The University of Iowa

Remembering the past requires some forgetting

January 21st, 2014

Guest opinion by Jeff Porter for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Jeff Porter
Jeff Porter

What would it be like to have an indelible memory, so that every detail of existence was instantly inscribed in the brain? Imagine being able to remember every day of your life, every dream, every slight, every spoken word.

In “The Mind of A Mnemonist,” A. R. Luria tells the story of a Russian newspaper reporter, Solomon Shereshevsky, who had perfect memory. Shereshevsky was incapable of forgetting and could easily recall whole pages from books on any subject and in any language for years at a time. He could quote accurately anything he heard, including things spoken 10 or 12 years ago.

These feats of memory, however, were hardly satisfying. Shereshevsky was unable to block unwanted memories, nor could he hold down a job. He couldn’t even read a poem without words exploding into sensory associations. Tormented, Shereshevsky would write down endless list of things on scraps of paper and then burn them just to see the words turn to ash — in a desperate attempt to forget.

The most famous case of exceptional memory comes from Jorge Luis Borges’ tale about Ireneo Funes, a teenager who, after a fall from a horse, is blessed (or cursed) with an infallible memory. Funes perceives everything in full detail and remembers all. The present to him, wrote Borges, was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness. So perfect was his memory he could reconstruct a full day’s worth of moments down to the smallest detail. Funes can no longer sleep, however, distressed by the tragic absurdity of absolute memory.

As Samuel Beckett wrote, “a man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.” Both Shereshevsky and Funes, savants with extraordinary powers, demonstrate the agony of remembrance, the burden of unforgetting.

In the ordinary person, memory is flawed, poor and limited, even deceitful. Misplaced eyeglasses, forgotten names. Memories are fragile, vulnerable to corrosion. How often have I encountered a “fatal error” message when searching for my PIN. My past is a jumble of imaginary faces and events. I remember things I’d rather forget (my SAT scores, when I was benched — for the whole season — by my high-school football coach, the day my VW died).

Forgetting is vexing but perhaps necessary. The act of remembering is a complex thing because memory is associative, often grasping at straws in its search for meaning. Remembering something has a cost. The brain’s ability to discard insignificant memories, say researchers, actually makes it easier to recall what’s really important.

Cultural memory is just such a process, the give and take of recall and loss in which individuals and groups continue to reconfigure their relationship to the past. More often than not, that process is narrative. (There is even some evidence that the brain is hard-wired to remember information better if it is transmitted in narrative form.) Significant remembering requires significant intervention.

The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms, wrote poet Muriel Rukeyser. A short while ago, CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a story on “memory wizards,” people who claimed to remember virtually every day of their lives. It was a mixed group and with the cameras rolling they seemed happy, smiling agreeably when asked what they had for lunch 14 years ago on March 3. Off camera, those smiles may have faded in ways their memories never would.

For the rest of us, the non-savants of the world, stories are the things we carry across time, traces of remembrance and forgetting that hold together past and future.

Cultural memory is the intriguing subject of Friday night’s WorldCanvass program at the University of Iowa. Join us at 5 p.m. Friday in the Senate Chamber of Old Capitol Museum. The event is free and open to the public.

Jeff Porter is an associate professor of English at the University of Iowa.