“Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” — Leonard Shelby, “Memento”
There is nothing outside the text! Thus rings the cry of deconstructionists everywhere. What it means is this: there is nothing outside of context, there is nothing outside of its place, however tangentially connected it might be; there is nothing outside of memory. If you’ve ever seen the movie Memento, you have encountered the questionability of memory, and despite Leonard’s best efforts to concretise his memories into “facts,” everything remains an interpretation: there is no brute foundation or secure grounding. He lives in and among the texts he has written and interpreted. We do the same.
A cynical or pessimistic response to this would be to decry the reliability of memory, the truth of memories and the political nature of every remembrance or remembering. But this overlooks the great gift that memory is. It is through memory that there is a world at all. Imagine if we only ever had the now: who would we even be? With the loss of memory comes the loss of identity, the loss of time, and this is a devastating thing to watch, which many of us have had to do with older parents or grandparents or loved ones who are succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. It is through its absent that we begin to truly appreciate the constant gift memory is.
It is an unobtrusive gift, not often coming to the fore as important or special, but it quietly informs all our actions. In different ways, different types of memory (intellectual, biographical, muscle, etc.) enable us to live in our worlds. That I know who I know, how to type, how to sit comfortably in a chair, and mindlessly reach and grab a cup of coffee is a gift of memory of all different types. Memory allows me to interpret other people’s actions — as loving, as hostile, as kind, as suspicious. Memory creates a deep world for us, which is one of the ways that human beings are separated from the rest of the animal kingdom: memory creates a world out of an environment. What could be more unobtrusive than the world that passing all around us?
In my previous post, I explored the gift of time, which is truly evidenced in memory. Memory opens time, and time permits memory to take shape. The world itself inhabits time through its own memory. This is not to sound Gaia-istic, but a true reflection of the fact that the world of natural, historical and cultural objects suffer the effects of time and hold the memory of its passage in their cracks, in their fading colors, and in their perpetual beauty. It is into this world already underway that we born and live. We contribute to its ongoing history, which will become memories for our posterity. Which poses the question: are we creating good and beautiful memories for those who come after us?
There is nothing outside of memory, for to fall out of memory is to fall out of being. There might be repression or a blurring of forgetfulness, but that blurring is only possible because whatever it is, it is still held in memory. As much as Leonard or radical materialists would like to claim, we do not have brute facts that can check our interpretative nature — we need our memories to guide our reflections and our futures. We have this gift, the ability to stand alongside the flow of time and recollect. May we remember and strive to leave good memories this Advent and Christmas time.