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Tallis in Wonderland

Remembering Memory

Raymond Tallis examines a miracle of mentality.

In Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1878), Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of marriage as ‘a long conversation’. That is remarkably perceptive for a man who was a lifelong bachelor. While the conjugal conversation may often be tethered to practicalities, worries over this, that, or the other, views on world affairs large and small, or impressions of the people at the next table in a restaurant, or of a country visited for the first time, one of the most profound joys is that of sharing memories. Behind that seemingly ordinary pleasure is something extraordinary, and we take it too much for granted. If philosophy is untaking the taken-for-granted, this everyday miracle is a suitable theme for philosophical reflection.

“Do you remember when we…?” one of us will say, prompted by random thoughts emerging from one of the many rivulets of our endless streams of waking consciousness. The other will reply “Yes…” – and this is the miracle – proceed to unpack the occasion referred to. As a result, our younger son (now nearing forty) will once again exit the holiday cottage we were staying at when he was five, declaring that the hair he has been combing is ‘total puke’; or we will again sit side by side in a civic hall circa 1976 while the mayor of a town that shall remain unnamed betrays his drunken confusion by reading out his grateful thanks to a speaker for a ‘wonderful’ speech that has not yet been given. Alternatively, our gazes will converge on fragments of light, such as a couple of asterisks re-lit in our memory: one emitted by a glass in a Prague café lit by a May evening; the other a fragment of sunset reflected from a window in the mountain village of Platonos on the island of Samos.

I say our ‘gazes’, but what strange gazes they are. They’re directed by words to a place, distant in space and time, that by means of those words ceases to be distant and is gathered up into a shared here and now. Courtesy of the abstract pointers of language, something that we both witnessed is transformed into an intentional (conscious) object on which our attention can converge as its very specific target. By this means we harvest something we witnessed together long ago and far away, and it becomes the seed for the continuation of our conversation: “Yes, I do remember, and do you remember…?” The recovered moment, the event, the setting, is unpacked like the wares displayed in a pop-up stall. Starting from the asterisk of light, we remember the balcony of the apartment where we sat facing the mountains, our drinks on the table, the owner giving the flowers their evening drink, the agitation of the crickets in a nearby tree sounding like coins being jingled in its foliage, the seagoing fishing boats, the olive groves between us and the mountains… and that’s just for starters.

The Magic of Time & Words

Part of the shared miracle of reminiscence, is the medium through which our shared gaze passes. I spoke of ‘space and time’ because that asterisk of light twinkled in a definite spatio-temporal location at a definite distance (several years and hundreds of miles away) from the place where we are presently doing our reminiscing. It is translocated, however, into a mode of space and time unknown to physicists. The space is gathered up into a cage woven out of sentences. And the time is tensed time (such as ‘now’, or ‘then’). The remembered event is explicitly located in a past moment by an explicit present. This is significant because it shows that the gap between the ‘now’ of our remembering and the ‘then’ of the remembered is nothing like the gap between t1 and t2 of material events in a material world. As I have mentioned before in this column (for example, ‘Time, Tense, and Physics’, Philosophy Now 81, 2010), tensed time has no place in the world as portrayed in physical science. Indeed, the philosopher Rudolf Carnap remembers Einstein mourning the elusiveness of tensed time: “Once Einstein said that the problem of Now worried him. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this difference does not and cannot occur within physics… There is something essential about the Now which lies just outside the realm of science” (The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, ed. by P.A. Schilpp, 1963). But without ‘now’ there is no ‘then’ – no past revealed as something real and yet no longer existing, like that remembered asterisk of light passing from a distant mountain village to the retinas of two people having a drink on the balcony of an apartment.

As we remind each other of an experience that we have shared so that we can share it again, it is easy to overlook the remarkable properties – I don’t hesitate to call it ‘the magic’ – of the language by which we direct each other’s attention to a singular event in a joint past.

Language works in part because its terms are general – ‘cat’ signifies any number of cats, by referring to a fuzzy-bordered class of feline beings – and because the same terms have a roughly similar meaning to speakers of the same language. And yet, when you say, “Do you remember that asterisk of light?”, or “That time when…?”, my directed gaze will alight on something unique, a singular something. This happens because your question comes dressed in a context that will guide me to a specific landing zone. The Venn overlap of our life together provides that context. What I know about what you know, and hence are likely to remember, about us, will provide an extraordinarily precise frame of reference guiding a descent from generality to singularity. This pressure to alight on a singular instance is carried in part by your employing the demonstrative adjective ‘that’ in “Do you remember that asterisk?”. It presupposes that there is only one candidate to qualify as the referent of your phrase.

In fact, to say that success in directing another’s attention to its invisible target is a ‘miracle’ is a massive understatement. After all, as you and I endeavour to attach each other’s gazes to particular remote events, we require of each other that we look past, or through, many millions – nay billions, nay trillions – of experiences, events, thoughts, memories, that intervene between the now of reminiscence and the then of what is remembered.

To unpack this a little in my own case, in the interval between hearing the little boy complaining that his hair is ‘total puke’ and turning that into an anecdote (still enclosed in the sense data associated with his emergence from the holiday cottage), I have encountered thousands of patients in my job as a doctor. Each encounter was associated with the processing of information, with actions, and with worries. And I have conceived and completed many books and articles, woven out of thousands of sentences slaved over innumerable times. And there have been countless experiences in the interstices of definite doings and definite events: the pressure from a chair as I think about something, the sound of traffic or of blackbirds outside a window, the smell of cooking, a crease in a beermat supporting a coffee, the radio reporting yet more bad news… As if this were not enough, there is the endless silent chatter of thought, variously attached to and detached from outward visible realities, unfolding over minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years. And so, at each other’s command, we shine a verbal torch through the ceaseless downpour of intervening experiences in order to inspect events that are fathoms deep in a past we are pleased to share again as an affirmation of our togetherness.

This brings us close to that aspect of the mystery of memory which is most profoundly associated with the mystery of ourselves as creatures explicitly connected with our own, and consequently each other’s, past. True memory, as the American psychologist Stan Klein has pointed out, is not merely a “state, or process, that results from the sequential states of encoding, storage, and retrieval.” Rather, “it entails a direct, non-inferential feeling of reacquaintance with one’s past.” (‘What Memory Is’, WIRE’s Cogn Sci, 2014). At memory’s heart, Klein reminds us, is a feeling of immediate ownership of our mental states.

Greek Village
Greek Village Paul Gregory 1977

The Light That Lingers

In prompting each other to remember things we witnessed together, we seek to reacquaint ourselves with a shared past, and hence to cherish and celebrate it – which brings us to one of the most extraordinary aspects of shared reminiscence: the ‘we’ in “Do you remember when we….?” When you and I remember something we both experienced, we are telling each other that the past is not gone. Co-curating what would otherwise be done and dusted reassures that it is not entirely lost, swept into nothingness by the rush of time remorselessly pushing the not-yet into the no-longer. The gone that is not forgotten is not entirely gone.

More importantly, in being made present as a shared memory, it is not only events but we ourselves that are rescued from the past. In affirming what we each remember, we affirm each other. Reminiscence is existential affirmation. Hence the value we place on recalling things – a drunken mayor, an asterisk of light – that would otherwise be dismissed as trivial, unworthy of our attention.

Sometimes we must rack our brains to remember what we are invited to recall. Voluntary recall is a curious activity: we adopt a holding position, feeling ourselves to be in the vicinity of the things we are trying, at another’s behest, to resurrect, readying ourselves to pounce when the cognitive prey stirs in the thicket of forgetfulness. Those of us who are getting on in years are especially aware of the shyness of proper names: they shrink from the inner stare, as signalled in our rumpled forehead muscles. In The System of Logic (1843), John Stuart Mill pointed out that if proper names are hard to remember, it is because they are slippery fish, having denotation without connotation. They are signs without much meaning. This is not entirely reassuring. We worry that forgetting proper names may be the first step towards the abyss of oblivion. There is a particular cruelty in dementia when the long conversation that is marriage is ended by the mental disintegration of one of the parties. There comes the moment when one of us says “Do you remember when…?” and the other doesn’t; when we cease to remember what others would wish to rehearse with us.

And so it is important to celebrate the mystery of memory – and the greater mystery of shared memory – before it is too late, and to enact the strangest of all mnestic feats – that of remembering memory itself.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2023

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality, is out now.

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