Tag Archives: Memory

Angry in Piraeus

10 Mar

houses sultanahmet

Flicking back through old photographs, I find one taken while returning from an evening out with friends in Istanbul, and passing some wooden-fronted houses in a twisting street, near the shore, that seemed to belong entirely to a world of things forgotten, specifically one of those nostalgic evocations of the old city invoked by Orhan Pamuk in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of City.

It was with real pleasure, then, that I read Maureen Freely’s bewitching essay in the Cahiers series produced by the American University in Paris, called Angry in Piraeus (the title is explained by Freely’s childhood memory of attempting, as a linguistically gifted nine-year-old, to moderate between her father’s splenetic discontent and an implacable Greek taxi driver). She evokes a scenario, familiar to some of us, of being caught between two angry parties and two sets of rules, and having to act as interlocutor between individuals who do not share a common language, and realising, of a sudden, that this is what all human communication is like, but more so. And the antidote? Freely describes what it might be for her:

‘ . . . If asked to describe paradise on earth, I would depict a city I have never seen before, a city I could wander through without anyone quite seeing me. A maze of narrow lanes would send me past gate after locked gate, courtyard after sunlit courtyard. In each there would be another drama, another cast of characters conversing in a language I was hearing for the first time, but that had existed for many millennia, and that I would now attempt to explore, word by word.’



Confabulation, or making shit up

1 Oct
Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing: making shit up?

Post is delivered erratically in the village, and two issues of the London Review of Books land in my letter box on the same day. I read one of them, and am struck by a sentence in an article by the excellent Jenny Diski, one of a series she has been commissioned to write following her diagnosis of terminal cancer (last year she was given possibly three years to live). The article – like much of her recent work – concerns her relationship with Doris Lessing, who ‘took her in’ as a troubled teenager, after ‘abandoning’ two of her own children in Rhodesia, as it was then known. The article begins with a troublesome quotation from Lessing, which is, in fact, the ‘Author’s Note’ to her book The Sweetest Dream:

“I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.”

In her essay, Diski explores and questions this (disingenuous) disclaimer, and edges towards a revelation of who the ‘very minor character’ might be.

‘What is she telling us about?’ asks Diski: ‘Sex, politics, her version of some truth that has been confabulated?’

And there it is. That word. Confabulate has a peculiar history. It comes from the Late Latin, confabulationem – “talking together”, con = with/together; fabula = fable, tale. The making of fables. And yes, you can do it in a group, with other people, or you can do it on your own, in your head. Making shit up, which is what writers do, a lot.

In recent years, ‘confabulate’ has taken on a specific medical meaning. I was very interested to learn that the clinical term for Alzheimer’s patients making shit up is ‘confabulation’. Wikipedia even has this: “Confabulation is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive” – which is kind of interesting, considering what it is that writers do. Now, if you look in any dictionary, you will find the word has become medicalised, thereby adapting its meaning to a specific clinical usage, while its original meaning has taken a back seat.

Recent neurological research (see, for example Daniel L. Schacter’s Memory Distortion) has provided overwhelming evidence to suggest that memories are constructed from an uneven mix of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Something similar is true for perception: our perceptions are constructions that supplement data processed by the brain with other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.

So, when Alzheimer’s patients ‘confabulate’, in other words ‘make shit up’, I cannot help but question what it is that writers do: the difference being, I guess, that with Alzheimer’s patients confabulation is involuntary, and with us it is (usually) intentional.



A Journey into Memory

29 Jun


Bouillon: Panorama

Bouillon: Panorama

When I remember things from childhood or early adulthood, it often feels as though I am a passive subject, a receptacle or vessel, and the process of remembering becomes one in which memory is seeking me out, digging its way into my sense-making apparatus, rather than there being any sort of ‘I’ trying to make sense of the things remembered.

I am all too aware that as far as memories are concerned, it is the act of construction (more accurately reconstruction) that matters, of making the bits fit our self-narrativisation. In other words, as Gabriel García Márquez put it: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’

Other People's CountriesIn his memoir, Other People’s Countries (subtitled A Journey into Memory), Patrick McGuinness asks fascinating questions about the way that identity is rooted in memory, more specifically in the way that we remember. “Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word) and enswirled.” On reading this passage, which comes on Page 7 of the book, I found it noteworthy that McGuinness comments on the fact that he has not used the word ‘turbid’ before, which immediately casts suspicion on the observation, because one wonders whether, by commenting on memory’s cloudiness and turbidity, he has merely dislodged an existing memory, and is therefore, perhaps, not ‘using the word for the first time’ at all. And how telling that his use of the word ‘turbid’, and his comment on that usage, should immediately be followed by a neologism, ‘enswirled’.

These are nice illustrations of the way that language, our use of it, and its use of us, can be an element in the process of remembering. I am thinking in particular of those laden words which, when they crop up, immediately bring with them a sequence of memories and associations. I remember reading somewhere that our memory of language is the best reason why one should not translate into a language that is not our mother tongue. Words carry their own baggage with them: when you hear certain words, they spark off a whole sequence of associative meanings and memories, stretching back to childhood, that would simply not be available to an individual who has learned a language as an adult.

Childhood is the source of many of these word-memories. Like smells or taste (Proust’s oft-cited madeleine), words, long forgotten or unused, are capable of eliciting entire submerged worlds. But is it the memory of the word itself that achieves this, or the memory of a memory? As McGuinness speculates:

‘And as with so much of that childhood, I seem to remember not the things themselves but the memories of the things, as if the present I experienced them in was already slowing up and treacling over, fixing itself in a sepia wash.’

There are so many good things in this book, things that make you reach for a pencil, or else just stop in your tracks and reflect about the words you have just read. You can dip in, pick a page at random, and come out with some crystallized memory, or some jewel of detailed observation.

Other People’s Countries is, on one level, about a house in Bouillon, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. The house belonged to McGuinness’ family (his mother was Belgian) and was the author’s own childhood home. The book is divided into many short chapters: in this way they resemble the rooms of a large house, perhaps Quintilian’s House of Memory. I’ll conclude with one of my favourite chapters, titled ‘Keys’, which follows in its entirety:

‘Watching an old police procedural, probably a Maigret, sometime in the early eighties while convalescing from glandular fever (an illness I experienced more as convalescence than as actual illness: I felt as if I was simply recovering from something, rather than actually having the something to recover from in the first place), it came to me: a thief pushing a key into putty so that it’s outline would be caught in the relief and he could copy it, then burgle the house.

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite as well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.’





The past ain’t what it used to be

7 Mar

To Birmingham. On the train I read an article in the London Review of Books about memory and the ways in which we configure the past: our own past, in particular. This is a matter close to my heart, and Jenny Diski’s article is an excellent summary of current research in both neuroscience and our cultural understanding of how memory operates. She cites, for example, her own inability to recall the name of  Hollywood star . . .

whatshisname – oh you know the bloke who played uh . . . Rhett Butler . . . was married to whatshername . . . it feels to me that I am not who I used to be, not quite myself, or that I am continuing to leave ever further behind the someone I was. It isn’t the information that Carole Lombard was married to Clarke Gable that has gone, it’s the me who knew it who is disappearing. Those who are older than they are young make exaggeratedly impatient, self-deprecating jokes when they forget a name, a face, or why it was they walked into a room.

Isn’t this familiar to all of us who are ‘older than we are young’? I know it is true where I am concerned. But there is more:

Recent research at Notre Dame suggests that it may be passing through doorways which unframes the thought you had the second before – but I’ve just forgotten the end of this sentence and I haven’t moved, let alone left the room.

Perhaps what the researchers failed to specify was that the ‘passing through doorways’ may not be (only) a literal passage. Perhaps an equivalent ‘passing’ from one conceptual domain to the next simulates, in some bizarre way, the ‘unframing ‘ or reframing of a passage from room to room, and that this inhibits the thought’s expression in language . . . In any case, Diski moves on to a familiar scenario, one with which all of us will be familiar, to some degree:

That ubiquity of joking, nervous laughter as we confess to a memory lapse suggests we know very well that the increasing frequency of the loss of a recollection means much more than an irritating moment of blankness. It’s the ‘normal’ beginning of the loss of ourselves, and it is terrifying. Beneath the laughter, blind panic.

Here I cannot fail to remember my mother, who seemed to anticipate the onset of her own dementia – although I have no means of ascertaining whether she was aware of this herself – by a continuous bantering, beginning, I guess, in her fifties, that she was ‘going batty’. It was almost a family joke, or would have been, had there not been the uncomfortable knowledge that it was also, at the very least, a possibility. Sitting with her in her last years, when she had lost speech, and the ability to do most things for herself, I remembered the almost indulgent glee with which she would joke about ‘going batty’ (and she was not an essentially funny person) and the memory was not a good one. The joking was barbed: the future, then, seemed already curtailed by a prophecy.

Diski discusses two conflicting theories of memory, tracing one of them to the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, whose experiments with patients in the 1950s led him to believe that past events were ‘infallibly impressed in the library of our brains’ – and even if we are not conscious of the memory, for instance a song we once heard, it can be tapped by exploring areas of the temporal cortex and by ‘triggering’ the memory with electrodes. This theory suggests that memories are objectified entities that lie intact somewhere in the structure of the brain. The contrary opinion, put forward by Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge, was that memory was a ‘schema, seeded by experience but fleshed out by a plethora of social, psychological and cultural circumstances.’ In other words, ‘we remake our memories each time we think them’, depending on what is required of us.

These ‘scientific’ positions, of course, reflect schools of thought that existed long before the named scientists did their work: put crudely – an objective, ‘real’ memory, as against a culturally or psychologically constructed memory that fits the occasion. But one thing remains certain: without obvious access to a bank of undiluted ‘factual memory’, all our ‘so-called memories are highly plastic and we are inclined to remember according to our own and others’ expectations.’

Something utterly fantastic – and new to me – emerges from this article (which is actually a review of Alison Winter’s book Memory: Fragments of a Modern History). This is that the emotions associated with an event are stored separately (in the amygdala) from the memory of the event itself (which is stored in the hippocampus). Would this explain why we are suddenly overcome (as, in the famous instance of Proust and his madeleine) by an emotion, a taste, a smell, without the accompanying information about the event with which the reactive emotion is associated?

All of this stuff throws up massive issues for the writer (especially the writer of memoir) and casts an interesting light on the notion of writers ‘making stuff up’ when they are purportedly writing about true events. How can we know what we are remembering when the I that is doing the remembering is no longer the me who lived through the event in the first place? None of this justifies random and misguided accusations of falsification – Diski reminds us of the terrible unleashing of ‘repressed memories’ when hundreds of parents found themselves accused of sexual and satanic abuse of their children – so we need to be careful, especially of the shadow side of things, or of our ‘repressive unconscious’, and of things that go bump in the night.