Thursday, January 14, 2010

On Memory

The New York Times ran a story a few weeks ago (Christmas Day, to be exact) about Eleanor, a town in West Virginia begun during the Depression as a New Deal resettlement community:,%20West%20Virgina&st=cse

The story of the town is told largely through the eyes of a girl, Marlene Crockett Carr--now an old woman--who moved there in 1935 at age 4.

The article's author, Dan Beery, describes the town as follows: "Over the years, these New Deal towns have been praised as a sound response to paralyzing poverty and criticized as flawed, communism-tinted social experiments. But in this hard time, as half-built subdivisions stand as ghostly testaments to economic failure, a place like Eleanor reflects a government action that worked, and works."

He writes that "Ms. Carr says she fears that Eleanor’s history is being pushed aside, that someday people will not know why the main street is called Roosevelt Boulevard, or even why the town is called Eleanor."

The story brought up the memory of how much all four of my grandparents, all immigrants, revered Franklin Roosevelt. To quote Woody Allen, they not only loved him, they lurved him. One set of grandparents--I don't know which--even had a framed portrait of him, a photograph tinted with rosy cheeks and enhanced blue eyes.

My grandparents had all died by 1980, so I don't know if they would have joined the Reagan Revolution. I remember them, in the 70s, scratching their heads over some of the reforms that seemed more handout than hand up. However, I find myself pondering the way in which the New Deal is often dismissed these days, when the memories handed down to me tell a completely different story.

In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, the heroine Fanny Price, who unites a quiet facade with a sensitive, emotionally intense nature, says the following::"If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out." Chap. 22 or Vol 2, ch 4

Mansfield Park is, on one level, a book about memory. During the course of the novel, characters remember events differently than how they occurred and we see Fanny fighing to retain memories she knows to be true in face of people, including ultimately herself, who have a vested interest in restructuring them according to a script. Fanny, significantly, owns a reproduction of one of Turner's sketches of Tintern Abbey, a ruin memorialized in a poem by Wordsworth--a poem about memory.

The Bible is about capturing the memory of "normal" events, but more so of events so elusive, so unusual, so fragile that it would be easy to dismiss them as fairy stories--or to forget them. It records the world of dreams and of God breaking through the permeable barriers of space and time into physical reality. People found it important to preserve and pass on these memories so that the powers and principalities of the world couldn't say they never happened. Or that if the powers did deny them--which they did and still do--there's an institutional memory with which to challenges the systems that pressure us to accept "reality" and nothing more.

The former publisher of International Design magazine, a publication with a long history, recently wrote about how the entrepreneurs who bought the pub a few years ago had no interest in the organization's institutional memory, firing people willy-nilly, which meant losing much of the publication's value. There's something wrong in imposing amnesia on an organization, just as it would be wrong to wipe individuals' memories to reprogram with a blank slate. In the end, the magazine itself folded--or was folded.

Something soul shrivelling--and false-- exists in presenting "now" as the only truth. George Orwell gets to heart of this in 1984.

Thus we record our thoughts because it is important to preserve --to freeze--memories that are valuable and elusive. If they are, as Fanny Price says, weak, bewildering and beyond our control, they are for that reason the stuff of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I started this, not knowing where I was going with it (the beauty of blogging!), so I'll end with a question:

Are there elusive memories you would like to preserve? What ARE the memories that are important?


Hystery said...

I suppose, as historian the preservation of memory is a good part of my calling as a person. I'm also the older daughter of the only daughter of an only daughter of a female immigrant in a gynocentric family so I inherit the concern for keeping the family stories. I see that my own daughter has picked up that this is also her responsibility.

As for recorded religious memories, I am distrustful of them as documents with agendas. On the other hand, I am distrustful of tossing them aside. Memory is far more often a snapshot of emotion rather than a factual recording of an event and there is sometimes more truth in emotion than in the event itself.

Diane said...

Someone said, in regards to fiction writing, that "The truest novel is truer than if it had really happened." What they meant was exactly that -- emotional truth is more powerful than the facts.

Roger Reynolds said...

One more twist: Memory is, in some respects, a social construct. For example, there is a certain tribe in the Amazon that only gives credence to events that someone has directly observed or who was told about something by someone who observed it. In effect, if you didn't see it, or if someone you know didn't see it, it never happened.

See the book Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

When the last person who remembers the beginning of Eleanor dies,