Reclaiming the Real through the Living Past
The Lost Maps of Reality

The Map of Memory

ParkerHomesteadThreeForks

Parker Homestead near Three Forks, Montana

                                         

                                         Time past and time future

    Allow but a little consciousness.

                                    But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

                          The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

                              The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

                           Be remembered; involved with past and future,

          Only through time time is conquered.

Burnt Norton

Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot

Time is the nemesis of progress. Time is change. Yet, not all change is progress. Instead, change is the natural state of all things. Things grow and decline simultaneously. To see this reality requires perspective, the perspective of memory.

To remember is to see the past as integral to the present and instructive for the future. But memory is difficult in a time of images and spectacle.

William Faulkner wrote in his novel Light in August,

"Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."

Our memories are a presence that lives in, some say haunts, time. History is not just collections of the facts of time, place, person and institution. History is memory. Representations of the reality of our lives: of our past successes and failures, of love, rejection, boredom and abandonment, of joy and suffering, of life and death. Memory is the record of life lived.

Living in a time where images and spectacle dominate and dissimulate, we distance ourselves from the reality of the past as it lives in the present. There is an unfortunate prejudice against the past as less progressive, modern, forward and complete. The result is the lost of a context for perspective for knowing who we are, and why our lives, and our world is as it is. In remembering, we reclaim time as the past is present for us.

Remembering in Context.

Anyone who has a shared past with others realizes that our perception of the past is highly individualized. It is personal. Listen to a group of friends who have shared a concert, and they each remember something unique to their own experience, even as they stood and clapped and cheered together. The richness of the experience is both shared and individual.

Our memory is a patchwork quilt of recollections that help us to see the past. We don't remember facts, but the connections that link what we call facts into a picture that helps us to remember the past as present. As that recollection lives, it changes, becomes clearer, and its value grows.

I don't remember every meal I've ever eaten. I do remember the ones where there was a significant human encounter with another person or persons. I remember Thanksgiving at my mother's parent's home; how the cousins ate in the foyer of the house; how we played football in the front yard, and roamed the woods surrounding the house. These moments in time remain with me, and form the bond that I have with my sisters and my cousins. Time remembered and cherished.

In The Spectacle of the Real, the past is not history as it happened last week or a century ago.  It is a platform for the sensationalization of the current moment. This past no longer represents the past, but rather a simulacrum, a replacement of what happened to serve the moment of attraction. The past becomes a Disney-like hyper-reality, pristine and sanitized for consumer consumption. 

In this way, our memories are valid only if they fit a narrative structure that is contrived and hidden. The spectacle nature of hyper-reality makes it difficult for the real of the past to live in the real of the present. There is no connection, no relation that allows for this blending of time past and time present to make sense.  As a result, memories, instead of serving us by connecting us to meaning, are treated as illusions.

Is it any wonder, then, why life in the modern world feels so disconnected and unstable. These are not just feelings, but recollections of our embodied memories telling us that something is awry, not quite right. We must listen to reclaim the real.

Our memories, therefore, are the ligaments and tendons of time that tie together the events of the past into a body of remembrance that gives us perspective and meaning. The more we remember, the better able we are to discern the real from the hyper-real, the true from the false, the good from the meaningless.

Memory in a Lockbox

Memory in modern thought has been treated as if it was a container for objects of remembrance. We retrieve the past as snippets of data that are contained in a book or an encyclopedia, sealed in a bank lockbox or in a computer harddrive to be shared on Twitter, Pinterest or Tumblr. David Farrell Krell describes this perspective.

"'Memory,' says John Locke, ' is as it were the Store-house of our Ideas.' ... Memory is a storehouse whose stores are nothing stored nowhere. ... Call it then a power to revive perceptions of 'Ideas' once perceived, along with the assurance that one has perceived them before; a power of the mind to paint its 'ideas' afresh on itself, though with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude? To what should memories approximate? Whence the assurance that one has perceived this or that before? Apparently memory is a storehouse?"

The Wikipedia entry on memory provides a similar description.

"In "Psychology", memory is the process by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Encoding allows information that is from the outside world to reach our senses in the forms of chemical and physical stimuli."

I find this not only an inadequate perspective, but misleading about human experience. It suggests that memory is a fixed object of information that can be isolated from our experience. Maybe, in a laboratory, a memory can be isolated in such an pristine manner.

However, we don't live in research labs, but in the real world, where our memories, good or bad, live with us. We don't have the option, if we desire to live healthy lives, to isolate parts of our lives, like the past, our memories, as if they don't matter. We are whole beings, not mechanical thinking contraptions that can simply shut down one function so others may continue unhindered by remembrance.

Our memories function within our intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves. We are not separate from our memories. They live with us. We can choose to embrace them or deny their presence, and that is where the challenge of recovering the real in our lives exists.

Memory in Context

Our memory exists in a context of space and time, and in relation to the people who were present then, and who are present now.

I remember many events as a child. I remember being lost at the county fair, fearful of never seeing my parents again, and then standing at the gate, relieved to see them approach. I see and feel it as if it was yesterday.

I remember the days that I spent as a refugee worker during the summer spent in Pakistan in 1981. I remember how those eight weeks were a progression of days of travel, on foot, by jeep, van and plane, every day, to a new corner of the mountains of northern Pakistan, engaging new and different people every day. I remember those days as if they were one long epic story that occurred yesterday. The pictures that I took, the map that I carried, and the journal I wrote in that summer, all contribute to memories remaining vivid to this very day.

As a result, my memory of Pakistan, is not that which we see on the evening news. My memory is not the televised spectacle of the war on terror taking place on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, I see a country divided by terror, no different than ours. I see mothers and fathers, and their children suffering because of wars, both internal and external, that have been their constant experience for centuries.

Is memory just data, like a commodity, stored and retrieved at will? Or is our memory a context of living history that influences how we live, relate to others, and find direction in life?

This is the question that we must answer to find reality for our lives today.

The Map of Memory

A better analogy for our memories is that of the map, an interactive map of connections, personal, physical and cultural. There are points on the map, the "facts" of history, like a birthday date, the name of your 4th grade teacher or that song from your first junior high school dance. Our recollection moves between these kind of facts to create a landscape of memory that we remember as a story.  Tied together they create a landscape of recollection that places us back in the moment of time.

When I was five or six years old, I swiped a pack of gum from the drug store that my parents patronized. As we drove home, my father asked where I got the gum that I was chewing. I said at the store. He turned the car around, and took me back to the store, where I apologized, and my father paid the clerk. That early childhood moment, I remember vividly, the layout of the store, the moment in the car, the place on the route home when my petty theft was discovered. But the central memory of that moment in my childhood isn't the fact of my thievery, but rather the shame I felt.

In this sense, the map of memory cannot be just facts, but rather the connections between those facts. These connections are paths that link the parts of our experiences into a whole picture, like a map, which guides us through our memories. The more complete the map, the more complete our memories.

Our memory is part of the moral context of our lives. We access meaning and purpose for our lives through our embodied sensory experience.  To remember is to be ever present in that memory. With that memory, we remember what matters and why.

Where do those connections come from? Our memories are not created out of nothing. They don't originate with themselves. They are not like the false memories of the Spectacle. They are representative perceptions of the world that we experienced at the time, that remain with us as memories.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception,

"... in order to fill out perception, memories need to have been made possible by the physiognomic character of the data. Before any contribution by memory, what is seen must at the present moment so organize itself as to present a picture to me in which I can recognize my former experiences. ... ."

We are embodied persons, not memory containers, or mechanical thinking machines. Our memories are links to past perceptions that are recollected in the context of current ones. This linking creates a map of memory that is constantly being evaluated and reformed in the blink of an eye. Merleau-Ponty writes,

"No sooner is the recollection of memories made possible than it becomes superfluous, since the work it is being asked to do is already done."

Living memories, therefore, no longer live in the past, but in the present, and become part of the moment itself. This is the unfolding character of time and history. It is not linear, but whole, opening itself up to new "maps" or landscapes of understanding.

A Map of a Moment in Time

I see it in my minds eye. I see the precise moment, the place in my fifth-grade classroom, the angle of my head as I looked at the speaker on the wall, as the principal of my elementary school announced to us that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

That memory is a map of a whole series of moments all linked together like a network of pathways that will forever remain with me.

I remember vividly what happened from that moment on Friday afternoon through Sunday morning in late November 1963. The Friday afternoon in the classroom. The Saturday I spent at my friend Steve's house where every channel on the television was about the assassination. The Sunday morning as our family watched coverage on the television, then seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted out of the Dallas police station only to be shot dead by Jack Ruby. 

All those recollections of moments within that three day time frame serve as a map through those days. It is not the linear record of the clock, but rather a map of the landscape of time. Landscape as in a panorama of images and emotions all connected together to create a whole, embodied memory though my own personal, quite selective recollection. What is remembered is the connections that link the various parts of those days. This is how memory works. It is a landscape canvas that captures a moment in time that continues to live, past and present together.

Memory as a Living, Ever Present Story

History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today.

This is why the novels of William Faulkner have had such a powerful influence upon people in the South. We are brought into a world of living memory that resonates as true and real, even though we live in a different time and place. Few of us alive today, lived in the culture of the Deep South in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Faulkner's stories are narrative histories of human imagination that place us in a time remembered that is as contemporary as it is historic.

Lee Anne Fennell describes Faulkner's literary world as,

"... a 'land haunted by memory' ... too little attention has been given to memory's overarching role in elucidating such distinctively Faulknerian elements as disordered time, preoccupation with the past, the influence of the dead, and, most importantly, determinism. It is memory ... that pulls pieces of the past into the present, resurrects the dead and remakes family history. ... Time collapses for Faulkner's people: the past is conflated with the present, the dead share narrative space with the living, and childhood traumas lie just beneath the skin of the present moment."

This is not the container view of memory, but rather a living context, a living presence, that is more spiritual than informational.

Faulkner's intentional disordering of time brings the past into the present as a living reality that is not just personal, but a shared experience of human community, at its best and worst.

French novelist Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay about about Faulkner's use of time in The Sound and The Fury, writes,

"In the classical novel, the action has a focus ... It would be futile to look for this kind of focus in The Sound and The Fury: is it Benjy's castration? Caddy's unfortunate love affair? Quentin's suicide? Jason's hatred for his niece? Each episode, once it has been grasped, invokes others - in fact, all the other episodes connected with it. Nothing happens, the story does not progress; rather, we discover it behind each word as an oppressive and hateful presence, varying in intensity with each situation. ...

It is man's misfortune to be confined in time. '... a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune. ...'  This is the true subject of the novel. And if the technique adopted by Faulkner seems at first to be a negation of time, that is because we confuse time with chronology. Dates and clocks were invented by man: ' ... constant speculation regarding the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial which is a symptom of mind-function. Excrement Father said like sweating. To reach real time, we must abandon these devices, which measure nothing: '... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.' Quenton's breaking his watch has, therefore, a symbolic value; it forces us to see time without the aid of clocks. The time of the idiot, Benjy, is also unmeasured by clocks, for he does not understand them." (emphasis in the original)

Faulkner's treatment of time, as Sartre describes, is quite similar to what I see as the map of memory. It is landscape of recollection that travels with us.

Faulkner is famously remembered for the quote from Requiem for a Nun, "The past is not dead. It is not even past."  I find this to be true. It is a living presence that fills in the gaps of perspective so we can better see the world as it is. This is not just an alternative to the Spectacle, but its opposite.

Mapping Our Memories

In order to regain our sense of the past as a living reality, we need to make one important shift in the way we perceive the world.

We need to see that the world is not a collection of parts, of time and history as simply a linear list of dates, names and events, and that our lives are lived in a meaningless succession of discrete moments in time. We need to see life as whole, as integral and complete when the linkages of time and space are recognized and recalled.

"The past is not dead. It is not even past."

To recognize this to be true requires us to be skeptical of all claims to authority by those who produce The Spectacle of the Real. They must earn their credibility and our trust by demonstrating a respect for the past as meaningful in itself for making sense of the present.

It is, therefore, not enough to simply understand that history is the map of memory. We must understand how to use the map of memory to reclaim the real that has been lost. I'll address this in my next post, The Lost Maps of Reality.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.

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