by Aidan Chivers
After the dizzying blur of my first Oxford term, it was a strange feeling to find myself back, walking our dog, retracing the same route which had become a familiar after-school routine throughout my school days.
After eighteen years in the same place, no tree, lamp-post or speck of moss on the ground is free from an associated memory. As I walk along with Alfie on the lead, every tiny feature of the streets is charged with its own associated recollection. The air is heavy with innumerable glimmers of tender nostalgia.
Yet, as I look around, these are not the same streets I left eight weeks before. Or, rather, my own emotional response is subtly different. The mesh of memories which brush against me on every step of that walk haven’t gone – but they’ve changed shape, or changed colour, softened and sentimentalised by their familiarity on worn, well-trodden emotional paths.
This is a helpful, natural process which helps us adapt to new environments. A highly developed evolutionary tool. The past fades as it gradually becomes less directly pertinent to our daily lives.
But there is a certain melancholy in the mind’s focus on ever newer experiences, and the inevitable loss of certain details from the past along the way. In some sense, the positive or negative experiences of these formative years never leave us: they shape the person we grow up to be. But it can also sad to think of all the laughter and love of our very earliest years of life which we will never be able to recall.
The loss of more recent memories can also have its undesirable consequences. It can be a trivial irritation, as I discovered amongst the range of new names and faces in Freshers’ Week. It can be alarming, as anyone who has overindulged at Park End can testify. It can also be upsetting, if we thoughtlessly forget the things which matter to others most.
Individual ability to remember varies from person to person. But the infuriation of forgetting is something which is common to all. It’s a phenomenon visualised imaginatively in Pete Docter’s film Inside Out, with memories falling and fading irrevocably into the depth of an abyss.
Memory is important for more than just Freshers’ Week or upcoming Mods. We need it to provide context for the present, to serve as a point of reference by which we can make sense of what happens around us.
It was Socrates who told us that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Without an active awareness of what has come before, we can have no hope of comprehending the bewildering complexities of life as we experience it.
Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot explores the ethical consequences of a lack of memory. His characters suffer from a perpetual inability to recall even recent events, and as a result are unable to form lasting moral judgements. They find themselves in a desolate, disorientating world, without past or future, sadness or happiness, love or hatred.
Past experiences not only contextualise the present, they give us a vital angle from which to interpret and understand it. And this is true on a larger scale as much as on a personal level.
It’s why Russian soldiers’ graffiti has been left on the inside of the Reichstag, so German politicians can stay ever-conscious of their country’s past. It was also one of the main reasons offered for leaving the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the High Street.
A faulty memory can be scary. Studies have shown the gradual decline in the Western world’s ability to remember. Back in Ancient Greece, it was not unusual to have learnt thousands of lines of the Homeric epics off by heart. Now, I still struggle to remember the nine numbers on my Bod card required to buy a bottle of wine at formal.
Caesar noticed this phenomenon over two millennia ago. He blamed it on the written form of language, which, he argued, takes the strain off memory.
As he put it, ‘in our dependence on writing, we relax our diligence in learning thoroughly and our ability to remember’. Perhaps the wealth of information instantly available on our mobile phones is the most recent stage of this age-old disintegration of mankind’s mental faculties.
Since Victorian times, our education system has become gradually less interested in memorisation of facts, figures and dates. I value the focus on intellectual skills and learning as much as anyone. But maybe we are losing some important part of education by the shift of emphasis away from the core mental process which can develop our neural pathways, give us a framework for thinking, and can also be highly rewarding.
Memory isn’t just useful for remembering new names, recalling quotes or compiling bibliographies. We need it to interpret our human experiences and understand who we are.
Memories can be useful, comforting, powerful. But they are also our only tool for avoiding the fate of the characters in Waiting for Godot, and for making some rational sense of the world around us.