Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Unshared memories

One reason I can't fully explain myself to other people is that so much of my identity is made up of memories - lush, detailed, intense memories that others can never have access to. I can only summarise those memories in a few brief sentences that fail to pass on their complexity.

It's a whole inner landscape or inner country that I'm familiar with, that I've wandered through hundreds of times, that's as vivid to me as the outside reality I'm seeing right now. Yet nobody else has set foot in it.

If I think of my boarding school, for example, a whole swathe of memories spreads across my mind, a whole panorama of teenage bullies, uninspired teachers, muddy sports fields and loud rock music. There's no way I can convey the full flavour of those memories to anyone else. However well chosen the words, they can only suggest a tiny fragment of what my inner eye is seeing.

It's like trying to conjure up Venice to someone who's never been there. I can describe it, I can show you a few pictures, but I can't give you the full three-dimensional reality of being there and discovering it for yourself.

It doesn't matter if the memories are true or false, accurate or distorted. The point is that they inhabit my mind but they don't inhabit yours. They fill out and embellish my past to give it a completeness that nobody else can know.

I can remember a particular girlfriend, say, and exactly how she spoke and moved and ate and laughed and undressed. However detailed my account of her, you will never see her as clearly as I can see her in my memories. You will never be able to imagine the living, breathing, animated person that I can instantly visualise.

If only I could transfer those memories, how much more you would know about me and my inner experience. If only you could download them from my brain and play them back through your own senses, in all their astonishing intricacy.

But no, they're mine and mine alone, circulating my mind like guests at a party, furnishing me with endless private scenarios I can't communicate. A whole chunk of my identity as inaccessible as the Milky Way.


  1. an interesting post
    I have great chunks of my life that I have very little recollections of at all..... no there is no reason for this ( no illegal drugs or booze)
    I just cant remember much
    (perhaps I am more boring than I thought)

  2. John: Perhaps you're just so busy with your numerous household duties you have no time to dredge up old memories? Actually, there are big parts of my life I have no recollection of either....

  3. We could experience the exact same moment in time, but have completely different recollections. That's what makes us all unique.

  4. Bijoux: Indeed we could. I often find my mum's memory of an occasion is entirely different from my own. Goodness knows whose memory is the most accurate.

  5. That's what makes us all so unique, Nick. Our memory banks or in some cases none. My exhusband blocked out all memories of before his twelfth year. I knew why but did not push the issue.

    All perspectives are different.
    I can remember romantic nights but doubt that the other parties would put the same nostalgic overlay I would on them.

    We are made of memories and create new ones as we go...

    The same with one of my favourites, my mother doing her fabulous embroidery on the beach. My mother would not remember me there, pretending to build a sandcastle but listening to her sing.


  6. And by the same token you can't know mine. We all have lush, rich memory lives if we choose to access them. In some ways, I think it's a blessing that they are ours, and ours alone.

  7. www: Yes, I can remember a few romantic nights that might not be remembered the same way by others! We all have our own rich personal memory-store that others can barely glimpse.

    Agent: Not sure about that, I think it would increase the pleasure if others could share those memories to the same extent.

  8. I sometimes wonder if my five siblings and I sat down to write the story of our lives growing up in the same family, would any of us recognise or agree with the others interpretation?

    I suppose it is part of being human to live an external life while wishing, hoping and dreaming our way through something completely different.

    Savor the memories, they are your own to treasure.

  9. I'm envious of you having such detailed memories. My life seems to rush from day to day. I DO actually have vivid memories if I sit down and think about them, but I rarely do. And then, they are often fairly static, and don't usually involve people. Strange, isn't it. I wonder what we would feel if we could see inside others' heads!

  10. That's why some people write fiction--to share their inner experiences and memories and visions of the world. It's a lot of work!

  11. Grannymar: My memories don't necessarily involve wishing, hoping and dreaming. They're just very rich and detailed memories that it's impossible to share fully with others.

    Jenny: Funny, I just assumed others have memories as complex as my own. But maybe not! My memories must be deeply embedded somehow.

  12. Jean: That's true, that sort of memory-store must be very handy if you're writing fiction. And perhaps that underlying ability to imagine scenes so vividly might be useful too.

  13. I'm happy to rely on the filter of your stories - as long as they're long winding stories.
    And I know just the place to hear them - that bar under Smithfield Market (London) that opens at 0600 and serves big breakfasts and lovely pints.

  14. Paul: Oh no, I'm too precise to go in for long winding stories. Especially in bars reeking of fry-ups and stale alcohol.

  15. “The man I am greets mournfully, the man I might have been.” – Hebbel

    Nick, this is a sure indication of your realising that you are now a respectable senior citizen.

    ".....the opportunities to act properly, the potentialities to fulfill a meaning, are affected by the irreversibility of our lives. But also the potentialities alone are so affected. For as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have rescued it into the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble field of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.

    From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past - the potentialities that they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized - and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past."

    Viktor E Frankl - Man's Search for Meaning.

  16. Ramana: I may be vaguely respectable (in public at any rate), and I may be a citizen, but I don't regard myself as senior to anybody. The term "senior citizen" is a bit of pompous nonsense.

    Viktor Frankl, like a lot of these male gurus, was always a bit of a windbag. All he seems to be saying, at enormous length, is that oldies have done a lot more things than the young. Well, er, yes, so they have.

  17. Nick, who'd have thought it, and believe me I only kiss people who deserve no less: I could kiss you. This is with no disrespect to either Ramana or Jean who like their Frankl but for someone (that's you) to have the courage to call Frankl a 'windbag' who is stating the obvious 'at enormous length' has restored my faith in reason (and you).

    Feeling so good,

  18. Ursula: Oh please kiss me, I love kissing people (and that includes guys!). Glad you share my opinion about that rather laborious passage. Talking of male gurus, personally I think Fritz Perls was rather more down to earth.

  19. I have a memory like a sieve. What I remember is completely random.

    Unless it involves smells. Smells are anchored in my brain.

  20. Roses: I have a terrible memory for factual details but my visual memory for people and places is much better. Which is why I remember such complex visual scenarios from the past.

  21. And inaccessible is the way they should be.

    Beautiful writing there, nick.

    And I'm going to Venice in February!

  22. Liz: Ah, La Serenissima! Adoro Venezia, io. Una città magnifica. Ma l'acqua alta é una grande problema al momento.