimes wholly – figments of our imagination. 2 Dreams are an obvious case in which what we remember never actually occurred. Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, probably his most famous painting, plays on the themes of dreaming, time, space and memory. Its most noticeable feature is the number of timepieces and the fact that they are visually distorted. Being what it is, it has been variously interpreted, 3 but one persuasive reading is that it is suggesting allegorically that in memory time itself becomes meaningless, that there is a collapse of the past and the present (also represented by the eternal landscape of the desert in the background), and that the passage of time itself distorts the actuality, the facticity – if indeed there can ever be such a thing – of the events through which we pass as we remember them.
While not disputing the Dalian insight into memory, there is another perspective that can be added, which is that the passage of time rather than simply distorting the reality of events, by blurring the detail allows their true significance to emerge. This is what Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to as the ‘temporal distance’ established between a historical event and the present moment, mediated by a history of interpretation, which is the basis of our own understanding, 4 or what Heidegger refers to as ‘the fore-structure of understanding’. 5 What we understand by a particular event is not ultimately a solitary act of comprehension, but is constructed from the collective discourse around the event, and not simply a contemporary discourse but one located within a historical framework: an interaction with one’s peers, with one’s elders, and with the historical record.
I recently attended a school reunion. Many years have passed and everyone has grown older. It is particularly poignant because the school closed a couple of years after I left ending a history of 500 years. So my year group is among the youngest at the meeting, and over the years the roll-call has become noticeably shorter. Since leaving school we have dispersed over the country, in some cases the world, and have made our own lives and have mainly stayed in contact through this annual gathering. Therefore, most of our shared memories, and certainly this is so collectively, are of the time we spent together at school. It is as if when we meet we are still schoolboys and not grown men with families and careers, in some cases grandchildren. Anecdotes about school life are shared, the reputations of faded or former athletes, scholars and villains resurrected and burnished in the glow of reminiscence.
The strange thing is how different our memories are; even though we were passing through many of the same experiences, we recall them differently; some things we remember – or think we remember – that others have no recollection of at all, until what we remember is no longer an individual act but a shared act of collective narration, and vicarious recollection, in which we no longer discern (or wish to discern) the difference between personal memory and folk memory. Given the impossibility of omniscient grasp of an event, this is how many memories are constructed: through a contemporaneous retelling of collective narrative. Memory is, therefore, linked to the significance of events; 6 but whereas memory is the construction we retain within our own experience of the world, the significance of events is more apt to exist at an institutional level into which we contribute and from which we draw. This takes place whenever and wherever people come together, whether in a family, a school reunion, a gathering of colleagues, friends sitting around a campfire and the young or novices initiated into the event. In such cases, an event is no longer singular, but becomes part of a tradition.
Oral traditions and the collective memory are fundamental to social ontology, to the sense of meaning that we acquire as individuals and to the continuing existence of social institutions. According to the anthropologist John Foley: “oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality”. 7 If I ask my students what they consider to be the greatest invention of all time, I can guarantee that most of them will say the Internet. I can understand why they think so, to a degree; the Internet has transformed totally the functional aspects of our lives, lightening much of the drudgery: shopping for goods and services, waiting around for something to happen, or spending time in pointless travel. However, the Internet also poses an existential threat to human societies by privileging information over human intercourse and discourse, for which presence, Heidegger’s Dasein, 8 is a fundamental prerequisite. 9
In all cultures an oral tradition preceded the creation of a written one. In some cultures a written culture never developed, and this underlies our tendency to think of these cultures as inferior or ‘primitive’. The advent of writing is considered to mark the transition to history from pre-history, as records preserve details of societies that we would otherwise struggle to understand. There is no doubt that there is much that is fascinating in the information we can learn from the study of the past, and our whole education and much of our civilisation is built upon such knowledge. However, I think that we are living through a time of the excessive focus on information and that has made us undervalue the living history of oral traditions. Even when the literary remnants or artefacts of the past remain, in the absence of a living tradition they are like the fossils of some prehistoric beast that we can imagine but never truly know. Contrast that with the preliterate folk memories of the Australian aboriginals who still gather, speak of and act out their mythopoeic memories of the Dreamtime, the creation of the world, as they have done for up to 100,000 years.
Some traditions, like lost tribes, will die out, as our school reunions will end when there are too few survivors to continue them any longer. God forbid that anyone writes a book about them in the meantime; that would really be the last nail in the coffin and we would know that we had already passed into history.
Notes and References
1. Cited on p.77 of Alistair Thomson (2011), op. cit.
2. A considerable amount of research has centred on the reliability of witness statements in court cases. A spate of well-publicised ‘recollections’ of satanic abuse in the 1980s and 1990s turned out to be entirely fictitious. The resulting ‘moral panic’ reached government level in the US, spread to Britain and resulted in a number of innocent people going to prison. Daniel Yarmey (2001). Does eyewitness memory research have probative value for the courts? Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, Vol 42(2), May 2001, 92-100; Nicholas P. Spanos , Cheryl A. Burgess & Melissa Faith Burgess (1994). Past-Life Identities, UFO Abductions, and Satanic Ritual Abuse: The Social Construction of Memories. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 42 (4), pp.433-446.
3. For example, as evidence of Dali’s mental instability, or as a comment on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
4. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1994). Truth and Method. London: Continuum Publishing Group.
5. Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (Trans. by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson). New York, NY: Harper & Row.
6. Alistair Thomson (2011). Memory and Remembering in Oral History. In Donald A. Ritchie (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.77-95.
7. John Miles Foley (1999). What’s in a Sign? In E. Anne MacKay (Ed.), Signs of Orality. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, pp. 1–2.
8. Heidegger, op. cit.
9. We all know the corrosive effects of human isolation, both psychologically and for society. This undoubtedly underlies the unrestrained aggression encountered on the internet, when views are aired unmediated by any presence. By contrast, many conflicts can be resolved by meeting and discussing differences with others.