Memory Revisted

I have claimed that life is all about having fun and making memories. The logic behind this idea is that our time on this earth is limited, and therefore we should make the most of it. When you are 75 years old you might have your wealth, your legacy, or perhaps a loved one to share the remainder of your days with. However, Everyone is left with memories; memories which may or may not have given a certain purpose and/or meaning to the life you have lived. If you have spent a fair amount of time with elderly people, you soon realize that it is their memories that they dwell on most frequently (I realize this is a generalization). Most elderly people that I have had the pleasure of carrying on meaningful conversations with will not hesitate to relate to me every small detail of an event that they viewed as a significant part of their lives. The autobiography, amongst a host of other things, functions as a way to preserve these memories. In essence, an autobiography can ensure that the memories that comprise one’s life do not slip into obscurity and non-existence. For this reason, it is essential to grasp a better understanding on the complexities that surround memory.

In Reading Autobiography, Smith and Watson rightfully assert the simple fact that “remembering involves a re-interpretation of the past in the present… [and that] memories are records of how we have experienced events, not replicas of the events themselves.” As we grow older and play witness to a vast variety of new experiences, our past memories are subject to change and can undergo a “re-evaluation” if you will. A memory of your dad scolding you for engaging in some activity takes on a new significance once you realize that he was actually trying to protect you.  Memories that were once as clear as day can become complicated. For instance, a happy childhood memory that involves a friend or a mentor can become a source of grief and sorrow if that person has died. What was once an ecstatic memory of joy and companionship can be viewed at a later time as a sad reminder of just how temporal life can be. Thus, as we change with the changing world around us, our memories can take on new meanings. Smith and Watson employ language that attempts to conceptualize the idea that memory is subjective, and is susceptible to bias, alternative, and imagined perceptions. In Reading Autobiography they write “A culture’s understanding of memory at a particular moment of its history shapes the life narrator’s process of remembering.” To unpack this seemingly apparent quote, I would like to give the example placed in the historical context of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland during the 1960s-1980s. During this time, Protestants who desired to stay unified with England were in a violent struggle against Catholic Nationalist who wanted a united Ireland. There were many parades celebrating each side’s historical and cultural identity. A memory of one of these parades might connote ancestral pride and honor for one child witnessing the procession; while another child might remember the parade as a celebration of the oppression and violence used against his/her community. Although every autobiography is typically read from the author/subject’s perception; this does not mean that the events described in their autobiography carry the same interpretation for everyone, and  the memories of a certain historical or cultural landmark that marked an important moment in their lives do not carry the same meaning across the board. The Northern Ireland example parallels Smith and Watson’s sections on “The Politics of remembering” and “Collective Remembering.” I wanted to talk in more detail about the different nuances of the different conjectures that they make in the section on memory, but I do not want to turn this brief essay into a drawn out mess, so fare thee well.

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