March 31, 2005
Burnt Out Ends of Smoky Days
"I have done that," says my memory. "I cannot have done that," says my pride, and remains adamant. At last, memory yields. ~ Nietzsche
Memory is a funny frickin thing.
In my first year of college I took a music appreciation class wherein I was exposed to a piece of contemporary instrumental music that made a lasting impression. I remembered that the piece had to do with Hiroshima, but not the title or the composition period. It wasn’t really important to me at the time, but a few years later I started wanting to lay ears on it again. So I began looking from time to time, or asking friends who I thought might have an idea. Each time, every piece I was exposed to in the quest never seemed familiar. Until recently when I was provided with “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” by Krzysztof Penderecki. The sequences about 5 minutes into the piece is exactly what my memory recalls. But the first 5 minutes is nothing at all of what I remember. In my mind the start of the piece was a lush, exotic mix of reeds and winds and bamboo all leading to an abrupt siren scream of strings.
Where on earth did that impression come from? Did I somehow mix Platoon’s “Adagio for Strings” and Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony” and this piece all together in my head? Where did this false memory come from and how can I remember my high school locker combination clearly while this musical piece is like overwritten hard disk space with ghosts of other data jumbling the stored files?
Bad medicine. Bart no like.
I have some comfort that the phenomenon is not isolated to either a single medium or singularly to myself.
While having a conversation not to long ago, I was discussing how sexual sequences in otherwise mainstream films are often played up in our memories. I had, for example, played up an attempted rape sequence in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider in my memory as something yummy. Upon seeing it again, it was so brief and non-erotic that I could hardly believe I’d even made room for it in my pre-teen hormonal storage banks.
A friend had a similar experience with Death Wish (the original). In his mind the rape sequence in the beginning (which is still deliciously filthy despite featuring Jeff Goldblum in a Jughead cap) had the hooligans spray-painting a bull’s-eye onto the behind of the daughter character during her rape. However, the spray-painting in question is all willy-nilly and not at all as organized as a bull’s-eye. Yet this had been a very specific memory replayed for erotic purposes in his mind’s eye many times.
Aside: I was shocked at the sequence when I saw it recently. For a film made in 1974 the language and violence were graphic (not “bloody graphic” in a Tarintino or Peckinpah style, but graphic none-the-less) and the content was surprisingly complex. Quite a contrast against the heritage it would eventually lend to.
But, anyway, back to memory. Where do these Frankenstein “I’m sure I’m right, I remember it clearly” false memories come from? How can something so vivid be nothing but phantoms playing tag with reality?
The human body is seriously flawed. I want root access. We need medical sci-fi geeks to pick up the fucking pace already.
Ah, yes. Memory. We know it happened, absolutley, because we remember it.
Alas. Memory is like mercury; forever fluid. I have memories of my childhood that are absolutely real, yet I know are constructed from tales told to me, not from what I recall.
Knowing this, the essential un-reality of memory, is key to understanding the mind and it's perceptions. Yet, it's one of the very hardest things to grasp since memory is our entire reality.
How often have you had a conversation with someone who'd kill or die to prove a memory's correctness, only to find it wrong?
Posted by: Karl Elvis MacRae at March 31, 2005 02:17 PM