Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Still remembering...

I'm reading Julian Barnes's book, Nothing to be Frightened Of at the moment. It's a mostly fascinating meditation about death and dying, and I'm realising how little I think of death compared to, obviously, some people. BUT I'm also interested in what Julian Barnes writes about memories.

I went to an academic conference about autobiographical writing a couple of years ago, and heard a brother and sister presenting their life story. They compared the process of coming up with shared memories to archeology. I like this image, making completely sure of understanding one layer of memory before delving down into the next. And also not taking anything for granted. Evidence is needed for every memory.

IN this book, Barnes compares his childhood memories often with his brother, only to find - surprise surprise - they have different takes on the same incident. Often the brother will have forgotten something that supposedly happened to him, an incident Barnes claims total recall of, but then Barnes is the younger brother. I remember things about my siblings too that they have forgotten simply because to be the youngest is to often take the role of watcher. Absorbing information is our special power. My sister and two brothers were like wondrous beings to me, doing things that, maybe one day, way in the future, I might get to do too. So of course I watched closely. And of course they saw it differently. In their view I got to do everything far too early, and far too easily. Or that's how I remember their complaints, anyway!

Here are some of Barnes's thoughts about memory:

Memory in childhood - at least, as I remember it - is rarely a problem. Not just because of the briefer time span between the event and its evocation, but because of the nature of memories then: they appear to the young brain as exact simulacra, rather than processed and coloured-in versions of what has happened. Adulthood brings approximation, fluidity and doubt: and we keep the doubt at bay by retelling that familiar story, with pauses and periods of a calculated effect, pretending that the solidity of narrative is a proof of truth. But the child or adolescent rarely doubts the veracity and precision of the bright, lucid chunks of the past it possesses and celebrates. So at that age it seems logical to think of our memories as sorted in some left-luggage office, available for retrieval when we produce the necessary ticket ... We know to expect the seeming paradox of old age, when we shall start to recall lost segments of our early years, which then become more vivid than our middle ones. But this only seems to confirm that it's all really up there, in some orderly cerebral storage unit, whether we can access it or not.

Later though, Barnes talks about the differences between characters in fiction and real life people. No real person, he says, can be as whole as a fictional character simply because we do not see them from all sides, inside and outside. "In novels (my own included)," writes Barnes, "human beings are represented as having an essentially graspable, if sometimes slippery, character and motivations which are identifiable - to us, if not necessarly to them."

I wonder if this is also part of why our childhood memories are so clear. We see our childhood selves as fictional characters, made partly through retelling our memories, and also looking at photographs - 'ah, that's who I WAS', and also through being told stories too. So what's left in the 'storage unit' hasn't been forgotten but taken down and polished often over the years. Whereas the middle aged us just blunders on, not really wanting to clarify the line between middle age and old age because the end of that narrative takes us somewhere we don't want to go, unlike that between childhood and adulthood.

And there's something else Barnes writes that makes me wonder too about why our memories are so strong of childhood, a time, after all, for creating who we WILL be. He says:

Memory is identity. I have believed this since - oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

I'm not sure why I find this so frightening. I have never forgotten reading a French neurological study of a woman identified only as 'Madame I'. She'd lost her memory and had to keep touching herself continually to prove she still existed.


Calistro said...

"I have never forgotten reading a French neurological study of a woman identified only as 'Madame I'. She'd lost her memory and had to keep touching herself continually to prove she still existed."

Sounds a lot like a bad acid trip. Not that I'd know *ahem*

Kathryn's Daily Writing Workout said...

The idea of memory as identity has really got me thinking. I know how panic-stricken I feel when I'm stressed and suddenly forget something simple. Then at the other end of the scale, I think of the stroke survivors I work with who have intermittent memory and it's no wonder they are 'lost' when they can't make sense of the past. Fascinating stuff.

Sarah Salway said...

Of course, Cally. And I've been hearing good news about you. CONGRATULATIONS.

That's intereting about intermittent memory, Kathryn. Something I hadn't thought of - it must be like climbing up a wall and slipping down all the time.

Elizabeth Holmes said...

Hi Sarah
Just found your blog! Seems ages since Sussex!
This got me thinking about something that John O'Donohue said shortly before he died earlier this year... "Your identity is not equivalent to your biography." He said that he felt there is a place within us that has never been wounded and that part of life is to revisit that sanctuary. That kind of approach seems to be a little more life and soul-supporting than the linking of memory and identity (which I find quite scary!).