In the intro to my recent post about the death of Bill Vukovich and its effect on me as a child, I lamented my mistaken memories, and how I had conflated distinct events. That made me consider how that could happen; after all, we should be able to remember things we have experienced in their right sequence, shouldn’t we?
Actually, no. Eye-witness accounts of even fairly recent events are notoriously unreliable, and the situation doesn’t improve with the added distance of time. Complicate this with identity issues, and it isn’t so surprising. But how, I asked myself; what is the mechanism? The answer, I believe, lies in the way we construct our past, that is, our identity.
Time, we imagine, proceeds according to the strict logic of causation. Events follow one another relentlessly in a sequence. Whether this is so is not relevant here; it’s how we’ve been trained to see things. But we file the events of our own past in terms of epochs rather than linear chronologies. I was a boy, a teenager, a young man, etc. We know which things can be assigned to which epochs of our past, but the internal ordering of these things remains murky. To make matters worse, these categories themselves remain fluid, constructing and deconstructing according to our needs. Not only do specific events swirl around within these contexts, but physical events are thrown together with emotional events, and when we call on our memories to arrange specific occurances in their proper relationship to one another, we do so according to the logic of compatibility rather than chronology. Thus, the separate events of a racing death and the loss of a friend got pulled out of the soup together, since both occurred in the same epoch, and had similar emotional consequences.
I’m tempted to think that this is the same tendency that leads historians to construct eras in history, rather than being satisfied with chronology. The truth is I don’t even know whether it’s accurate for personal histories.
What do you think?