The Claims of Memory

From First Things:

I write in defense of memory. Not Memory in her gaudy mythological form, the Titan goddess Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses—but memory as the glue that holds our lives together and imposes order and continuity amid the blooming buzzing confusion of sensations, thoughts, and activities that stream in upon our days. It is no exaggeration to say that a working memory is indispensable in the flourishing of the human person and of human culture.

Of course I recognize the maddening imperfections of memory: its unreliability, its failures, its deceptions, its panderings, its whispering seductions, its stealthy editing of experience for personal benefit—and its penchant for cruel taunts, for hurling self-condemnations at us without warning, for keeping us awake at night as we cling to any distraction to avoid an encounter with the rebuke of our own recollections. Memory can be a reservoir of joy, a treasury in times of woe. It can also be a source of woe, of remorse and regret that will not go away, steady work for the psychiatric profession. Whether in joy or in woe, memory maintains a shifty relationship to the truth, and like a shady accountant may maintain separate sets of books on the same account.

All these things are true of memory. And yet we cannot do without it. It is “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own,” as Touchstone declares in As You Like It. Well said, and even a one-sentence summation of my argument. For our very humanity is bound up in the inescapable fact of our memory’s vagaries and imperfections, all of which are inseparable from the fact that it is, and must be, our own.

A long time ago, at the beginning of my graduate studies in history at Johns ­Hopkins University, I read the philosopher George Santayana for the first time. We all know Santayana for a famous saying, frequently misrendered: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a favorite adage of op-ed sages. But I had never seen it rendered as it ­originally appeared, in Santayana’s book Reason in Common Sense:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

Santayana was not concerned here with the putative “lessons of history,” about whose precise contents he was always skeptical and circumspect. He was speaking of something more fundamental, more elemental, more anthropological. He was designating memory as a central precondition for a mature, civilized way of life—a subject about which he knew a great deal.

A second passage from Santayana was more startling, at least to me. Here I was at Johns Hopkins, an institution that prided itself on being the model of the modern research university in the United States, an institution dedicated not to the placid ideal of cultural conservation but to inquiry, to the remorseless supplanting of traditional learning with ever more incisive and disruptive scientific knowledge, including the relentless rethinking and reinterpretation of the past. So imagine my shock when I came across this passage:

It is one of the foibles of romanticism to insist on rewriting history and perpetually publishing new views without new matter. Can we know more about the past than its memorials transmit to us? Evidently we cannot know more; in point of truth concerning human history, any tradition is better than any reconstruction. A tradition may be a ruin, broken unrecognizably, or shabbily built over in a jungle of accretions, yet it always retains some nucleus of antiquity; whereas a reconstruction . . . is something fundamentally arbitrary, created by personal fancy, and modern from top to bottom. Such a substitution is no mere mistake; it is a voluntary delusion which romantic egotism positively craves: to rebuild the truth nearer the heart’s desire.

It was a shocking statement, a repudiation of everything Johns Hopkins University stood for. Historical revisionism a “foible of romanticism” and a “delusion”! What chutzpah!

Link to the rest at First Things