What can it be like to not have anything to think about, or to lose the propensities of sentience, that dismal fate of those with dementia or Alzheimer’s? To lose one’s sight, or one’s hearing, or even one’s speech, are among life’s greatest wounds, but they dwarf up against the inability to recall. Universally, in myth and in legend, whether in the guise of the Sirens’ alluring song or the serpent’s Edenic mischief, or in Goethe’s overreaching Faust, man’s greatest quest has been his striving for knowledge. But without memory, his quest is nullified, for knowledge is its source. In Dante’s Inferno, the sinful dead are bereft of memory and hence doomed to an eternal present empty of knowledge.
Flipping through the calendar of years, I find myself more forgetful and, thus sometimes anxious, for I am what I remember. But I draw comfort in learning that even thirty-year olds sometimes lapse and cannot remember where they put the keys or what the errand was they had set out upon, or just what really did happen earlier that day at work.
I’ve learned long ago that there exist two kinds of memory: long and short. I’m pretty good at the former, but lousy at things I really ought to remember, since I had just heard them, like recalling a name. I envy the ability of some to hear a name and remember it for the next occasion; to see a face and know it in Walmart a year later, or even better, in a car at 45 mph, to see through shaded glass, and fetch a face. How does one work this magic? My wife does it daily, but doesn’t share her secret.
There may be blessings to all this forgetting, however, and if this is so, I’m a pretty lucky guy. Do I really want to remember everything I’ve bumped into along life’s road? As actress Ingrid Bergman put it, “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.”
Psychiatry has grown prosperous on clientele unable to forget the past, hence condemned to repeat its burden, each day renewing yesterday’s quarrel, betrayal or loss. T. S. Eliot, that cogent modern interpreter of memory overload, wrote of the coming of spring without revival and a new generation incarcerated by memory: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory….”
In a landmark book, The Seven Sins of Memory, Daniel Schacter, former Chair of Harvard’s Psychology Department, tells us that for all our lapses in memory, memory provides a means to adaptation in helping us sort out the really useful. Memory sometimes blesses us when it malfunctions through transience (the weakening of memory over time), absent-mindedness (not remembering where you put things), blocking (the inability to recall a name or face), misattribution (assigning a memory item to a wrong source) suggestibility (implanting memory through leading questions), bias (the reshaping of memory through influential events or opinions), and persistence (the inveterate recall of disturbing events or information).
George Duhamel puts all of this into succinct summation when he writes in The Heart’s Domain that “We do not know the true value of our moments until they have undergone the test of memory.”
The poet Wordsworth must have had it right then, for more than any poet I know, he drew from the well of memory, creating a reflective poetry that nourishes us still in its ability to sort out life’s essentials that make for human solace.
But again, without memory we may exist, but without being. If life is in the blood as the ancients had it rightly, then it follows that memory lends it exuberance and hence the source not only of pain or loss, but of joy and renewal.
Ultimately, we are what we remember.