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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Sunday, December 09, 2007

On Memory: A letter to a friend

On vacation in Australia, recently, I had some down time, a stack of paper, a good pen, and a lot of catching up to do. I wrote to a few friends. This is one of those letters.

* * *

Dear Bruce:

As part of the aftermath of the recent move, I dove in to a task I’ve been avoiding for years; I sorted through my boxes of old letters. Even that’s gilding the lily. I haven’t actually made a lot of headway. But at least I’ve started: something I hadn’t been able to bring myself to do before. I just hadn’t been able to face the inevitable question that comes with the task: which letters to keep and which to consign to the recycling pile.

Until now, I’ve been able to tacitly justify moving the boxes of letters from place to place, mostly just by ignoring the burden and watching the cartons arrive with everything else — furniture, pots and pans, and all the other physical accumulations of life — at each new destination and each new temporary home. Arriving like some Victorian bureaucrat, I direct my cartons of correspondence to some corner or another in the attic or basement of each new residence. And, each time, there they have sat, under settling dust and the weight of my guilty, unfulfilled intent to parse the pile somehow or another. At some point.

In this most recent move, from Paris to the UK, the sheer tonnage of trailing flotsam — for that’s what it ultimately is, no matter how neatly packed into a shipping container — struck me as surreal. Some large portion of it, I reckoned, was moving around the globe in my wake for no better reason than that I hadn’t brought myself to dispose of it. I’m not a hoarder or a pack-rat. The proportions of my problem are relatively modest. Yet, I do have the habit of forming emotional attachments to things, imbuing them with a significance they don’t really deserve. I’m all for mementos and small treasures, or even the favourite shirt one can’t bear to part with no matter that the holes outscore the surface area of remaining cloth. It’s just that I have a very great many of those personally sacred objects: talismans of the intimate history of my life. It strikes me as a problem when your physical surroundings risk becoming a museum of your own life. That kind of museum is for the dead.

But how to differentiate the true touchstones of one’s emotional history from the objects that have attracted attachment for no particular reason? The broad grey middle ground is territory I’ve never mustered the patient courage to survey. Rather than conclude I don’t have the fortitude for what is, ultimately, such a simple and practical set of decisions — after which I know, at any rate, I’ll likely feel relieved and, also likely, won’t ever miss the jettisoned — I blame the lack of a physical home.

Like a camel wandering with unknown destination, I carry my emotional provisions with me. I have begun, however, to find the size of my hump a burden. The excuse of not having a physical home is likely just that: an excuse. It is a legitimate reason to want to gather one’s physical manifestations of emotional history around one, since place, itself, won’t provide the referents, but the constant moving from country to country is, likewise, a compelling motivator to keep things simple and light: to travel from new dwelling to new dwelling with as little as possible in excess of a few suitcases. Between these two poles I have never yet found the middle ground. So, the number of kilograms that follows me around the world has steadily climbed.

Now, having come to both the sharp point of necessity — ie, even in a sizable home, we don’t have enough room for all our (mostly my) stuff — and a point of personal embarrassment over having avoided this piddling challenge for so long, I am finally confronting it. Some of it. In truth, not all that much of it. But, still, enough of it that growing relationships with both e-Bay and the local dump are taking shape. Yet, while the final disposal can be an obstacle — after all, if something has emotional value, you’d rather someone else possessed it, perhaps to cherish it again, in their own way, giving the thing an extension of its emotional import; yet, there are things, some rather large, for which there is little market, and therefore few options but to consign one’s relics to the land fill — it is nevertheless obvious that the greater burden in the exercise is the decision itself: what will stay and what will go. It is the Clash Conundrum. Or, perhaps, the Strummer Interrogative.

Of all the things in my great pile, the cartons that pose the greatest challenge are those filled with letters. Letters are perhaps the purest manifestation of emotional history. They are, quite literally, relationships written into the record. To remove the letters from your life is to remove the history of those relationships from your life. But for the fickle sieve of actual memory, it is an act of irreversible redaction: an archivist’s horror in a circumstance posed by the archive, the archivist and that which is archived being a single life — one’s own.

This most troubling aspect of deciding what to keep and what to feed back to the worms as amplified by an unexpected experience in the midst of the pile. I discovered letters from people I didn’t remember at all. Absolute blanks. In some cases, the thinness of the trail made this understandable: one letter only, with unexceptional content, perhaps just a hello from on holiday, or the like; a flutter at a friendship that never further develop. Others, however, are completely flummoxing: three or more letters, in some cases, from people writing with intimacy and familiarity clearly based on an established trust. If I hadn’t held the evidence of these relationships in my own hands, and had not re-read the record of them with my own eyes, I simply would have refused to believe they had ever happened.

It is enough to challenge the soundness of one’s own mind. Are these premature memory holes the opening of an abyss I had always hopefully presumed would fail to swallow me until old age, if ever? Well, it doesn’t seem so, thankfully, as all manner of other memories, both near and distant, seem impeccably intact. Yet, still, even if those absent memories don’t reflect physiological pathology, they are voids nonetheless. Bits of my life large enough to have merited more than passing attention, enough to invest in correspondence, have simply vanished completely, but for this single string of physical evidence enshrined in breached envelopes, that is a thread of memory no longer kept in the leaky vault of my mind.

You can see the conundrum. These letters are at once priceless and worthless. Being the sole record of a relationship I once cared about, preserved nowhere else including my memory, their significance is unique. On the other hand, all to which they refer has no meaning to me, whatsoever, so they signify — in the literal sense of that word — nothing at all, making their significance zero. Of course, neither of these views is quite right. They do have significance, but not to an emotional entity, for there is no relationship vessel filled with anything other than the brief glimpse afforded by the ghost letters themselves. (That strikes me as an apt metaphor: ghost letters. They are like apparitions of people no one remembers.) If we can’t remember a relationship, then there is nothing left to relate to. No relationship remains without memory, only the evidence of something that once existed but no longer does. And that’s where we end up, finally, on this tricky question of significance; the ghost letters signify what is lost from my emotional life that can never be recovered. In that sense — philosophically, in the aggregate — they are profound.

In another sense, they are just old letters from people I don’t remember. They are the flotsam of a life amongst people. They are not precious cargo. They are baggage.

The question of whether to chuck them or save them brings me face to face with some of those questions it is more comfortable to go through daily life not thinking about. It is certain that these letters are evidence of only a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of what has been emotionally important to me but has now been completely forgotten: so completely forgotten, it is as if those moments, those people, those feelings had never existed at all. And to those people, perhaps, I had never existed. It is as if parts of our lives, once lived, never were.

I find it overwhelming to think I am on a barrel-ride down a life-long cascade of losses. I suppose we comfort ourselves with the presumption that our accumulated experience shapes us — even if we don’t remember it. We hope we assimilate it all, for the better, into some evolution of who we are. And, we hope, toward some end we feel good about. Still, it’s disturbing to think that e don’t know, because we don’t remember, the experiences that make us who we are. After an early age, we presume to be self-reflective creatures. This presumption is at the heart of our belief that we are learning, self-determining animals. But how can we learn without memory? How can we determine a future path without pattern recognition from the past? Who is to say that the holes in our memories did not once contain some of the most important data I the on-going experiment of our individual existence? Unable to interpret that data, because it is lost to us — we are, after all, unconscious it ever existed — how can we ever know we are reaching valid conclusions? The data set of our lives is woefully incomplete to us, and we are forced to fill in the gaps with mere hope that the missing bits were unimportant in the first place. If they weren’t important enough to remember, they mustn’t have taught us anything new enough, different enough to have shaped us much, nor our view of the world around us.

This is quite a challenge to our usual theory of the mind, is it not? We think of the mind as not just conscious, but self-conscious: knowing, reflective. Experience tells us, however, and the ghost letters prove, that there are parts of our own experience that we don’t know about and on which we are unable to reflect. We know, of course, that there are limits to what our minds perceive — myriad limits, both physical and metaphysical — but we take for granted that we will know when we encounter a physical object and interact with it: that we will perceive its influence on us. Yet, if once that object is gone, we cease completely to perceive that it ever had an influence, can we believe the influence we don’t perceive will be able to confer a lasting effect?

This is Freud’s territory: the un-remembered and the un-conscious. All of psychotherapy is founded on the premise that the unremembered shapes us. We are told, by young variants on Jung and Freud, that our common ideas about memory are naïve arrogance: the product of the ego telling us to ignore whatever it doesn’t recognize as itself. Memory may be out only conscious internal record of experience, but our memory is not our identity, no matter the premises of a hundred sci-fi plots. It is the processing of experience that makes us, whether we remember it or not.

So, then, what does that make memory? An incomplete string of mental mementos from a life of digested experiences? You do not recall every meal you eat, but the body of who you are is either nourished or harmed — or simply fuelled — by every bite you take.

In this sense, my ghost letters are like any other memory: they are mementos whose significance is largely lost to me. They are only slightly less random than internal memories: the latter having the slight advantage of being imbued with context and other internal constructs to relate them to. Whatever the ghost letters lack in emotional context, however, they have the advantage of being concrete. They are what they are, and will not become something else. This is not an advantage we can rely n our internal memories to duplicate, as the notorious unreliability of eye-witnesses attests. Our internal memories shift and change, betraying literal history, but creating what seems to us genuine past experience in their arc. My ghost letters seem unreal precisely because I can’t place them or their authors in my memory, yet they are clearly more real than memories that elide the letters’ existence.

So, I possess two records of my past: my memory and a bunch of letters. While they don’t contradict each other, they don’t exactly agree, either. Taken together, they are, by definition a more complete record of my history than either on its own. Yet here I am, seriously considering throwing one of these sources away based largely on the fact of its data not squaring with the other source. Because I can’t remember their authors or the relationships they carried, the letters are up for the death penalty. I’m considering destroying the more reliable of the two records. Why? Because its meaning and importance t me has been lost.

It appears that our memories of people and events in our lives are relatively un-valued in their own right. It is only the contextualized memory that we cherish. That something happened seems to be of limited interest, even if it happened to us. There must be some other piece of contextual data that makes a person or vent meaningful enough to hang on to.

I am not talking, here, to what items we retain in memory versus those that we don’t. I’m grappling with the retained record of two events: one recorded on paper and the other in the wet-ware in our heads. The question is why we would value the memory more than the document. Certainly the answer must lie in something about the contextualization intrinsic to memory. It may well be impossible to remember anything without relating it to something else. Our memories have that characteristic. At first glance, the ghost letters do not. But that glance is a trap, for the only reason we say the ghost letters have no context is that we don’t remember our relationships with the authors. So, we have only begged the questions by judging one type of record by the standard of the other. It is like judging the colour red by asking how much blue it has in it.

Memory is both constructed from contextualization and it confers contextualization. But are decontextualized records of our past less valuable because they lack the way-markers of inter-related events and people? Aren’t they the memory equivalent of a pure form? And, if so, why wouldn’t they then be more valuable, rather than less? Why wouldn’t I trash all the letters from people I remember well — after all, records of those relationships are duplicated in my head — and treasure those from friends otherwise lost to memory forever? Destroying the unique record seems the greater loss, from this viewpoint.

The proposition that the difference between these two records lies in the presence or absence of context — ie, that memory is contextualized and written records are not — is, in any case, a fiction. What the ghost letters lack in emotional or relationship context, they partly, and perhaps largely, make up for in other ways. They are, for example, precisely date-able. Most memories are not. This is chronological context, or episodic context: memory with a time-stamp. They are also verbatim, giving each word the context of all the others, in a very specific schema. Memory is no match for that. They also provide their own graphic and linguistic context, from the way they look and the phraseology employed. Memory, in this regard, tends to shift with time, and with the fashions of our own graphic and linguistic tastes.

Despite he compelling case to be made that the difference in context value between written record and memory is a qualitative difference perhaps more than a quantitative one, I would still bet that most people would find this argument unaffecting. The types of context that the written record has in bucketloads are simply not the stuff we value. We value the stuff that memory is good at. Why? One gets the sense that that’s the stuff we value because that’s the stuff we remember. It’s fundamentally circular. And it returns us right back to the question of why we remember what we remember.

It is almost maddening, once one starts to consider all this, that we can not self-analyze the process by which we sort our experiences into the two boxes: “keep” and “discard”. The history of the discarded items is untraceable the instant they’ve been sorted thus. Whilst I’m sure much is known about the neurological machinery, I wonder what insight we have into why something is put in conscious memory in the first place. Or, it might be that the more interesting question sis why something is not put there.

And, so, like a broken record, I am back begging the same question of the ranking of experiences into important and unimportant. It strikes me that this is telling in and of itself, because it expresses a rather profound hope. It expresses the hope that we retain what is important and discard what is not. This hope is so strong, I would wager that, for most people, it is an unanalyzed assumption about the way memory works. Yet, it is a hope that stands on no particular foundation I can think of. We clearly don’t like the notion that what we retain about our own lives is a fundamentally flawed record, one that tosses out all sorts of good bits along with the dross. But that’s clearly what it is, and the prioritization of what stys and what goes is largely beyond our control. It might not b going to far to suggest that it might even be semi-random.

If randomness is a part of the mechanism of memory, our idea about our own identities require a bit of modification, eh? Our lives, as we recall them, are a semi-randomized dot pattern: a Seurat painting, but without the design of an artist-creator. To the extent — large or small — to which who we are is influenced by the totality of our remembered experience — ie, all that we can recall being, doing, feeling and thinking — our identities are pretty spotty if there’s even a small degree of randomness to the memory machine.

With that, we come dangerously close to epistemology of the self. And perhaps full circle back to the psychoanalysts. Any question that sees epistemologists in league with psychoanalysts is enough to make me tired even beyond he extent to which this monologue is exhausted. Now might be a good time to draw this to a close.

Before I do, however, I should mention one of the reasons I thought of you in relation to the stack of letters. There were a great many from you: far more than I had remembered. I recall us having a good correspondence, but I hadn’t accurately remembered its volume. Which risks opening up the whole exhausted discussion again. Looking at the not insignificant pile from you, I was simply grateful. Not just for the volume of correspondence, or even its duration, but for the investment of heart it all reflects: an investment made over and over again, over more than twenty years. I hope my memory retains the important bits of all our time as friends but, even if it doesn’t, I’m still profoundly thankful.
With love,


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