History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. … Memory itself is an internal rumour…

—George Santayana

I tend to be distrustful of my own faculties.

As I mentioned in my last post, the reliability of my own senses (or lack thereof) is something that has long troubled me. It is not that my senses are themselves deficient; though I wear glasses my eyesight is not bad, and my hearing not much worse. Partially, it is my lack of attention. Most days I am in my own world and overlook what is right in front of my eyes. What use is good eyesight if the eyes are vacant?

Beyond this tendency to drift off mentally, I lack faith our ability to sense the truth. Vast regions of the electromagnetic spectrum are hidden from human sight. A dog’s nose or a cat’s ears put our primate parts to shame. And even the finest organs of sensation are inadequate to probe the finest reaches of matter, the basic building blocks of reality.

I also distrust my memory. This is not without reason. Experience after experience testifies that my memory is not to be blindly trusted.

When I was younger I had the nasty habit of stealing one of my friend’s jokes. He was much funnier than me, and the temptation to repeat what he said proved irresistible. The problem was that I would do it in his presence, and without crediting him. This may sound ungrateful; but the truth is that, in the moment, while telling the joke, I would forget that he had said it. My memory had wishfully appropriated the joke, and somehow I had convinced myself that it was I who had said it first. His complaints would destroy the illusion, and momentarily give me a sickening sense of self-doubt. Memory had played a trick on me.

Yet memory, for all its failings, is normally remarkably dependable. We remember our address, our friends’ names, our schedule, how to tie shoes and to spell words, the plots of our favorite novels and the lyrics of our favorite songs, and a thousand other things. Life as we know it would be simply impossible if we did not. Most of this remembering, it is true, is done unconsciously, in the form of habit. Indeed, the automatic responses of habit, being born of repetition, are far more dependable than our attempts to remember isolated events.

This is where Santayana’s remark, that memory is nothing but an “internal rumour,” rings most true: in trying to recall something that only happened once. In these cases, without a routine or a habit to tie it to, the lone memory must stand on its own power, with nothing to corroborate it. How can we be sure we are not mistaken? In my experience, we often are. If you have ever heard somebody narrate an event at which you were present, you may have had the same experience: the selfsame event can be completely unrecognizable in someone else’s telling.

I find these situations particularly distressing, since there is usually no way to decide which version of the event is correct, your own or the other person’s. The reason for this unreliability is not difficult to discern, I think. Memory lies on the same spectrum as imaginative fancy; and what we remember, and how we remember it, is shaped by our own constitution: what we notice in the moment, how we interpret what we notice, what we find amusing or interesting, all of this colored by our own vanity, our hobby horses, our desires, and our insecurities.

Memories are not just filed away and pulled out. Subsequent experience affects them. To pick just one example, the urge to dramatize a story—exaggerating some details, omitting others, shifting around the order of events—in the telling and retelling is, for me, impossible to resist. Yet strangely, I have found that the act of dramatizing a story actually changes my memory of it, until the warped version is all that is left.

One major problem is that good stories are memorable in a way that unadorned reality is not. Life simply flows on, a long chain of events with no beginning, middle, or end, and in itself reality has no meaning or moral. Memory selects from this tissue of events and weaves them together with its own logic. You might call this “narrative logic,” the logic of stories: with a defined setting, a discrete cast of characters, a climax and a resolution: events with human meaning and emotional resonance.

I think that narrative logic is highly artificial, a perceived order imposed on events by the wishful mind, and that its substance is pure feeling. It is true, as I have written before, that this tendency can be unhealthy. But we humans, as emotional creatures, need these narratives: they give us a sense of purpose and direction. Nearly everyone, to some extent, has their own personal mythology, a group of stories about themselves that explain who they are and where they’re going. 

Narrative logic also governs politics. As Jonathan Haidt observed, every political ideology has its own narrative. The American left has a narrative based on overcoming bigotry, and the American right a narrative about oppressive government; the Nazis, the Soviets, the Spanish anarchists all had their own narratives. These narratives normally have a degree of historical validity, being based on some real events and actual facts. But the interpretation given to the events and facts is inevitably dubious; and, even more importantly, the facts and events left out, silently omitted, are what give the narrative its sense of direction and purpose. Historical forgetting is crucial to political grouping.

Santayana is, of course, correct in a general sense that history is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. Without memory, we could do nothing characteristically human—neither read nor write, much less write history. But what this quote leaves out is that memory, once catalogued and recorded in cold records rather than a living brain, changes its character.

Technology helps humans overcome our biological limitations. Just as the microscope and the microphone make our normally untrustworthy senses more dependable, so does the act of writing compensate for the failings of our memory. What is written down is no longer subject to the passions, fancies, and revisions of our imagination. Thus, by basing our records on documentation—whether it be cuneiform tablets or government records, or archeological remains—we may break the spell of narrative logic.

Of course, we may choose what records to read, and then choose what to write in our history books, and we may choose to selectively read those history books, and so on. Humans are remarkably resilient to facts that do not accord with their worldviews. Indeed, as we have seen with the proliferation of fake news and the information bubbles that partition the country ideologically, this problem is just as acute as ever. As Santayana went on to say:

History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten. The conditions of expression and even of memory dragoon the facts and put a false front on diffuse experience. What is interesting is brought forward as if it had been central, and harmonies are turned into causes. … Such falsification is inevitable, and an honest historian is guilty of it only against his will.

All of this notwithstanding, it is also true, I think, that the discipline of history makes progress in breaking the spell of these political narratives—at least enough to make them more honest, more just to the facts. This is how it should be. To fabricate the historical record, as the Nazis and the Soviets did, opens the door to extremism. But we could not live, either individually or socially, without any narrative to guide us. As long as humans look for meaning in life or group together behind a cause, they will tell stories about themselves. And these stories will inevitably rest upon the internal rumor of memory.

Both philosophy and history are, among other things, forms of criticism; and as such their function is to “surprise the soul in the arms of convention” (to use another of Santayana’s felicitous phrases). This criticism and the skepticism it entails are healthy and desirable. But we cannot remain thus untethered. The point of criticism is not to achieve pure skepticism but to give us enough mental and emotional distance to be able to consciously choose our ideals and stories, and not have them chosen for us by convention.  

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