Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Operation of Memory

by Drew Martin

Last night I had a dream I was on a bus in the Czech Republic. I dozed off and awoke (in that dream) in upstate New York and the nervous bus driver was trying to find his way back to his country. A few minutes later, we crossed the border again, back into Bohemia. While this was an impossible geography, it was a fine example of the overlapping landscapes of memory.

The dream reminded me of a wonderful Yale University lecture I watched two days ago on YouTube, while ironing my dress shirts. The title was Reading History and Writing Fiction with authors Penelope Lively (pictured below) and David McCullough. I only watched Lively's part but she expressed such rich comments on memory that I was intellectually satiated:

I was interested in the operation of memory, the nature of evidence, the way in which there is no single truth about an event but as many truths as there are observers, the conflicting evidence of public events as mirrored by the conflicting evidence about private life.

A few minutes later, while speaking about linear chronological history where "one thing followed another in neat sequential order" Lively repeats herself with a bit more insight:

What I was interested in was the operation of memory itself, which of course is not linear at all. There's nothing sequential about the stuff that each of us carries in the head, that set of frozen moments, slides that will surface, prompted or unprompted, and that serve to remind us who we are, where we've been, what we've done, who we've known.

Everything happens at once in the mind. As some point, in the post college years...I discovered landscape history...I tramped around Oxfordshire...in search of the corrugations in a field that indicate Medieval ridge and furrow, the lumps and bumps that betray a deserted village, the green lanes that were once drove roads and I became aware of the eloquence of the physical world, once you learned a bit of its language, as a nice reflection of the process of memory itself. All around us everything happens at once. Centuries are juxtaposed.

I especially enjoyed Lively's introductory remarks:

I have always liked that term that we use, reading a subject, rather than studying it, which carries an appealing suggestion of long term inclination rather than mandatory application. I think that for many people that's just what happens. That exposure to a particular range of books, to a particular academic inquiry at the most susceptible time of your life does indeed form a climate of mind. What you are reading will determine, up to a point, the person you will become.