It’s a poor kind of memory that only remembers those things that happened, and not those that never took place.

I possess a cherished childhood memory which persists to this very day. It is the middle of a sunny summer day. I am running down the stairs, quickly and excitedly, with my neighbours following me. We all want to see the Sun. It just fell down in the front yard. I saw it coming down like an overripe cantaloupe, staining the sky with sticky, succulent golden juices. There it is, lying on the ground, a giant orange, trampling the grass it landed on, squirting its warm essence all over our bodies. The neighbourhood dogs are running around, barking at this strange visitor. I approach it warily. I touch it. It is warm and beautiful, glistening in the mid-noon light. I remember well the feelings of amazement, incredulity, inexplicable joy overwhelming me and the comical expressions of confusion on the faces of my neighbours.

This memory is so vivid and life-like that, despite its patent impossibility, I still refuse to accept that this event could never have taken place.

Memory works in bewildering ways.

An invisible, unseen Judge takes control of our sensory input and, like a master sculptor who breathes life into rough, mute stone, the Judge works the raw data into a work of art. Scenes that at the time seemed insignificant and totally unworthy of our attention emerge like the ugly duckling, full of stature, grandeur and beauty.  Our mundane, trivial, everyday experiences turn into possessions that are treasured forever.

Just as Nature abhors vacuum, so the Judge detests meaninglessness and arbitrariness. So thoroughly does he imbue the events of the time past with meaning that we often look back and sigh, “Oh yes, it all makes sense now!”

The Judge is at once a great dramatist and a master propagandist. He knows that to make the greatest impact and to have the greatest emotional and mental effect, the unfolding of the events needs to follow some logical pattern, with preferably a climax at some stage of the proceedings.

And so when we remember, we remember not in the temporal order but rather in the order that has the greatest dramatic force.

Our recollections are stripped of all unnecessary details, of all that would not contribute to the melodramatic content. Just the vital core, the heart of the experience remains.

Propaganda works by reducing the issue to its lowest common denominator, and by incessant iteration of a simple and direct message. Have not we all been affected by a memory that keeps flashing in our minds non-stop, again and again, enraging us, turning us into beings of hate.

We also should not forget that the Judge is a superb fabulist. However, his fabrications are not just some fanciful, unbelievable scenarios; rather he counterfeits reality, producing specimens that are indistinguishable from the genuine article and intermixing his sham  creations with veracious recollections. How well he knows the structure of reality to be able to produce samples that have all the hallmarks of real life, so that at times we are unable to tell whether something really did happen or if it is one of the Judge’s forgeries.  

It must be admitted, though, that the creative skills of the Judge fluctuate wildly. Oftentimes he is a terrible cook, putting too much sugar into the dishes he concocts. Consequently, many of our recollections have a cloying, saccharine taste to them, with the raw experiences of harsh, stark reality transformed into idyllic, fairy tale-like versions of life. Occasionally he is a master chef, for unlike natural foods that spoil, sour and rot over time, some reminiscences acquire, as time passes, more and more delectable and subtle flavours.

Sometimes, due to oversight or perhaps overwork, the master hand of the Judge fails. As a result, we experience disjoined impressions: we recall a face but not the voice; a familiar scent cannot be pinpointed to a time and place; a particular scene remains but its context disappears. Or could it be that this is perhaps the Judge’s idea of fun, reminding us not to take him for granted, teasing and tantalising our minds so that when we finally do retrieve the full memory, we would value it all the more.

But maybe we should not be so critical of the Judge’s work. After all, he repeatedly acts like a doting mother, anaesthetizing our wounds, dulling the sharp edges of the past, effacing the hurt, the embarrassment and the pain. The majority of our recollections are but an expurgated version of the original experience, painted in softer hues and purged of the hurtful aspect. We look back at our previous troubles, snicker with a knowing air and mutter to ourselves, “If only I had problems like that now.”

When we reminisce, we enter a paradoxical state of existence.

At the same instant, we span two disparate dimensions. We dissociate ourselves from the present, the eyes stop registering the surroundings, the brain stops analysing the incoming information. No longer are we harried by our environment or by our concerns. The work of Time is undone. Slowly we travel back to a loved one, to our childhood and become one with our past self. Old men lose their wrinkles, loose flesh becomes taut, muscles regain their long-gone strength. They have imbibed the Elixir of Youth and are now running around with their best friend and hearing their dear mothers calling them home for lunch. They are the centre of attention now, life’s possibilities open to them once more, no longer somebody’s neglected grandfather.

Is it really a sin to live in the past?

The ability to bring dead, vanished past back to life is a priceless, magical gift that every human being possesses. How poorer would our lives be without our memories—the souvenirs of the mind.

the anatomy of reminiscence
About Boris Glikman

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