Jenny Diski reviews Memory: Fragments of a Modern History by Alison Winter: I was in my late thirties before it struck me that there was something odd about the tableau I have in my mind of a familiar living-room, armchair, my father in it, silvery hair, moustache, brown suede lace-ups, and me, aged six or so, sitting on his knee. The layout is correct – I have been back to the block of flats and sat in the living-room of the flat next door, with the same floor plan. Door in the right place; chair I’m sure accurate, a burgundy moquette; patterned carpet; windows looking out onto the brick wall of the offices opposite. My father looks like my father in pictures I have of him. I look like … well, actually I don’t have any pictures of me at that age. But I’m sure I looked pretty much like the memory I can call up at will. It’s not particularly interesting as a memory. Nothing special is happening. It could be a painting, or a photograph, except that I shift about as a child does sitting on her father’s knee. Here’s the thing, though: I can see the entire picture. I can, you may have noticed, see myself. My observation point is from the top of the wall opposite where we are sitting, just below the ceiling, looking down across the room towards me and my father in the chair. I can see me clearly, but what I can’t do is position myself on my father’s knee and become a part of the picture, even though I am in it. I can’t in other words look out at the room from my place on the chair. How can that be a memory? And if it isn’t, what is it? When I think about my childhood, that is invariably one of the first ‘memories’ to spring up, ready and waiting: an untraumatic, slightly-moving picture. It never crossed my mind to notice the anomalous point of view until I was middle-aged. Before then it went without saying that it was a ‘real’ memory. Afterwards, it became an indicator of how false recollection can be.
Memory has always been a worry to us. The thing we feel sure makes us ourselves (no memory, no me) is also something we know to be treacherous, overaccommodating, fugitive: delightfully and fearfully unreliable. We’re stuck inside our own heads with our recollections (or old photos and now videos that have become memories) and there is no way, except sometimes by trusting to the probably unreliable memories of other people, to be absolutely sure that we know what we think we know, or are who we think we are. That anxiety about the accuracy of our grasp of our past selves accounts for the way many other alarming aspects of being alive have become attached to the subject of memory; the theme changes and goes through cycles over time (law, war, politics, medicine, family, sexuality), but always serves to remind us to worry about the consequences of never being quite sure of what we and others remember. People have thrown all the expertise they can find or invent at the problem. We have asked shamans, clairvoyants, hypnotists, historians, scientists, surgeons, law-makers, artists and writers, social psychologists and psychoanalysts to investigate the truth, the facts, the interpretations, so to reassure us about the mechanism and reliability of remembering, but, as Alison Winter’s deft study of 20th-century memory controversies concludes, we haven’t come close to a definitive answer.
Yet, alongside our anxiety about the trustworthiness of remembering, there is an opposite pull, which is quite as powerful, towards the commonsense feeling that we can all know and trust our own memories; that we know our own minds. Memories when they rise feel reliable. Whatever scientists or other experts do in the laboratory, library or consulting room, individuals, including the experts themselves when off duty, proceed in their everyday lives as if their personal memories are a valid basis for action and interaction, just as physicists continue to walk on apparently solid floors while knowing that they are largely made up of empty space. We would be mad not to. Underlying the compelling feeling that we are our memories is a further common-sense assumption that our entire lives are accurately retained somewhere in the brain ‘bank’ as laid-down memories of our experience, and that we retrieve our lives and selves from an ever expanding stockpile of recollections. Or we can’t, and then that feeling that it’s on the tip of our tongue, or there but just out of range, still encourages us to think that everything we have known or done is in us somewhere, if only our digging equipment were sharper. It’s considered a fault not with recording, but with playback. I was in no doubt about that as a small child. I had a small deep-red memory stone lodged in my left temple, and when I was asked a question at school it moved slowly and steadily from one side of my forehead around to the other. Before it was at the midway point, I tried for the answer, knowing it was in my mind, available to me; but once the stone passed the centre line between my eyes, I stopped worrying about it: I knew I didn’t know the answer, it simply wasn’t ‘there’. I supposed it was how everyone knew what they did and didn’t know. Looking back, it was an efficient filing and retrieval machine that unhandily had vanished by the time I reached secondary school. I recall the memory stone with some nostalgia; these days it’s the inefficiency of my mind-machine that exercises me. [Continue reading…]