Irene Latham and I have an ongoing conversation about memory…the unreliability of it, the collectiveness of it, the malleability of it. We can hammer and add to a memory until it is dented or formed into a totally different shape, but I believe that we cannot break it completely. Somewhere, the actual truth is out there. It may not look like the truth we want it to look like, and we may prefer the story truth to the actual truth (dang you, Tim O’Brien!), but it is out there.
This all started back in March when Irene was visiting for our GPL Book Arts Project Writers Residency. I had a copy of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried on my desk (I am on the committee for Gadsden Reads, Things was our choice this year), which Irene picked up as she came in and sat down. We began talking about the truth of memories, the truth as it seemed to the person doing the remembering, and the use of the unreliable narrator who is forthcoming in admitting that their memories are not to be trusted…we talked off and on between school visits and lunch and school visits, but we never finished the conversation. Such is the nature of that type of topic.
But, Irene threw the gauntlet down again last week by sending me an email that contained the following: “Just picked up THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes. Very slim, won the Booker. First page: ‘This last isn't something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.’”
So, I have to give kudos to Irene for knowing exactly which line of text would be the carrot to dangle in front of me. I immediately found the book on our shelves and checked it out. And then I read the book in two morning sittings because it was/is indeed a slim volume, and it is an intense and fast read. It made me think long and hard about how we reshape our memory to fit the way we want our past, or ourselves, to be. We make it so by telling and retelling certain anecdotes or narratives about ourselves, leaving out the parts that we don’t want others to know, especially the parts that would reveal us in a not so flattering light. And if there is no one there to contradict us when we are telling/retelling our modified version of our life story, then all the better. That would explain a lot about why we tear out certain pages of our old journals…or conveniently lose some journals altogether.
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but-mainly-to ourselves” (Barnes, 2011, page 104).“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being. And only recently I’d been going on about how the witnesses to our lives decrease, and with them our essential corroboration. Now I had some all too unwelcome corroboration of what I was, or had been” (Barnes, 2011, page 107).“For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions…The events reconfirm the emotions-resentment, a sense of injustice, relief-and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be contradiction” (Barnes, 2011, page 131).
Well, dang it. That was not a mirror I was expecting to look into.
So, read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending. And, although I failed to reference her in this post but have in past blog posts on memory, read this interview withNatasha Trethewey on the Smartish Pace website. Natasha has some interesting things to say about collective and contested memory.
Thank you, Irene.