ON MEMORY

by Patrick McGrath

I remember reading that Borges would tell a story about his father, who had grown up in Buenos Aires but hadn’t lived there for many years. Borges said that his father once told him that when he remembered the city, he couldn’t be sure anymore whether he was actually remembering Buenos Aires, or just remembering the last time he’d remembered it.

This we recognize as one of the many ways in which memory deceives us. So plausibly does the mind offer a scene from some drama in which we participated, or the echo of an emotion or, as here, an impression of a city, that we believe we have access, direct and unmediated, to a reality from which we are separated only by time.

But look more closely at this story. Not only does Borges’ father recognize the unreliability of his own memory, Borges presents the story as something Borges remembers, which further destabilizes it, for if the father’s memory is not altogether trustworthy then why would we believe the son? (Notice, too, that I am reporting what I remember. It is entirely possible that I have distorted what I read long ago about Borges’ memory of his father’s memories of Buenos Aires.)

Our records of experience are disturbed by time, but there are other, perhaps more sinister forms of mnemonic bias and skew. These arise as a function of the ego in all its vanity and grandiosity and folly. Each of us is the protagonist in the drama of his own existence, hero or victim or some mixture of the two; and in order to live comfortably with ourselves we must ensure that our performance, as we remember it, is if not exemplary at least adequate. This requires that we modify or enhance memories that cast an unfavorable light on our motives and actions, or that otherwise cause pain.

At times this involves the repression of memory. An extreme example: those who have suffered psychological trauma will bury the experience so deep that it is no longer accessible to consciousness. But it has not disappeared. Instead, the traumatic memory at times surges up into the mind in the form of flashback or nightmare, to destructive effect, and will continue to do so until it can be recovered in psychotherapy and assimilated into conscious memory, and so becomes a part of one’s past, a part of one’s self.

I remember once writing a novel about a man whose memory was so badly disordered that he believed his father had murdered his mother. He had to believe it, for if he permitted himself to acknowledge the truth of what occurred in his unhappy childhood, he would be forced to confront the fact that it wasn’t his father who killed his mother, it was himself! As over the course of the novel this character-—Spider is his name--steadily backs himself into a corner from which he can no longer escape the truth, it becomes evident that when at last he does understand his responsibility for his mother’s death, not only does the false memory collapse but so does the man himself.

The implications are clear, to me at least: memory constitutes not only one’s past, it constitutes identity itself; and breakdown in the one will necessarily create breakdown in the other. The upshot being that in order to sustain an idea of who one is, and to live with that idea of oneself, it is necessary to labor constantly on the recall of lived experience, adapting, denying, forgetting and inventing material so that the unvarnished truth of the thing does not create some violent dissonance between what one actually is and what one likes to believe one is.

This activity goes on all the time, in bathroom and bedroom, privately and intimately, and it also goes forward communally. Much of everyday conversation is little more than the social editing of experience, as we tell our stories to friends, workmates, lovers, spouses. It is revision, it is creative reframing--it is on occasion outright falsehood, in the scale of distortion and censorship it entails; but as long as we sustain a reasonable level of plausibility then all, more or less, is well. At times we are unaware that we are doing it. If we do become aware, and continue in the deliberate falsification of experience, bad faith and a sense of inauthenticity begin to engulf us. The work of self-presentation then grows onerous and mournful, and joy leaches from everyday life, leaving in its wake ill-feeling, hostility and guilt.

T.S. Eliot writes in Burnt Norton that “human kind/cannot bear very much reality.” Destroy my illusions and you destroy me. In this analysis memory assumes the character of a weapon which, if handled with caution, provides the security of defense against alien intrusion, but can be lethal when turned against oneself.

The only solution may be to aspire to the condition of Borges’ father, who apparently-—conceivably--regarded the products of his own memory with an affectionate skepticism, as you would the boastful chatter of a child, or the clumsy delusions of a madman.

New York, April 2008.