"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Senselessness Of Foreign Travel–The Vanity Of Frontloading Memories

The arguments over the nature of self, being, and nothingness have been debated for hundreds of years.  Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”, placing cognition squarely at the center of being.  The fact that one can think – remember, observe and process, categorize, analyze, and describe – one can prove one’s existence.

Vladimir Nabokov, a self-described memorist, said that the past and only the past defined human existence.  The present, Nabokov went on to observe is  nothing more than a millisecond of existence before becoming the past. The Higgs boson once produced has a lifetime of less than one sextillionth of a second; and this is slow compared to the passage of the present to the past. The  future is only a speculative time of possibilities and impossible dreams. 

The more one remembers the past, said Nabokov, lives it through constant recollection, and curates it as a personal, existential treasure, the more one’s life has substance and meaning.  Nabokov developed techniques to fix events in his memory and devised ways to recall them from his mental archives and replay them like a movie.  The more he could remember, he said, the more complete he was as a human being.

Image result for images nabokov

However one chooses to define the present, it quickly becomes the past, archived in our memory, and without attention can disappear.  If we cannot remember the beach at Deauville -  the umbrellas, the silhouette of the cliffs of Dover on the English side of the Channel, the seagulls, the chill, and the dresses of young girls – then it never happened.  Even if the events of that day had subliminal effects – our preference for colored dresses or our dislike of the chill – if we cannot remember them, they have lost their meaning, integrity, and substance.

Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is an autobiography which was written not as a historical record of the author’s life, but as a pastiche of those memories which define him.  There was no reason to order them chronologically, to link them to future events citing cause and effect, only to celebrate them for what they were – integral and indispensable parts of him.

Image result for images nabokov speak memory

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 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 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 (The Atlantic 2.4.13)
Jill Neimark 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.  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 that if memory is the bedrock of the self, then even though that self may seem coherent and unchanging, it is built on shifting sands.(Psychology Today 6.9.16)

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.

As philosophically convincing as Nabokov’s argument may be, for most people it is a chimera, an intellectual construct that has nothing to do with real life, led moment by moment – a string of events prescribed by genes, conditioning, and circumstance. While one may reminisce about the past, it is as insubstantial and tenuous as the future, if not more so.  What, when all is said and done, is so important about a fragmentary composite of bits and pieces of the past which have been airbrushed and photoshopped beyond recognition? And if that is the case, and the past is no more than a shaky repository of fictionalized memories, then what does this say for frontloading memories?  For storing up on adventures?  Particularly as one ages and faces the prospect of the shortening years, the past has less and less substance.  While older people may tend to ‘live in the past’, these fond memories are only diversions from their more essential concern – making sense of life itself, figuring out what’s what.  The component parts of one’s life –individual memories – are far less important than the whole.

In an affluent age, travel is a marker of well-being.  The days of being strapped to the plow and dying in one’s traces are over.  Opportunity has replaced the confines of penury.  Travel it is said, is eye-opening at least, transforming at best.  No one after visiting the townships of Johannesburg can ever again think about race, white privilege, and capitalism in the same way.   No one after eating at the great brasseries of Paris can ever return to meat and potatoes.  After seeing giraffes and lions on the veldt, no one can ever visit a zoo.  The majesty of wild animals can never be forgotten.

Image result for images slums of soweto

How exactly? The present tends to absorb and fold in the past without notice.  Trajan’s column, Versailles, or the bazaars of Calcutta, the slums of Soweto, and the Olduvai Gorge soon lose whatever meaning they might have had.  Everyone knew about them before leaving home. The actual experience of buildings, boulevards, monuments, slums, wild animals, or markets may burnish images and add detail and scale, but what, other than replenishing the mind’s repository of memories, does such experience actually mean?

An economist who had travelled and worked in over sixty countries found that the vivid experiences of his foreign assignments – his adventures, pleasures, and close shaves – had become so stirred and blended together that they were indistinguishable; and if they were remembered intact, they provoked only brief, momentary feelings of regret, longing, loss, or fondness; and had nothing whatsoever to do with him. At best his travels were easy signifiers for others.  It was easier to remember John the Investment Banker, Bob The Doctor,  Bill The Lawyer, and Ed The Foreign Traveler than it was to disaggregate character and personality and reassemble the pieces in a coherent, although complex whole.

So the past is not all that it is cracked up to be, and the experiences planned as future memories are irrelevant.  Hosts may once or twice serve shrimp, oysters, and crabs on a bed of ice, garnished with seaweed and shore grasses like they do at Bofinger; but quickly go back to shrimp cocktails and crab cakes.  Progressives may fly the South African flag next to that of Black Lives Matter, but soon they both come down. The feeling of solidarity generated by trips to the African ghetto soon fade in the light of the crime, dysfunction, and irresponsibility of the Baltimore inner city.  And ordinary travelers, recently returned from the Danube or the Rhine, or Ephesus, may show their photos to dinner guests, but soon archive them in storage.

Image result for images bofinger

The here and now – our love affairs, children, wives, parents, jobs, and investments – is all that matters.  Tolstoy, in his A Confession reflected on his lifelong search for God and meaning and found neither; but his persistent reading of literature, history, science, philosophy, religion, and art helped to define him.  He had no reason to actually see things.  He was not defined by places and experiences, but what he thought about and how he applied knowledge to belief.  The past was of no interest as an entity, nor even as a collection of events, but a series of trends to be deciphered, compared, and incorporated into his own, personal thinking.

This in the end is all we can expect from the past – events which may or may not make sense individually but which surely provide insights into the way we behave and to what we aspire.  Frontloading memories – travel to exotic locations, eating at the best restaurants, or viewing falls, prairies, birds, or wild animals – makes little sense at all. 

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