Friday, May 9, 2014

You Must Remember This

I don't believe in coincidence. I do believe in luck. And I'm not sure about Fate. I don't like the idea of Fate, I don't like the idea of the lack of free will and all things being pre-determined, but who knows? Of course if there's Fate, there's no such thing as luck.


But anyway, the older I get, the less I believe in coincidence. I think more and more what we believe to be coincidence is just the machinations of our subconscious. Of memory -- or whatever the after-effects of experience are after memory fades.



The epigraph in Death of a Pirate King is by Hineu: Coincidence, if traced far enough back, becomes inevitable.



And I think this is true. Further, I think so much of who we are and the choices we make are driven by memory. Not necessarily conscious memory. In fact, probably NOT conscious memory if we ultimate think coincidence brought us to a certain place in time.



I've been thinking and writing about this a lot lately. It's obviously a powerful theme in Stranger on the Shore.



Memory is not a new development in humans. Memory is how we learn. What has changed in modern times, though, is having a pictorial record of memories. Family albums. News reels. Documentaries. Instagram. The visual reminders aren't just cues to recollection. They become an editing tool of recollection. This moment versus that moment is captured and preserved. Looking at video of a mostly forgotten family holiday, I am struck by nostalgia, by sentiment. And suddenly I remember so much more. And so the original memory is altered.



Photos and their role in our individual and collective memory fascinate me. And I've seen two films in the past week that really drove this point home. One was The Adventures of Walter Mitty, which turned out to be much smarter and more touching than I expected. In this version of Walter Mitty, Mitty is a "negative asset manager" at a still active Life magazine. So there is a lot to consider about observing life versus taking part in it...but it's not quite that simple. It also has to do with what a camera reveals. And also how we interpret what we see. Because even what we think we see is not necessarily what we see. The very act of taking the picture changes the moment.



There is a made up Life magazine motto that runs through the film, but I actually like it a lot. I think it is the relevant to both photography and the experience of living.



“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”



The other film was a riveting documentary called The Mexican Suitcase. On the surface it's about the recovery of three lost boxes (4500 negatives) which disappeared right before World War II. But it's also about the Spanish Civil War (something I knew shockingly little of, it turns out) and the three photojournalists and friends most associated with covering it.


In this case, some of these photos are the only window into historical period shrouded in mystery and obscured by propaganda -- but they also serve as the only tangible reminders of the individual humans swept up and lost in the chaos of war.




  
We are our memories. And yet our memories are in flux and often -- maybe mostly -- inaccurate.

37 comments:

  1. The reference to the Spanish Civil War, reminded me of Ernest Hemingway. He was journalist in Spain and after wrote "for whom the bell tolls" It is set in Spain. There are a number of black and white photographs I associate them with this war. They´ll always remain in the memory, both, books and photographs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! I think pretty much everything I previously knew of the Spanish Civil War came from Hemingway and "FWTBT." Well, and "The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie."

      I don't see anything wrong with your English!

      Delete
  2. Wow. You just made my brain buzz. ;-)

    But seriously, such an interesting post full of intriguing pondering — so much so that I'll have to re-read it right away (well, THAT sounds familiar, LOL).

    And funnily we are going to watch The Adventures of Walter Mitty tonight, so this was a perfect prologue for that. Thank you, dear!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe it was timing, but something about that film really clicked for me.

      Delete
  3. I was just talking to a friend about memory a week or so ago, (coincidence? :) ) I once read an interesting article about a woman who believed she had lived past lives. She could describe with amazing details an Indian raid where she had been scalped. She assumed that was how she died in that past life. This was through some university study dealing with past life regression. One of the students did some research and discovered the subject had a g-g-grandmother who had indeed survived an Indian attack in VA back in the 1700s. The grandmother was scalped, but did not die. The theory from the article: there are no past lives, but memory passed along through DNA, like eye or hair color. That some people are able to access these memories while others can not.

    If that is the case, then we are not only shaped by the memory of our grandmother cleaning our faces with a spit wiped handkerchief, but by the memories of all the grandmother's before her. Like looking at a mirror, in a mirror, in a mirror, etc.

    I never read more of the study, but I found it fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. When you figure how many physical traits are passed down generation to generation -- the exact placement of a mole, for example -- is it really so surprising that memories might be handed down too?

      Delete
    2. Oooo. That *is* fascinating. I remember reading that memories are also stored in our bodies, so there have been these freaky occurrences where someone who received an organ transplant also received some of that person's memories. Wish I could remember where I heard that and how reliable the source was.

      Regarding family memory, I have a professor studying the effects of racial trauma on Native American Indians. He thinks the descendants of people who survived, say, the Trail of Tears and the American Indian boarding schools still suffer the effects of stress from these traumatic experiences.

      Delete
    3. It all sounds so mystical and touchy-feely, and yet I am inclined to believe this. Again, because of things like a deformed toe or an ability to sing or...so many practical illustrations of how genetic traits are handed down.

      We understand so little of the brain. Let alone, the spirit.

      Delete
  4. I don't believe in coincidence, I do believe in luck and I waffle about fate. I think we have way more memories than what we can bring to mind at any given time. Our brains record everything. Does it just go away? I don't think so. It's stored up there, like a big filing cabinet waiting for the right trigger to open that particular drawer. Who knows what that trigger or memory will be. Is there such a thing as genetic recall? Do we store memories in our DNA? I'm not sure, but I think it's possible. Very thinky thoughts for the morning time. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For some reason when I think of writing The Hell You Say, I remember it as me sitting on a bus. I can see the sunlight glancing off the window sill, and a big old tree I used to pass every day...in high school. That is when I rode that bus. And the AE books were not even a glimmer in my mind in high school. So how do those two memories get so mixed up? I don't know.

      Delete
    2. Someone has misfiled some memories in your file cabinet? :-)

      Delete
    3. WHY IS IT SO HARD TO FIND PEOPLE WHO CAN ALPHEBETIZE?

      Delete
    4. Re the school bus/book connection, I've found that the strangest things, meaning seemingly innocuous or unconnected things, trigger vivid (sensorial or photographic) memories of random moments. Some of these are old embarrassments, so maybe intensity of feeling imprints. But in almost every case, the connection makes no sense to me. A change of light in the kitchen while washes dishes triggers a vivid recollection of crossing a street in Paris 30 years ago. Ill-connected synapses, mental misfires? ; )

      Delete
    5. Uh, while washing dishes...

      Delete
    6. Yes! Strange, isn't it? But yes. I do the same thing all the time. Confuse memories with repeat sensory triggers.

      Delete
  5. The history of the negatives of the Spanish Civil War, is very interesting. Whenever I see photos of Robert Capa I remember the stories my grandfather told me. He worked for the Secret Service of the Republic and created a union called White Arts to help families of the bakers who died or were imprisoned during the war.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Once your family is gone, photographs become your only tangible memories. When my mother left Poland right s the war broke out in 1936 she had a picture of her mother and brothers standing before their house which always fascinated me, as I was a city kid and it was so countrified. That was all she had left of them. The house, and even the town were wiped away not a year later. Whoops. didn't mean to bring down the tone of the discussion, sorry but yes, photographs are a lifeline sometimes, to a world that's disappeared.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think it brings down the discussion. I think what you're saying is true.

      Delete
  7. Hmmm, this--ahem--reminds me of something I was reading lately about how the brain works...how we store and retrieve memories...how it is normal for us to mis-remember things, even seconds after the event. This is why, of course, we get into these impossible arguments with our loved ones about things that happened on family trips or what-have-you.

    Aaand, I just remembered where I read that! "The Invisible Gorrilla" by Chabris and Simons. Fascinating book. The authors talk about our "illusions" of memory, confidence, attention... All of these cognitive processes we count on and take for granted just to get through the day. It's really terrifying how fragile and mistaken we are, when you stop to think about it. But also...I think it makes us as resilient as we are. We have a tendency to sort of revise our memories, which really--I guess--gives us the ability to rewrite our backgrounds to fit with our current reality. We change and grow, our world changes...and we bend our memories to fit with those changes...so we don't go nuts from inconsistencies...a bit like editing in writing?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think to keep sane we have to be able to move on, and to move on, we have to be able to forget. Or at least...dim the memory.

      Delete
  8. This is such a thought-provoking post. 1:00 a.m., huh? Well, I guess that's what you get! I've heard it said that good luck can be sought and bad luck can be warned off, but fate is predetermined and no-one can stop or alter what fate has in store for them. Luck is friendly and anyone in the world can encounter luck, whether good or bad in large or small quantities. Fate, destiny, doom and disaster will also be encountered by everyone in the world but the choice to see things as fatal or lucky lie in the individual's hands. It's a bit mind-boggling, and it makes me wonder what the heck to make up de ja vu!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like that idea of a luck as a friendly thing, available to all.

      I also think that some things do seem to be destined. Like it or not.

      Delete
  9. When our memory went unbearable, then it is possible, that we begin to bend these memory. When these discrepance gets bigger, life becomes more complicated, because we are not longer authentic. Relations are really difficult, if you see yourself permanent in a other aspect, then the people in your life. My english is leaving me. This is in my own language inherently demanding, so ,I go to bed and forget about this mail.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Just heard a review of a new novel: Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill. Sounds fascinating.
    "Hotel Florida traces the tangled wartime destinies of three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history. As Hemingway put it, “You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could anywhere in the world.” From the raw material of unpublished letters and diaries, official documents, and recovered reels of film, Amanda Vaill has created a narrative of love and reinvention that is, finally, a story about truth: finding it out, telling it, and living it—whatever the cost."

    And probably related was the story about the Mexican Suitcase, also fascinating.



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is fascinating, I agree.

      And from a writing perspective, the Spanish Civil War is fresh territory. So much left to explore.

      Delete
  11. This is such an fascinating post, and it makes reading Stranger on the Shore even more interesting, as I can see how you explored this theme (and left some of it unsaid, at least in the final version).

    I'm now editing some of what I had written to avoid spoilers but those who have read SOTS will get the points, e.g. that photographs "become an editing tool of recollection", subconscious or otherwise. And anyone tempted to regard part of the plot as a "coincidence" can work out why it is not.

    Griff says about a key witness, when asked if he thinks he's lying, that he doesn't know "because if its a lie, it's a lie he's been telling himself so long he actually believes it". This is a very real problem with witness evidence, and happens even if someone was never lying from the beginning; each time they think about an event, or tell the story, the actual memory changes. The gaps (for things they didn't notice) are filled in, and what they did see or hear alters. But they honestly believe they are telling the truth, and they are telling the truth as they remember it. This is how two honest witnesses can contradict each other, and how "memories" can be planted (deliberately or otherwise) by those who question them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. True. Well, I never want to spell everything out. And if some people entirely miss the point, so be it. ;-)

      It does fascinate me how humans have to ability to fool themselves. You wouldn't think that was a good or useful trait, but I think it is one of the things that makes us able to survive. Our ability to manipulate reality into something we can then live through. Maybe that is ultimately what hope is. The clouding of the real facts. :-D

      Delete
  12. Is there really a definite TRUTH, or is everything just an interpretation of someone or another? When I was younger, I had this vivid memory of being locked in a room in my childhood home for a long time and wasn’t let out until finally I was missed or maybe someone had heard my howling. But when I mentioned it someday to a cousin, the cousin said he was the one being locked, not me. After recovering from the shock, we started asking around, and no one seemed to recollect anything of it, as if it had never happened, while all the while I had seemed to remember it so clearly in my mind. It still gives me the creeps thinking about it.

    I don’t know how the brain works, but to me, smell and sounds can trigger the deepest of my memories. I listened to ‘Stranger on the Shore’ before I started reading Josh’s book the other day, and strangely, I felt a strong sense of homesickness. I couldn’t even tell if I had listened to it before, but the feeling was so strong I had to put down the book, transfixed, just listened to it again and again, feeling sad and sentimental. I am not even American, or South American, or wherever the music originated. That’s one of the weirdest moment I had lately.

    Do you believe in incarnation? It is said that before you are set to the journey of your next life, you will be given a bowl of water which helps clear the memory of your past lives. Some of us must not have drunk all the water in the bowl and there’s some residue left in our mind. :D

    Savanna

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I must say that after years of watching political parties going at it, you do start to wonder about absolute truth. Is there a fact that can't be misinterpreted or manipulated? I'm beginning to think not.

      Delete
  13. Very interesting post and intriguing comments by all. Readers might be interested in this brand new research regarding memory as posted in the current issue of Science.

    "Do you remember your first birthday? How about what you ate for breakfast weeks ago? For most people, such events slip through the sieve of memory, never to be retrieved. Now, the first study of its kind in mice suggests that the brain may clear away that old information in the process of forming new memories."

    http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2014/05/how-brain-deletes-old-memories

    But, I wonder if the brain has actually deleted the memories, or, as your readers suggests, just files them away and whether we can retrieve them or not is based on our knowledge of the filing system.

    Have purchased SOTS, but haven't read it as yet. I will keep your discussion in mind (if I can remember) when I do so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing that, Penelope! :-)

      Delete
  14. This post found me in an odd place. Up until very recently, I haven't been a 'photo-taking' sort of person. I would rather keep memories that I would remember and forget things that I would forget - I guess just allowing my mind to file and categorise things naturally.

    However, my five year old child has a life-limiting illness. And now, I find myself taking photos all the time, mostly with my phone. It's not changing anything. But I am aware of an almost desperate feeling when I take the shots. And when I look at them later, there is already a huge wave of emotion associated with them.

    I have no conclusions to offer, just that perhaps memories sometimes become so invested in emotion because we want to hang on to the past?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can only imagine. And yet I can identify so strongly with that wish to hold onto a moment.

      As I get older I find myself more and more choked up by looking at photos. The strange part is sometimes the photos have nothing to do with me. Sometimes they are of a different period entirely. Sometimes it is the simply the way the light falls. Why the fall of light should make me emotional, I have no idea.

      Delete
  15. Pictures *and* words play a great role because our memory is so volatile. I find bewildering when someone reminds a fact, I comment and the person who related the episode says I had told them this story in the first place ;-).

    I had heard about the retrieving of those pictures of the Spanish Civil War because I know a journalist/writer specialised on the subject. He was totally excited. He managed to interview the last surviving Swiss fighters of the International Brigades.

    ReplyDelete