Some Random Thoughts about Memory and Remembering

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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?

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16 thoughts on “Some Random Thoughts about Memory and Remembering

  1. Wow…is the Fuzzy being deep or what? I just thank goodness that I do have the ability to be jaded because I have a sister, who is one of those that hold on to every little grudge going back decades. I personally wouldn’t devote that much energy to something, seems much easier just to pick up the phone and get it out of your system. I do however, spend a lot of time remembering good thoughts of the past that make me feel all warm and “Fuzzy,” and do gloss over the “crap” too. I guess it makes it easier to deal with and not carry that grudge. Maybe some people, just do not have that ability and that’s why they carry it around so long. 🙂

  2. Wow Fuzzy, this is a very thought provoking blog, Thank you. Certainly got me thinking!

    I don’t think that you will ever find two people that remember things the same way. Even if there were ten different people in the same room you would have ten different versions of the same memory. Our memories are ours and so we like to remember them how we like to remember them. Maybe we destort them a bit to the way that we want to remember them e.g you want to remember the fairground sound track and the candy smell (LOL) whereas others might want to remember the bad times in order to try and forget the memories. I am not really sure which way I look at things and think it might be a bit of both, depending on the way that I am feeling at the time that I am remembering the memory. Hope that all makes sense. Hugs to you Fuzzy x

  3. wowwwwwwwww…I am blown away….

    “Don’t we color things pretty from a distance?”

    “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?”

    This blog makes one take a introspective (hOpe I spelt that right) look at themselves. While reading this beautifully and I might add very satisfying blog entry, I was compelled to look inward at myself. Memory plays such a huge part of my every day life.

    Do you suppose the way we color our memories is a coping mechanism? Sometimes, it’S hard for me to remember fact from fiction. So much time goes by and so many colors are added or distorted from the ravages of time that its hard to remember how things actually were.

    I tell you pet, this has been a very profound blog for me and a very welcomed one. Kind of makes me wonder how colored my memories are and why.

    You mentioned that memories highlight the negative. You are so right! I wonder why that is.

    Sometimes the hurt and mistrust caused in the past is so grave that one cannot infuse it with bright colors and the smell of cotton candy, although it would be terrific if I…ummm…errrmmm we could!

    Love you too bits for writing this blog entry today, BBB. L-O-V-E-D I-T !!!

  4. Great blog subject! Memories are very subjective, especially since there is no way a person can see one past event the exact same way as every other individual on earth would see the event. These different interpretations of events, even past events, I think also help make us into individuals.

    This is true even in history; no matter what “concrete” evidence is found to prove one thing, something else may be found out later to change that perspective. This makes history a never-ending mystery and so compelling!

    Even in the search for truth itself, a person can often question what is found! It seems people are subjective by nature and a search for the truth is a life-long quest. Perhaps it is the search itself that makes it all worthwhile. Heh! I hope I’m making sense while I’m getting lost in my own philosophical chatter. 😀

  5. Characters in history are made out to be so appealing when they were really less then fully credible people. There are times when I am sure that Meriwether Lewis would have been dropped like a rock on a modern expedition as he lacked the allure and mental stability expected today’s society. Explorer Captain James Cook took a lot of credit and liberties but eventually got what he deserved on the beaches of the Sandwich Islands when the natives overpowered and killed him due to his cruel manners. President Jefferson would be held in the highest regard by modern redneck comics but he would never be elected President! Yes, history has smiled on some less than positive role models in times past!

    Good stuff Fuzz!

  6. hummmmmmmmmmm let me think a moment,…… what was I thinking about? Have you ever walked into a room to get something and forget what you came for? No, well your toooo young then and haven’t lost your mind somewhere. Memories, kinda like the CATS play. My dad has Alzheimers, he can’t remember what happened 5 minutes ago. What would we do if our history were written by undiagnosed Alzheimers sufferers. Memories are sometimes the only thing we have left of a moment in time. Our first car, first dance, first kiss, etc… You don’t want to remember the bad parts because it’ll spoil the rest,… rusted out fender, stepped on toes, locked braces… I’ve heard of lip locked but the braces were rediculous. Don’t mess up my wonderful memories with facts, especially the first sex, that was scary enough to want to forget it. But I can’t because in my mind I’m Don Juan!

  7. First, let me say that I’m overwhelmed by you guys! I’m reading through your comments and just (as Amber would say) gob-smacked. You’ve all written blogs within blogs, and I couldn’t be happier!! I love the give and take of blogging, the responses and the responses to responses, so this is wonderful!!

    Pris, I think you’re on to something here; I mean, I think one of the reason I tend to look at the past through rose colored glasses (and I don’t always, can’t always) is that it’s just easier on me in the now. And as you say, I’m one to deal with things, make that call, send that email, rather than let it fester; if that goes no where, at least I tried and can forget about it and move on, not carry it with me like Atlas. I don’t want all that garbage weighing me down and sucking the life out of my present, you know? I know you are Christian and practice turning the other cheek, and I think that’s a very good example to set. Huggs!

    Snuggles, you make another excellent point! I mean, and I alluded to it in my response to Pris just now, you’re right, sometimes, I have to work to remind myself of why the past is past, why that guy (for example, wink) doesn’t deserve a second chance, that if it didn’t work out before, it likely won’t now, and there’s a reason for that. So, yes, sometimes, we do have to dwell on the negatives, if only to remind ourselves how we got to the good place in the now and that we need to stay here! Huggs to you.

  8. Amber, your response literally brought a tear to my eye! Your opinion really means a lot to me, and I’m so thrilled that this worked so well for you. Of course I know some of what you are thinking about here, and all I can say is that sometimes, cotton candy smells aren’t quite right for the occasion, you know? Some of my memories are dimly lit, have the Jaws sound track playing, and smell of old moldering socks; I like them to stay that way, actually, reminds that I made good choices those times to turn my back and walk away. But I do prefer to color things pretty, I must say, and really have to work at the “reality” checks when remembering some not so warm and fluffy times. All hugs and love to you, Amber!

    Ceres, I originally was writing about literature (my field) but as I was doing so, it occured to me that history (your field) would be equally involved, indeed so much overlaps in these disciplines, so I’m thrilled to see you picked up an inadvertantly dropped gauntlet! LOL Revisionist historians are influenced as much by their own times (look at all the “new” politically correct readings of the Pilgrims’ landing, etc.) as they are by “evidence,” it seems, and then to complicate by that by looking at William Bradford’s (for example) glowingly self-congratulatory autobiography next to some of the captivity narratives or Native American tales . . . . But that’s one of the things that makes history so exciting to me, that there are all these winding passages to explore and contemplate. And for me, both professionally and personally, the search itself is indeed what makes it all worthwhile; sort of like that saying, life’s a journey not a destination. I love your philosophical side, Ceres, so never worry about it! Huggs.

  9. Gregg, you make such good points that really illustrate the idea not only that times and ideology change but also that our perceptions and memories of the past tend to color these as well. Slave-holding Jefferson would never be elected today, and revisionist historians work hard to show us that these people of the past were not glowing saints and angels as we’ve remembered them but had some pretty shady sides, as well. Maybe it’s good to think of people as just people, rather than “role models” (a concept I’ve long had problems with). You’ve added a whole new dimension to my thinking about this! 🙂 Huggs.

    Heyman, this is great! You are so funny . . . and so right. There are those personal watershed moments that we definitely . . . er, change slightly (or greatly) in our minds. Your examples are perfect ones for that. I know that if I were to sit and think about any of those “firsts” both as I tend to first pull up the memory (glowing and happy and wonderful) and as it more likely was (braces locked, toes stepped on, etc.), I’d be very quick to flick off that latter image! Huggs.

  10. Hei Fuzz.

    A brill blog and now that me head has had a bit of a break, I can think somewhat again…

    Moveable Feast is what I call my life as tis certainly been true in my case from country to country!! Well, another thing is that Hemingway’s is my favourite hanging out place – a Third Place – in this town where one can have beverages of all sorts with or without per cents, light snacks, read the papers, watch big screen international television, play games like Yatzy, Trivial Pursuits; get the picture?! I’m rather fond of the place.

    Memories are always subjective to the writer in writing n to the reader in reading. It is always wonderful when that which one wrote has ‘hit home’ with the readers! Know the feeling, am sure, ye do?!

    Now, not gonna write me memories in ere so will sign off now. HuGGiz to Your Honest Self. Rii xx.

  11. You are such a leterary genious. when i think back to my childhood, it is always different from what acrually happened. I always say, to protect myself from being accued of lying, “in my memory”. I know that my memory is different from what actually happened. i found this out one day when I was tellin my mom about something I was writing. it was about when was a kid, mom said it didnt happen that way, and sorta laughed at me. In my memory, that is eahtr I remeberd. So what hemingway wrote as a memory, may have been his memory at the time, it doesnt make it a lie, just different from waht someone else may have remembered.

  12. Ahhh, I see. Either we are all living in a permanent state of Alzheimers or we are just sleeping and when we awake we will find that the past was just a dream?
    Sorry, but I don’t buy into this line of thinking. It is not memory itself that is faulty, it is perception, coloured by emotional states that alter personal memories.
    Memory itself is a wonderful biological mechanism developed through the evolutionary process. Originally as a way of remembering threat and response, it formed the basis of the development of our intelligence.
    Individuals remember events differently for the same event due to perception triggered by emotional states, which as is well-known, can be very different for each person. The memory itself, however, remains intact.
    As far as history goes, that is always written from the point of view of the controlling political/religious/philosophical group of the time. Hence the saying ‘the history of war is always written by the winner’. It is not memory at fault.
    Tonight I have posted a blog about being bullied at school. It was not a good time in my life. I do not feel the need to gloss over the memory. But I also look at it , I believe, fairly dispassionately, in that I feel no hatred for the bully. It is the past, what’s done is done. Simple.
    I find fault with Ceres’s assertion that even the search for truth is subjective. Maybe so, but my assertion is it’s Humanity’s biggest fault also. Because if we did stumble on a greater truth, no-one would recognise it. The universe is an objective truth. It would still exist even if the human race did not. Again, it comes down to the human race’s belief in it’s privileged place in the universe, that what we do is important. On the greater scale of the universe, what we are and what we do has little bearing or impact. That is where we fall down.

  13. Hey Rii, Hemingway called Paris the Moveable Feast, but I like yours better! And that cafe sounds brilliant and very much fun; just the sort of thing I like, too. Love those games plus Scrabble and Pictionary (though I suppose that’s not a good one for a public place, too loud). I so agree about the subjectivity of memory; one just cannot be objective where emotions are involved, and when thinking back on our past, there seems always some sort of emotion. Thanks for you fab comment and huggs to your dignified self!

    Aw, thanks Spartonmom! That’s great of you to say. And I so know what you mean about remembering things differently; my parents always have one version and I have another, and I end up shrugging, and saying “I dunno, I was young.” But it’s the memory I hold that seems the most real; it is to me. Glad I’m not alone in that! Huggs to you!

    Ah, Mitch, so we don’t actually have memories, per se, only perceptions about earlier perceptions? Seems a bit of splitting hairs there, but that’s cool. Very interesting take here; I’m so glad you got all revved up about it. I do see what you are saying about biological memory–such as birds flocking, flying south, salmon swimming upstream, etc. Well, that’s what I call it, anyway, seems different than remembering an event that has happened to us as opposed to remembering something programmed in our genes. But memory is memory I guess, or perhaps perceptions of perceptions or perhaps a rose. Can’t wait to read your blog about bullies ;)) I made that up, can you wink and have a big smile at the same time?

  14. I can’t agree with da Mitch… Pavlovian reflexes are not the type of memory we use for total recall. All things we think true may not be tomorrow. A basis for our intelligence, I don’t think so, unless you prefer to avoid the thought of devine intervention. For the most part, science as a specific answer to anything has been wrong. Science is only as good as the understandable technology we have at the time. Truth is eternal and what we think the truth is is based on how we perceive our surroundings. This leads us back to Mitchs view to be pretty safe assumption. Though I don’t believe memory to remain intact (assuming no Alzheimers or dimentia). Perhaps as memory cells are used up and before they are sluffed off, pass on their information to a new cell . The new cell simply didn’t get it all straight or maybe the genes of the cell were slightly twisted, which is evolution. In any case most of our memories or whatever you want to call it can be perfecto or not. Better to have good ones than pissers.

    Pardon the spelling errors. I can’t remember all my schooling because I couldn’t see to well till later in life when I got glasses. Maybe it’s just selective memory or not.

  15. I tend to agree with you Heyman in that what we KNOW today may be a laughable and quaint idea tomorrow; remember all those folks who believed (and really really KNEW it to be fact) that the earth was round or that it was the center of the universe? Science is nice. Religion is nice. But both really ask for huge leaps of faith, and in that they are identical. Just my two cents, of course. I’m sure Mitch can speak very well for himself.

  16. and just as an aside, Mitch, I’m not so sure it’s useful to use that scale that measures our actions so minutely. I’m sure it has its place in theory, even in debate, but what use is it really? Why measure our worth according to some grand scale? Isn’t that a bit . . . excessive? I mean, it’s hard to argue that what we do doesn’t influence much less change the universe, though it might it some zen ripple effect way, but wouldn’t it be more useful to think about how what we do affects, oh, I don’t know the environment? Or the economy? Or our hearts? Just a thought to toss out there, really. I do see the merit in being a bit humble, but excessive supplication at the feet of “the universe” (and I’m presuming you also mean beyond the known universe, as well) is a bit much, isn’t it?

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