Remembering interpretations past

22 September 2012

Three months have gone by, and now I’d like to get back to writing in this space hopefully more frequently again. Over the last few months I’ve had many thoughts that I wanted to explore here, and many more that I didn’t even think to but should have, but something kept me back. Around the time of my last post I started to feel the strain and stress of my impending move away from the East Coast and everything and everyone there, away from, in many ways, my former life (which I have been slowly moving from over the last two years), and out here to California, where something new continues to await me. I can write about all that another time. For now, I want to write about memory.

Memory is as primary a mode of human being as any other I know. To be a person implies remembering. Our every judgment, our every association, our every act of immediate interpretation, we cannot help but remember. And yet, memory is fleeting, uncertain, amorphous. Some would say that the past is the past, that what’s happened has happened, and that there are no two ways about it. Even so, all should agree that memory is not so. Of course, we hold fast to some memories, and we imagine many of our memories to be accurate and fixed. Most of the time when we admit to memory’s transience, it is only when we admit to memory’s faultiness. Yes, our memories can be incorrect, can deceive us, and can simply fade and disappear. But we are fools if we accept this simplistic view of memory: accurate or inaccurate, whole or withered, intact or absent.

For one thing, we remember when we interpret, which we cannot but do newly at each moment. It does not much matter whether our memories are concrete and conscious, or whether they are merely the traces of that from which our present mode of consciousness has arisen. But this, too, is less important than the even more basic point I wish to focus on.

When our remembering and interpreting are conscious and concrete and bound up in the same act, we must be aware of the freshness of this new act, and not get lost in a false sense of recurrence, of stability. For example, I can think about the meaning of the years before I moved to Cambridge, and can relate my feeling about the meaning, the trajectory, and the story of those years. But it is very tempting to assert this interpretation as the fact of what I was going through at the time, to put my feeling about it now onto what I was feeling at the time, and assume that the interpretation is the fact of the matter. Maybe I would say, “At the time I said [such-and-such X], but all the while, somewhat secretly, I really felt [such-and-such Y].” This very neatly closes the gap between my old feelings and interpretations and the way I now want it to be and to have been. Of course, I can remove myself one step from this fallacy and yet still fall into basically the same trap. I could say that while at the time I felt a certain way, in fact what was happening was otherwise. This, too, strikes me as too neat to be the full truth.

But I neither want to say that it is my responsibility to aim to remain faithful to the exact feeling-interpretation I had at any given moment, and never waver from duly reporting them as such when remembering past experiences, nor that reinterpretations, even if greatly divergent from previous interpretations, are somehow inaccurate or problematic. I have a request for myself: that, in interpreting anew, I remember past interpretations. Remember that they were, try to remember what they were, and recognize that my actis a reinterpretation, necessarily so.

This is actually more difficult than merely reporting the old interpretations. That would look something like this:  “At the time I said and felt [such-and-such X], but now I feel [such-and-such Y].” So: I once felt-interpreted in that way, now I feel-interpret in this way. But there is a problem here. I am not merely re-interpreting the experience or the data or the meaning of any given time, I am also interpreting and re-interpreting the meaning and value of those prior interpretations! That is to say, when I think about how a few years ago I felt that my life was leading in a certain direction, and that now I suddenly sense that all the while it was aiming in a slightly different direction of which I was unaware, I am re-situating that earlier experience and re-living it, even if I ascribe a certain ignorance of the newer truth to my former self!Maybe there was no such ignorance in my earlier world, in my earlier experience. By giving that ignorance to my former self, I expand the world that former self lived in, and thus merely mentioning my past misinterpretations, reporting my confusions and delusions of yesteryear, does not do full justice to the liberty with which I repaint the canvas of my remembered worlds.

Indeed, perhaps I have turned my younger self into a confused and wandering fool, whereas in fact he understood better than I do now just where I might end up by now – and perhaps in two months from now, I will find an old email or a story fragment that will confirm this alternate interpretation, and I will recognize in my current experience the fulfillment of my earlier interpretations, rather than the proof of their misguidedness. That is fine, one way or the other. I only set myself the task of seeking to remain somewhat conscious of the fact that these sorts of shifts and reinterpretations and revisions occur – in each moment of my life. More humbly, I seek to recognize this when I am overtly and explicitly remembering and reinterpreting, re-reading the narrative of my life. To see into the interpretive act of each subtle moment of experience – this would take some sort of consciousness I’ve not yet and may never achieve.

* * *

Soon I will write more about memory, but I would also like to turn, soon, to the question of a certain kind of spiritual heroism, the heroism of identity. My kind of hero is whoever is dedicated to being wholly herself. But I worry that this ideal is difficult to hold without a vision too stark for me to embrace – at least without interrogating it intensely. We’ll see what comes of all of this.

Glad to be back.

2 Responses to “Remembering interpretations past”

  1. Jean Says:

    Glad you’re back questioning, giving readers more to think about. Memory is a daunting topic. You’re brave to take it on. Since the media onslaught late 20th century of the repressed memory phenomenon, I’ve been waiting for a sensible (not clinical) analysis/dissection of buried memory, and how it plays into the overall framework of what we can recall. Is a buried memory that’s recoverable always negative? Is it the same as repressed memory? What does it mean if you never get it back? How do you know when it’s erased permanently? I know you’re not an expert, however, you do think deeply and methodically about such puzzling matters.  Keep questioning, thinking and writing.

    • jqmarks Says:

      Awesome questions! Indeed, I’m no expert, but I do like pondering these sorts of things. What is the relationship between memory and forgetting? A repressed memory is different than something merely forgotten, and even forgetting is as tempestuous and fleeting as remembering – I remember seeing the movie, but forget having seen it with Sarah, until Sarah reminds me, and then the forgetting goes away and the remembering returns. Very strange stuff.

      Repressed memory, like the memory of something seemingly forgotten, for me only emphasizes the uncertainty and opacity of memory generally. E.g., upon unearthing a repressed memory, there is a feeling of certainty about the details of the memory, as well as a feeling of recognition both of the memory itself, and also of something of ourselves revealed by the act of remembering it. But then – a whole world I had previously remembered one way is suddenly turned upside down by this new act of remembering; what if the repressed memory is itself somehow a revision, a product of my past, but also of my present self and work? What if that memory is both memory and metaphor?

      As for the question about the memory being negative – this is a very interesting question, too. There are times when I seem to unearth a memory of something pleasant from childhood – but these always feel like the resurfacing of a dormant memory, rather than the unearthing of a repressed memory. On the other hand, sometimes I will “see” something in my past that I saw as a child, but seemed not to have quite understood at the time. In this case, I can reconstruct, now that I am adult, the adult world that was surrounding my childhood self. So a party that took place when I was eight years old and running around with my friends is now more coherently and clearly populated, in my memory, of drunk adults behaving inappropriately. At the time, I did not realize this was going on, though I was feeding off of the energy and reacting to it in various ways. But now the meaning of that party has changed, and similarly, the memory of it is marked by a new awareness.

      This, while more negatively charged, also does not strike me as the unearthing of a repressed memory. But perhaps it’s not some metaphysical difference between forgotten experiences, experiences for which one was too young to understand them at the time, and repressed experiences. Maybe part of the reason we find the distinction of ‘repressed memory’ as compelling as we do (indeed, it’s not just a clinical analysis, but is basically part of the popular lexicon, now, too) is because of the distinct way it feels to remember something painful and negative as if there was an utter gap between the painful experience and the sudden recollection of it. Sometimes you might find yourself somewhere you’ve been before, and suddenly the memory comes whooshing back, and there’s a delightful memory of having been a kid on this particular block, etc., etc. There’s no association with ‘repression’ here because the memory feels like it just happened to be forgotten. There’s no particular reason for having forgotten it but the passage of time and the mysterious workings of memory. (Maybe we hadn’t seen that friend since childhood, and hadn’t been to that spot, and so had little reason to reconstruct that moment.) But with a painful or even traumatic experience that comes rushing back to memory after a long absence – there is an associated sense of understanding why we would have forgotten it. Having seen something traumatic and confusing at a young age, if no adults helped us to process and move through our fear and confusion at the time, it seems like perhaps the best coping method to just “bury” it.

      I want to say more about this, but I’ve gone on at such length, I should allow space for a little silence. But I just want to think about your last questions for one moment first!!

      I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that back when I was in therapy, my therapist once suggested to me that he sometimes thought I may have been molested as a child. Not an easy thought to be confronted with. So for a time I focused on the possibility of repressed memories resurfacing. I wondered to myself mainly the following two questions: What if I in fact never was molested – how could I know? and, What if I in fact was, but the repressed memory never surfaces? Again, how could I know? This led me to what I see as the only possible resolution: the fact of the matter does not matter. At least to some extent. Something may’ve happened, and knowing that (should some repressed memory have arisen (which hasn’t happened)) could be helpful in terms of processing whatever psychic results linger from that trauma. But either way, if I pay close enough attention, I can become more aware of the present workings of my psyche anyway, whatever traumas I may or may not have suffered, whatever needs of which I was deprived, whatever needs of mine  were met, etc. Whatever I have to work with, in terms of seeking out the origins of my healthy and unhealthy tendencies and troubles – whether it be remembered experiences, the stories of others, or present-day observations – it is worth pursuing all of these ends. But whether I may never unearth all of my repressed memories, or whether in my case some memories were erased rather than repressed, or whether I actually have a pretty good picture of my childhood and don’t have any major hidden corners… these are questions I could never answer one way or the other, so I think it’s best to find other avenues for investigation, if possible.

      Thanks again for your thought-provoking questions! Hope those verbose thoughts are interesting!


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