Monday, 28 September 2015

On Forgetting Stuff

Bristol City Museum as a Palace of Memory

There's an engaging poem by Billy Collins called "Forgetfulness", which has been nicely animated, and which I've linked to before (but had to check, because I couldn't, uh, remember).  As you get older, the experience of forgetting takes on a troubling significance, like a persistent cough, or those aches in the joints that paracetamol won't quite soothe any more.  No-one looks forward to the infirmities of age, and most of us try to pretend it'll never happen.  Hope I die before I get old...  You should be so lucky, son.

In her last years, my mother suffered some form of dementia.  My parents lived in a mobile home in my sister's back garden, so she had to bear most of the burden of their final decline, for which I will be eternally grateful; I'm not sure I could have.  On my last visits, my mother did not know who I was, though she kept insisting that her son would really like me, if we were ever to meet.  I'm not so sure about that, but you had to look on the funny side.  One time, she gestured out of the caravan window and exclaimed with such conviction "Is that an elephant out there??" that I actually looked.

Around the same time, my partner's mother and aunt were also dementing.  Our phone would regularly ring at 3 a.m. and it would be her aunt -- a rather posh and formidable woman who had once been the village schoolteacher -- demanding to know why the village shop wasn't open.  That, or it would be some villager, woken from deep sleep by Susan's insistent knocking on their door in the small hours, demanding to know when we were going to have her put into a home.  It was a testing time, and none of it was a great advertisement for old age.

But there's more to forgetting than a fear of dementia.  One of the more appealing traditions in those religions that believe in a final judgement of human souls is the idea of a Recording Angel, whose task it is, continually and authoritatively, to write up the ultimate diary of humanity's daily doings (and, perhaps more troublingly, our thinkings and non-doings).  Deep down, I suspect even the most aggressive, unsentimental atheist has a yearning for the existence of an irrefutable record -- like an infinitely-faceted and relativistic CCTV tape, which can never be conveniently lost, or tampered with -- to which final appeal might be made.  There!  I told you it happened!  And that was exactly how it happened!  Now do you believe me?  Hah!  Our instinct for justice is closely bound up with the idea that The Truth exists, even it can't always be established forensically.

Sadly, of course, there is no such record.  Which can be distressing, when the only witnesses to the key events in your life are, in your view, mistaken, or have forgotten all about those events, or are even, so unfairly and inconveniently, dead.  But, unless at some far distant point in the future it is discovered that time can somehow be stopped, rewound and replayed -- perhaps there is a backup universe somewhere?  -- the fact is that the past is not reeled up like a tape but is burned away like a fuse as the present sparks into being, at least as far as we humans are concerned.  We remember what we remember; we have forgotten the rest.  Maybe the owls know better?

The owls are not what they seem
(Twin Peaks, in case you've forgotten...)

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