There’s a RadioLab podcast that profoundly disturbed me the first time I heard it. The topic was the nature of the human capacity to remember, and Jad and Robert’s findings startled and even slightly offended me; the results dared to question our ability to remember things with precision. The experts suggested that while we tend to think of “memory” as a compartmentalized cabinet in our minds where we stash impressions and recollections which we can access at will, it’s actually more creative than that. Every time you remember, you are actually pulling together scattered pieces of sensory impressions and reconstructing an image of what happened. The process is essentially creative. But it gets better – each time you repeat this operation on a given memory, one tiny detail or another is always altered. The “creative” process of remembering actually changes the substance of your memories in subtle ways. The more you remember, over time your perception of memories may depart profoundly from the details of what actually happened in reality. In a word, the memory embellishes. The more it remembers, the more it embellishes.
Like I said, I was disturbed. You mean we don’t actually get to keep our memories? It’s a startling prospect to a sentimentalist. We can never hold onto our memories in their pristine detail, and the more we try, the more we fail.
But then, like a good nerd, I started to think about what this process might suggest about the nature of the human mind, and the way we learn. The idealizing or embellishing tendency of The Memory is a perennial literary theme. It pops up in all kinds of places; one of the lessons of The Great Gatsby, for instance, is that we can never re-create the past exactly, and that the romantic impulse to do so can harm ourselves the the people around us (and you just might end up dead in a swimming pool). Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris recently dramatized the tendency to look to an idyllic past with an unrealizable longing. These depictions are critical of this impulse to embellish and idealize the past, and with good reason; blind veneration of the past devoid of concrete reasons can be useless, unhealthy, or dangerous.
I have a hunch, however, that this natural human tendency has a place in our learning process.
Take the ancient method of writing history, for example. The ancients did not think of “history” in the strict, scientific sense that we regard it today. Ancient historians such as Thucydides, Plutarch, and Herodotus would be admonished by today’s historians for their awful habit of exaggeration. These guys shamelessly embellished their stories. They forged events and people into mythic figures that became the stuff of legend and the substance of tales told for generations – and I’m willing to bet that the tales got taller each time they were told. I suppose this type of history can be described as panegyrical; an embellished portrait intended to sing the praises of a certain person or event which has been deemed worthy of veneration and imitation. In a word, these are examples that can be used for moral instruction. We hold them up as models for how we ought to behave, and to help us understand what human excellence is. If that’s the case, why not exaggerate the point a little?
I’m actually serious. Hyperbolic depictions of things from the past have the effect of impressing a truth into our minds which we might miss if they weren’t highly colorized and lit up with exaggeration. Why is this the case? Think about the way children learn. They are most easily impressed by stories that are fictitious in the extreme. That says something about the way we all think. We learn most effectively through beautiful and moving images that touch our emotions.
I want to suggest that exaggerated, panegyrical history is akin to the embellishing tendency of the human mind in the sense that they both create a longing for something more. They depart from the strict realism of concrete historical circumstances and take us beyond what is here and now; they point to some trans-historical reality that might be an indication of a truth that extends beyond scientific fact. They inspire us to strive for something better.
There is a recent tendency in historical studies to deconstruct the myths that drive us this way, especially in America. Through the means of one abstract theory or another, our heroes are systematically debunked and denounced as racists or imperialists or sexists. Pick your poison. Columbus exploited and ravaged the Indians; the Founders were proponents of slavery. In many cases (including the ones mentioned), these accusations are not even true; the truth is that scientific exactitude about things that happened a long time ago is extremely difficult (as any historian will tell you), and today’s history is dominated by a different myth – the narrative of political correctness. But that is not what I’m contesting here. I am contesting the value of the strict historical “realism” that seeks to find out exactly what happened in its precise detail, the ugly truth of the reality, lest we get caught up in our idealized imaginings and blind veneration of mythical heroes that show us how to live. If the goal is to learn from the past, I want to suggest that the mythologizing tendency is just as valuable as the strictly realistic accounts. Legendary tales of figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have something about them that touches the soul and moves it to strive for greatness, regardless of the real human flaws they doubtless possessed. We can choose to forget these flaws and remember the great things they did, because they teach us something about greatness, something that matters just as much as a perfect account of the historical reality.
Friedrich Nietzsche noticed this problem at the end of the 19th century when this type of history was becoming popular. In On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, he wrote that the modern “historical sense” destroys a certain “atmosphere” which is necessary to human flourishing. “Every living thing needs to be surrounded by an atmosphere, a mysterious circle of mist: if one robs it of this veil, if one condemns a religion, an art, a genius to orbit as a star without an atmosphere: then one should not wonder about its rapidly becoming withered, hard and barren.” Nietzsche’s concern was that the modern scientific emphasis on historical realities had the effect of robbing the human soul of meaning. He was afraid that our way of looking at the past had become so focused on empirical facts that our outlook on life was becoming blase. In order to live meaningfully, humans seem to need some embellishment on life, in one form or another. Embellished portraits provide models that are essential to our moral formation and our ability to live meaningfully.
Does this amount to blind veneration of the past and refusal to acknowledge realities? No. We don’t make up “meaning” out of nowhere, and I don’t believe that embellishing memories of events and heroes diminishes the value of what I am calling historical realism. Precise, scientific knowledge certainly has its place, and reason must be the vanguard of every legend and imaginary tale. I have a professor who likes to complain that we live in a “fact-free world” where people are so caught up in their abstract theories that they do not reason properly about real life. He’s right. I am not questioning the status of reason and scientific knowledge; for the concerns of practical life or statesmanship this type of thinking is indispensable. What I am offering here is simply an alternative way of learning; though they are related, the process of character formation is different than the process of acquiring scientific knowledge of historical circumstances. What I am offering is a reflection on the power and importance of myths, their centrality in the nature of the human soul and the way we learn, and the power of imaginative embellishments for moral and political education. Sometimes reflections of the truth can bring us closer to it than we think.
In light of these considerations, I’m less disturbed by the idea that our memories aren’t perfect. Even if the details aren’t preserved in their pristine condition, perhaps the larger impressions that remain have a value all their own.