Thursday 26 November 2020

"Remembering, Forgetting and Storytelling"

By Jonathan Taylor

Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

 – Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

As part of the MA in Creative Writing, we run a thematised semi-module on 'Memory and Writing.' On this course, we explore ideas about memory in theory and practice, and do so 'trans-generically,' through creative non-fiction - especially memoir - fiction, poetry and scriptwriting. We look at subjects including psychology, the uncanny, neurology, textual memory and narrative memory. What follows are some thoughts on memory, remembering and forgetting, in relation to storytelling and writing, which this semi-module has thrown up over the last few years. 

In all sorts of ways, storytelling is bound up with memory, with the process of remembering and forgetting. It exists, I think, in the overlap between remembering and forgetting, in an unstable equilibrium between their two powerful gravitational pulls. It needs both, and if one of them becomes too strong, too dominant, it can distort and ultimately destroy narrative. All writers play with the two forces, mixing them to different degrees; but both are necessary for stories to function. 

The Importance of Remembering
Clearly, remembering is essential for stories to exist. Without it, we couldn’t piece together narratives, connect up the events. We couldn’t tell stories about others or even ourselves. Nor could we read or understand stories: reading is an act of memory. In reading, we establish narrative connections in our memories, with what has gone before in the text we are reading, and with previous texts we have read in the past. This is what reception theorist Wolfgang Iser says about the relationship between reading and remembering: ‘Whatever we have read sinks into our memory and is foreshortened. It may later be evoked again and set against a different background with the result that the reader is enabled to develop hitherto unforeseeable connections. The memory evoked, however, can never reassume its original shape, for this would mean that memory and perception were identical, which is manifestly not so. The new background brings to light new aspects of what we had committed to memory; conversely these, in turn, shed their light on the new background, thus arousing more complex anticipations. Thus, the reader, in establishing these interrelations between past, present and future, actually causes the text to reveal its potential multiplicity of connections’ (‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’).

If reading stories depends on establishing connections, and hence on remembering what has already happened, memory itself is made up of stories: your memory is a patchwork of remembered stories. As Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French suggest, ‘the moments that altered your life you remember at length and in detail; your memory tells you your story, and it is a great natural storyteller’ (Writing Fiction).

The symbiotic relationship of remembering with storytelling comes into focus when it malfunctions. In her wonderful memoir about her mother’s Alzheimer’s, Remind Me Who I Am, Again?, Linda Grant says that ‘Memory, I have come to understand, is everything, it’s life itself.’ Without it, narrative and even a sense of self disintegrate. In Micaela Maftei’s words: ‘When the ability to self-narrate is … stripped away, there is no longer any way to reliably construct a version of reality; unsurprisingly, this has catastrophic effects not only on the diagnosed individual, but also on those close to them’ (The Fiction of Autobiography). 

This is because our very sense of selfhood depends on narrative, on the stories we remember and tell to others. As neurologist Oliver Sacks writes: ‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a “narrative,” and that this narrative is us, our identities .... Each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us ... To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must “recollect” ourselves ... A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self’ (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). 

Disease, loss, and, for that matter, politics can distort, undermine or even wipe out a person’s remembered ‘inner narrative’ and hence sense of self. As novelist Milan Kundera puts it, ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’ (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). 

Stories Remember
In part, then, stories are memory warehouses – storage rooms for remembering. According to Jeanette Winterson, in fact, this is how storytelling and poetry originated: ‘There was a time,’ she writes, ‘when record-keeping wasn’t an act of administration; it was an art form. The earliest poems were there to commemorate, to remember, across generations, whether a victory in battle, or the life of the tribe. The Odyssey, Beowulf are poems, yes, but with a practical function. If you can’t write it down how will you pass it on? You remember. You recite’ (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). In stories, the past is remembered and, indeed, returns, as Grant remarks: ‘So the past goes on re-arranging itself in surprising new ways. It is not over, never finished with. It keeps returning. Always to surprise us’ (Remind Me Who I Am, Again?). 

This means that storytelling, like remembering, is a kind of ‘mental time travel,’ which, in a sense, reanimates and often reshapes the past: ‘It may seem surprising,’ writes James Gleick, ‘that it took psychologists sixty more years to define this phenomenon and give it the name “mental time travel,” but they done that now. A neuroscientist in Canada, Endel Tulving, coined the term for what he called “episodic memory” in the 1970s and 1980s. “Remembering, for the rememberer, is mental time travel,” he wrote, “ a sort of reliving of something that happened in the past”’ (Time Travel: A History). 

One book which famously lives up to the idea of storytelling as a store-house or repository for memories – and which enacts ‘mental time travel’ in its very structure – is Joe Brainard’s strange memoir I Remember. The memoir is a list of fragmentary memories, all preceded with the phrase ‘I remember …’ – memories of childhood, school days, sexual experiences, food, drink, celebrities, relationships, brands, adverts, commonplace sayings, hundreds of fragments and details: ‘I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie … I remember how good a glass of water can taste after a dish of ice cream … I remember one of the first things I remember. An icebox. (As opposed to a refrigerator) … I remember white margarine in a plastic bag. And a little package of orange powder. You put the orange powder in the bag with the margarine and you squeezed it all around until the margarine became yellow.’

Remembering Everything
Brainard’s I Remember could be seen as an attempt to exhaust the past – to list everything, write down every single memory, however trivial; and, although that impression is only an illusion (it was, after all, very heavily edited), it’s certainly a challenge to the way we hierarchize some memories (and, indeed, histories) over others. Perhaps remembering margarine and glasses of water after ice cream are just as important to an individual as world-changing political events, or (closer to home) apparently life-changing decisions. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we remember trivia, idiosyncratic details, pop culture, TV adverts, brands, at least as much as we remember apparent trauma. Who’s to say what’s really important?

Jorge Luis Borges’s remarkable short story, ‘Funes, His Memory,’ is all about someone who remembers everything – every single tiny detail in his life – and hence can’t separate or hierarchize or even classify things. His memory becomes a ‘garbage heap’ (as he calls it), and his story a garbled tragedy: ‘His perception and memory were perfect … He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once … Nor were those memories simple – every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; … each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day … Funes … was … incapable of general, platonic ideas. Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the “dog” of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen, seen frontally … In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars’ (‘Funes, His Memory’). For the philosopher Jacques Derrida, such limitless memory is a terrible impossibility: ‘Memory is finite by nature … A limitless memory would … be not memory but infinite self-presence’ (Dissemination). 

Joe Brainard, Pansies

The Importance of Forgetting
‘Infinite self-presence’ does not make an effective (life-)story – and it’s clear, from Borges’s description of Ireneo Funes, that his life is all disconnected images, moments, details, which he finds impossible to link up into a narrative. This is because narrative also depends on omission as well as inclusion – if you try and include everything, storytelling becomes impossible. In other words, storytelling depends on both remembering and forgetting: without the former, there can be no connection between then and now; without the latter, experience is ‘infinite self-presence,’ chaos, a garbage heap. Linda Grant writes that ‘Because we do not remember everything that has ever happened to us, because we must filter and select and edit the experiences and information that enter our senses every day and transform it into a meaningful narrative, our lives are essentially stories’ (Remind Me Who I Am, Again?). Similarly, the author Romesh Gunesekera says that: ‘In the sense that writing is to retrieve the past and stop the passing of time, all writing is about loss. It’s not nostalgia, in the sense of yearning to bring back the past, but recognition of the erosion of things as you live.’ 

Writing depends on memory and loss, presence and erosion, remembering and forgetting. As Derrida puts it, ‘if one has resorted to … writing … it is … because living memory is finite, it already has holes in it before writing every comes to leave its traces … The opposition between mneme and hypomnesis would thus preside over the meaning of writing.’ According to Derrida, this is the ‘doubling’ effect of writing: it depends both on absence and presence, memory and substitute memory, remembering and the ‘holes’ of forgetting (Dissemination).

Remembering, Forgetting and Structure
This doubleness of writing, this tension between remembering and forgetting, often informs the very structure of how stories are told. Memoirs, for example, entirely depend on the selection of material – on decisions about which memories and events to include, which to leave out (or ‘forget’), what stories to tell, what gaps should be left between episodes. As Derek Neale and Sara Haslam suggest, ‘a memoir ... can ... be structured in a fragmentary, snapshot fashion .... The silence between episodes is intriguing ... – who could, or would want to, write everything down?’ (Life Writing). Presumably, only Borges's Funes could or would want to. 

Likewise, novelist and memoirist Jeanette Winterson claims that: ‘For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world … When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening … Perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold. When we write we offer the silence as much as the story’ (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). Even Brainard’s I Remember, which seems so exhaustive in its list-like narrative style, depends for its aesthetic effect on both what is said and the gaps (the white spaces on the page) between memories and moments. 

Short stories, too, depend as much on omission as on inclusion: by definition, a short story can only handle a small amount of material, so vast (infinite?) swathes of back story and future story have to be left out. Virginia Woolf (to give one example among many) often plays with this aspect of short fiction. In her famous story ‘The Mark on the Wall,’ even the narrator is torn between remembering and forgetting, struggling to tell a coherent story because of her fallible memory: ‘In order to fix a date, it is necessary to remember what one saw … I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing’ (‘The Mark on the Wall’). 

Storytelling here is in danger of being torn apart by the conflicting gravitational pulls of forgetting and desperately trying to remember. It’s always an unstable relationship, a volatile compound, that authors experiment with, in a thousand different ways. It can be destructive, explosive. It can pull stories into weird, fascinating, unexpected shapes. 

It can even be a story in itself – as it is in Linda Grant’s memoir, which moves between the daughter’s urge to remember and recover the past, and the mother’s forgetting illness. In miniature form, it’s also the story encapsulated in John Clare’s famous late poem, ‘I Am.’ The poem moves tragically from recalling lost friends (who have themselves forgotten the narrator) towards a realm of total forgetfulness, oblivion, at the end: 

I Am
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
Into the living sea of waking dreams,

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

 - John Clare

Works Cited
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953)
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes, His Memory’ (1942)
Joe Brainard, I Remember (1975)
Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (2006)
John Clare, ‘I Am’ (1848)
Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (1969)
James Gleick, Time Travel: A History (2016)
Linda Grant, Remind Me Who I Am Again? (1998)
Romesh Gunesekera, ‘Lost Horizons’  (2007)
Wolfgang Iser, ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’ (New Literary History, 1972)
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978)
Micaela Maftei, The Fiction of Autobiography (2013)
Derek Neale and Sara Haslam, Life Writing (2009)
Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985)
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2012)
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (1917)

Jonathan Taylor is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is here

No comments:

Post a Comment