Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist, and from a very early age began recording memory. He precociously understood that the past is far more defining of human existence than the momentary present or the possible future. We are what we were, said Nabokov, and those whose memories are full, vivid, and as complete as possible are themselves more complete.
However, most people are far from accomplished memorists. In fact recent scientific research has shown that most memory is imagined, influenced by the accounts of others, events subsequent to the initial memory, and simple erosion.
Erika Hayasaki writing in The Atlantic (11.18.13) summarizes the conclusions:
Writers of memoir, history, and journalism yearn for specific details when combing through memories to tell true stories. But such work has always come with the caveat that human memory is fallible. Now, scientists have an idea of just how unreliable it actually can be. New research released this week has found that even people with phenomenal memory are susceptible to having “false memories,” suggesting that “memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune,” according to the authors of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).Jill Neimark, writing in Psychology Today (6.9.16) echoes Nabokov in suggesting that ‘memory is the bedrock of the self’, but goes on to agree with Hayasaki that memory is very fallible:
Memory, it turns out, is both far more complex and more primitive than we knew. Ancient parts of the brain can record memory before it even reaches our senses--our sight and hearing, for instance. At the same time, "there are between 200 and 400 billion neurons in the brain and each neuron has about 10,000 connections," notes psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, M.D. "The parallel processing involved in memory is so complex we can't even begin to think how it works."
The one thing that we can say for certain is this: If memory is the bedrock of the self, then even though that self may seem coherent and unchanging, it is built on shifting sands.So Nabokov’s prized past may be nothing more than a fictionalized composite of imperfectly-recalled experience, the recollection of others, and the additive ‘corrections’ of books, films, and drama. We are not what we were, but what we think we were.
Our immediate perceptions of the outside world are, according to the latest psychological inquiries, just as fallible. Eye-witnesses rarely agree on what they see, even though the event seems straightforward and incontrovertible. Trials are not about getting at the truth but arriving at a semblance of it.
Browning’s The Ring and the Book; Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet; and Kurosawa’s Rashomon all tell about events seen through the eyes of different observers – all of whom conclude quite differently about what they saw.
Since character and personality are unique, formed by a combination of genes, upbringing, and early experience, everyone views the world differently; and therefore there can be no consensus on ‘reality’. To co-exist we have developed conventions – streets, sidewalks, trees, and elephants are all what they seem; but each of us transforms them into our own personal vision.
None of this is new. Philosophers from Aristotle and Plato to Hume, Kant, and Paul Weiss have considered the nature of reality, whether such a thing exists, and how meaning can be derived from what may be fictitious.
There must be at least one unequivocal truth, we say. Without some firm foundation, some absolute, commonly-derived and agreed-upon facts, we would all be adrift. History is nothing but a reassembly of events according to contemporary perceptions. Archduke Ferdinand may indeed have been assassinated, but the real causes of the First World War are far less clear and depend on the age in which a particular history is written.
Despite the insistence on facts, policies, and positions, political campaigns are all won or lost on the basis of image and perception. Although this seems to be more true now than ever before, even a cursory look at past campaigns is enough to see that nothing has been changed, only magnified by media. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are currently (7.16) spinning their own particular emotional appeals to voters. Both rely more on creating a vision rather than issue-based policies. They know that the voting public will vote for them, not their policies. They know that they must project, invent, or re-invent themselves not on the basis of fact, but feeling.
Myth helps to provide the context for image. Conservative politicians often run on the basis of America’s legendary past. Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ evokes an age of frontier justice, independence, enterprise, and heroism – a simpler age when America was uncomplicated and when a great cultural consensus occurred. There is some truth to the legend, but progressives are quick to criticize most points of valor. American is based not on unsullied heroism but on greed, venality, territorialism, and racial indifference. Donald Trump’s America never existed.
Democrats base their appeal on a different myth – that of New Deal and Great Society compassion, equality, and cooperative justice. Liberalism, they say, has been an essential brake on laissez-faire capitalism, tempering American individualism and enterprise with social values of cooperation, tolerance, and good will.
Conservatives will be quick to say that the human nature evident in human history will never be subject to artificially-constructed government programs to modify it. Justice, equality, and tolerance come only from economic and social parity, and free enterprise and aggressive capitalism is the only way to assure it.
Every culture has its sustaining myths. The French still consider themselves la fille aînée de l'Église, the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, defender of Christianity, valiant conquerors of the Muslims at Roncesvalles, heroic Crusaders liberating Jerusalem. Conservative politicians are always quick to recall this storied history and stress its relevance to today even though the situation in France and in Europe bears little resemblance to the past. Yes, there is a threat from radical Islam, but a revisionist revival of the heroic myth of Charlemagne has no relevance whatsoever.
At the same time, given our predisposition to myth, legend, and fiction, why not persist in creating alternate truths? We are headed in the direction of an all-virtual, post-human era in any case. Within a few generations a mind-machine, brain-computer interface will be complete, and virtuality will replace reality. We will no longer be constrained by our senses, obliged to see only those colors determined by rods and cones, smell only those scents which our highly individualized olfactory nerves dictate. Our human interactions will be limitless when social networks become fully integrated into a virtually mediated world. We will travel with whomever, wherever, whenever. Fact, reality, actuality will cease to have meaning.
The abandonment of our insistence on fact, truth, and the way things are is the first preparatory step to this new electronic virtual world. The faster we loosen the tethers which tie us to reality; and the quicker we reject the archaic perceptual framework which limits vision, spiritual growth, and full self-actualization , the sooner we will be truly free.
Reality is not all it’s cracked up to be, and the sooner we jettison our hardened preconceptions about it, the better.