If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which
occur more frequently in memory than in life.
P. D. James (3 Aug 1920 – )
Memory fictionalizes – it is frail, fragile, fugitive.
As courts are coming increasingly to recognize and accept, eyewitness testimony is a very, very shaky business at best.
It is neither Phyllis Dorothy James, the creator of Cordelia Gray and unpronounceable Adam Dalgliesh, nor her oeuvre that I wish to deal with here but the generalization I – rightly or wrongly – sense as source for her particular sentiment. Let me propose a kind of analogical formula, as follows: ‘days’ is the idealization, ‘memory’ is the operator, and ‘life’ is the reality. It makes for a neat triadic formula that probably most of us apply unconsciously and instinctively when we process our past in its protean multiforms, an operation that is as constant as it is inexhaustible. After all, what more fascinating concerns could preoccupy many of us than finally to pin down and come to terms with our endlessly shifting selves and their countless interactions with the interiority of now and the exteriority of then. It is a life-long revisionist process of creating and recreating ourselves and our many worlds in thoughts and images that fit realities currently acceptable to others and – most importantly — self.
It probably is questionable indeed that yesteryear’s glorious autumn actually was as perfect then as it now is in our hectically refashioning and ameliorating memory. And by the same token, it probably is questionable indeed that yesteryear’s ugly winter actually was as flawed then as it now is in our hectically refashioning and ameliorating memory. I won’t generalize on your behalf, but it seems to me that all too often I engage in some kind of rewriting or remaking of remote as well as recent events, and that at a deep level of awareness I recognize this practice as being not entirely honest. That incident, that experience, that episode … they weren’t really like that, and I know that. I know it, but don’t know why I do with them what I do. And too often, knowing full well what I am doing, I fail to pull myself up short and put an end to that particular bit of revisionism.
Am I alone in this?
Or is what I am thinking of here simply a kind of day-dreaming?
I don’t think so, for a simple and to me obvious reason: day-dreaming is all about the future and what I wish will or will not be, but what I am doing in that other enterprise is all about the past and what I wish (?) had or had not been. Since the future is unknown, I can easily have as many futures as I have the energy to day-dream about. And even though the past is (pretty much) known, what I seem to do there is to create any number of pasts to suit the present moment. It is unclear to me why I would want to do that. Yes, we can all say something like, “I wish I hadn’t done that” or “I wish I had done this,” but what I am doing is something quite different: “This never happened, but that did.”
I am reminded of some sets of photographs from Mao Tse-tung’s Long March I once saw in some less than favorable article about him: one photo of each set features a current favorite of Mao’s at the time the photo was taken who is standing close to the chairman and in smiling camaraderie with him; the other photo in the set is identical to the first except that 1) where the anointed one once stood next to a smiling Mao there is now empty sky or a large boulder or nothing, or 2) a new favorite has been inserted. The original comrade had been airbrushed out of existence and the past recreated with a more recent one. One would have to agree that the past had not actually been changed, but as far as Mao and the history whose recording he controlled, that past had in fact changed, had never existed. (Some examples of photo manipulations: here, here, here.)
Today of course such PhotoShop-ing of the recent past in the news is common, even SOP, but Mao was ahead of his day on that one.
I may seem to be belaboring an obvious analogy, but the fact is that I — more often than suits my comfort zone – do do this kind of airbrushing of my personal past and, there being no hard records available to contradict my ‘truth’ about this manipulated past, I let myself get away with it. Just think how readily one’s skill with this mental airbrush can reconfigure an original of yourself, of your past, of your relationship to the world to show whatever you want it to show for a given time and place … and look, there it is in the ‘photo’, it must be real, the camera doesn’t lie … does it?
‘Operations’ on the unnumbered versions of this or that ‘reality’ continue to create for me those enhancing or debasing ‘idealizations’ I seem to be in need of as circumstances dictate.