We assume our memories to be accurate and reliable, however they can easily become subjective and therefore biased, selective, distorted, imaginary, fantasised, deceptive and sometimes even delusionary. Psychologists believe that often our memories are merely a memory of the last time we recalled an event and therefore contaminated. Memories are generally triggered by an event, a comment or a sensory perception.
Basically we have two kinds of memories: pleasant and painful, the former can become romanticised and nostalgic, while the latter, haunting and traumatic.
Once, “nostalgia” was not a common term used to sell consumers the pleasures of the past, but a diagnosis peculiar to physicians to describe the pain of loss. Veteran soldiers, orphaned children and others who had brutally learned that you can’t never go back home were treated until the late 19th century for a disorder .
Mel Campbell, editor and publisher of The Enthusiast defines Nostalgia as “the pang we feel upon realising the impossibility of returning to an idealised past. Coined in the 17th century to describe the pain of loss or a pathological homesickness, it’s now understood as a sentimental fondness for the cultures and values of bygone eras — often of one’s own childhood.” Chekov defines it as a longing for a lost past – a Golden Age. (Randall Jarrell, claims, “in a golden age people go around complaining about how yellow everything looks.”)Nostalgic people see the past through rose coloured glasses
Enchanting “ trips down memory lane” pensively indulging in the foggy charms of nostalgia, the fun and folly of romanticising the past; through a mist of reflection, things can be remembered better than they actually were, embracing the smokey beauty of the past, bathing in a perfumed mist of fact-tinged fantasy, can be beneficial – soothing or therapeutic for the soul - our self esteem.
Nostalgia’s just not what it used to be!
Nostalgia is a denial of the pain of the present! Woody Allen
Trauma on the other hand is “like a wound that never heals”. Freud describes trauma as resulting from any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through our protective shield [and is] bound to provoke a disturbance on a large scale and set in motion every possible defensive measure. These defensive measures result in trauma standing outside of memory. Trauma can be extremely debilitating, often called “nerves” or “shell shock” and is today called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Syndrome) PTSD.
Stress can trigger bad experiences from the past. A sudden change in circumstances now can evoke long ago 'bad memories' so that a person is unable to function normally. Dr. Mark notes that a current event in our lives can trigger an old, unresolved fear and our bodies react with extreme stress – something that can greatly interfere with even vital remembering.4
Reviving painful repressed memories is what Robert Penn Warren calls “picking at the scab of our fate”. Unless you cauterise a traumatic experience it resonates in a debilitating way.
Here is a summary of Dr Karon’s description of the symptoms of Schizophrenia. He calls it a Chronic Terror Syndrome manifesting as terror or the defences against it. It is non genetic and non-physiological. Schizophrenia is caused by untreated trauma, resulting in multiple traumas that can drive you crazy. Patients can suffer from continuous sensory hallucinations – mostly auditory where they hear “voices”. There is a strong transference of experiences from earlier times that leaves them scared and confused. The chronic terror blanks out other emotions. The best cure is empathy therapy that is non-humiliating and non-threatening. There is evidence that medication actually prevents healing.
In Medieval times if you heard “voices”, your chances of becoming a prophet or having a new religion named after you were greatly enhanced - now you are to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and have to take your lithium.
Edward Casey in his book Remembering describes memory as having three broad categories: reminding, reminiscing and recognising. Reminding is the recalling of the past into the present, through an association with things.3
Reminiscing brings the past wholly into the present as a self-contained event, whereas recognising retains some of its past nature - it remains linked to the past. This means that in reminiscing there is a dis-continuity between the present version of an event and the original version there is no engagement with the past. Recognising on the other hand, brings the past event into the present and brings with it past emotions that combine with the present. Ricoeur considers recognition to be the small miracle of memory.
The many ways that memory engages with the past blurs the distinction between history and fiction but this distinction is further complicated by the way that memory merges with hallucination, dream and imagination and its role in testimony, and the difficulty of knowing where memory ends and imagination begins.
Past events are not accurately stored in memory waiting to be recalled; as Benjamin argues in Excavation and Memory: memory is not the instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. There are many versions and perspectives of the past but the potential for the biggest discrepancy is between those who were victims and those who are survivors.1
Other Quotes on Memory
Mark Baker’s quotes: Memory is about “light shed on a dark situation”. But memory is also about darkness in light- the denial of the past and not wanting to confront things.
• There is no end to memory. It’s not linear which is reflected in the structure of the text
“We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they're called memories. Some take us forward, they're called dreams.” Jeremy Irons
“Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream.” Kahlil Gibran
“I've never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don't understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” Sophia Loren
Memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today's events. Albert Einstein
To recall the event into memory re-quires a reconstruction of the event that will inevitably involve imagination.
Even more corrosive is the desire to forget. History needs memories to avoid the risk of forgetting crimes that must not be forgotten, victims whose suffering cries less for vengeance than for narration.
1 Blurring the Boundaries: History, Memory and Imagination in the Works of W G Sebald by Diane Molloy http://colloquy.monash.edu.au/issue015/molloy.pdf
2Reversing Memory Loss by Vernon H Mark, M.D. and Jeffrey P. Mark, M.Sc.
3. Michigan University’s Dr Bertram Karon
[Go Back A Page] [Top Of Page]