Memory, Ernest Hemingway has famously noted, is never true. His A Moveable Feast records an idyllic marriage in a city of lights, excitement, frivolity. And the characterization of his contemporaries is tainted by the forty or so years between the experience and the writing of it, so we see a very different F. Scott Fitzgerald or Gertrude Stein, for example, than is revealed by their correspondence during the actual time period. This makes matters a bit tricky for anyone attempting to understand literary or historical relationships based on either autobiography or (as is the case with A Moveable Feast) autobiographical fiction or even interviews about events of the past.
It’s all too easy to look at such a novel and imagine that’s how it was, and that any account that doesn’t match. must be fictionalized, tampered with, a lie. And that happens, too, in scholarship; we believe one thing and use that to disbelieve, disprove, and disavow all others. Yet, memory, for Hemingway was never true, so what are we to make of his autobiographical fiction, of anyone’s for that matter? I mean how true is our own memory? Don’t we tend to deify the dead, damn the wrong-doers of yore, and glorify the long ago beloved? Don’t we color things pretty from a distance?
I saw a bit of this over the Christmas holiday when I was visiting my mother. I grew up in that area and was very eager to leave it when I finally did so in the late ’90’s, but in hearing the “news” (er, gossip) about this person and that, I got all warm and fuzzy. I’d remember one good time I had with some friend and then gloss right over the crap times, or I’d get all mushy about some sad sack who I know I used to have good cause to loathe, but for some reason (was it the holiday mood? memory being malleable?), he comes out smelling of roses in my memories.
Of course no two people experience the same thing the same way; thus the old “there are two sides to every story” saying, but I’m not talking here about perception, at least not directly. Memory, that maker of giants, that grand passion creator, seems more distorted even than perception or perhaps as it morphs perception. Maybe hindsight is 20/20 because we are only seeing what we want when we look back from a safe distance; whereas, when we’re in the midst of it, we see it all, in its many facets, and it’s not clear, and it’s not pretty, and it’s not easy to work out. Not like it is once it’s over and behind us . . . and re-remembered.
And memory seems to highlight the negatives, as well. I’m not a grudge holder, but I know people who are, and they may go ten years holding on to and nursing some slight visited upon them until the offender becomes demonized in their minds. I think that’s a shame, though. I much prefer my way, if I’m going to make the past over in my memories, I prefer to paint it bright colors, give it a fairgrounds sound track, and infuse it with cotton candy smells.
Anyone looking at anyone looking backwards needs be aware that what they see may not be . . . well, what someone else saw or even what they themselves saw, thought, felt at the time. I guess this holds true for literary critics, historians, and even the casual viewer or reader of anything based on someone remembering. Memory seems to be the biggest best trick we pull on ourselves, and it makes of our past a prison or a paradise, when really, how could it have been either?