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.
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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.