À la recherche du temps déplacé: memory as myth

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?

Our times

“So, is Hannah ever coming back?” said Christophe.

“Hannah?  Who’s she?”

“I thought you knew her.”

So began a typical conversation at what I’m pleased to call my favorite coffee shop.

It’s small, maybe 20 feet wide and twice as deep, occupying a space on Main Street that in other times hosted perhaps a shoe shop, or a candy counter.  I go in most days, for the same thing: a breve and a peanut butter cookie, except when the cookies are sold out.

That’s fairly often, because they’re good, and also because they’re flourless, so all the legions of the gluten-free and guilt-ridden snap them up at the first opportunity.  When they’re gone, I fall back on Russian tea cookies, dependably gluten-rich, laced with sugar and probably un-vegan to boot, and therefor rarely sold out.  During the first weeks of the Crimean crisis, I took to calling them Ukrainian tea cookies, until the Ukrainian nationalists started to irritate me as well.  Someone suggested the more neutral Balto-Slavic tea cookies, so I went with that until I got disillusioned with the whole prospect and went back to the original name, feeling defeated.

Anyway, the shop, and the experience: because I go there regularly, they know me, in the same curious way I know them.  I know their personalities, and how they work, whether they’re cheerful or surly, and occasionally, their names.

But not Hannah.  Try as I might, I couldn’t place her, even after she was described to me.  Even after I was told she had worked there for two years, and even though Christophe was sure I knew her well enough to have information about her that he did not.  Even though all I know about Christophe is his name and how well he makes coffee, and all he knows about me is my usual order.

We live unaware, surrounded by mystery, amazed when it reveals itself.