In my early 20s, I slept on the couch in a house full of university students. My childhood friend Peter shared the place with some of his uni pals, who were kind enough to let me stay while finding a new flat. The location wasn’t ideal, because it was far from the studio where I worked, but these lads really helped me out of a tight spot. I enjoyed their company and was grateful for their help until I found a place to live nearer my work. Sometime later, I went back to that house for a reunion dinner with these blokes in their kitchen. Food was cooked & eaten. There was banter & camaraderie.. Fancy booze was consumed, and someone even trotted out cigars.
I talked with Peter days later, and we traded memories of the night – Oh what quips! Weren’t we a funny bunch of devils? Why yes, we were! – Peter then surprised me with the the news that he’d surreptitiously RECORDED that entire evening on audiotape! He had not listened to it yet though, so we excitedly arranged for him to bring the recording over to my new flat! Anticipating greatness, we leaned forward to savour our legendary repartee..
..but it was an audio recording of 5 drunks, giggling. For several hours straight. That was it. Even specific verbal jousts we’d both remembered as hilarious played flat on audiotape.. I am often surprised at differences between my own memories and those of others at the same event, but in this case we’d both remembered the exact same thing and were both wrong.
Our remembered Dinner of Wits was actually a Dinner of Fools, and the recording proved it.
I thought about this a lot at the time and often since. Any police department knows that even eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Cross referencing memories with documentary evidence – dates, places, names – makes it clear that details get fudged, but if human memory isn’t recording empirical detail, what exactly is it recording? A few years ago, I woke up with most of my memories completely gone. I couldn’t remember names of the people I loved most in the world, and even the details of my own biography were hazy to me. Those memories eventually returned, but that strange experience had me wondering again what human memory actually is. How much of my own memory really happened the way I remember it, and how much is a story I told myself after the fact, to make sense of things?
A few savants have the gift of total recall, but memory can play tricks on the rest of us. However, it does document something important that is not simply facts. The memory card on your recording device documents sights & sounds, but memories jotted down by The Grey Scribe in your noggin track something else. Perhaps only 20% of it is ‘facts’ and the rest is context.. emotions.. and the meaning. Human memory is not THE truth but A truth – a personal one, documenting relationships between yourself and events & people around you, at a given time & place.
If you remember having a fantastic experience but a recording device shows you making an arse of yourself (complete with timecode) I submit that the truth is somewhere in between. The recording will show simple facts, but even facts are unreliable without context, and that is what’s recorded in your memory. Our human memories are fuzzy on details but nevertheless distill the MEANING as The Grey Scribe in our heads keeps its journal – a troubadour bard following us through life, composing amusing ditties & tall tales of our deeds for posterity.
Reviewing our memories keeps them alive. How much thinner would they become if we did not occasionally reflect on them, speak about them with others, and look at photos & mementos to keep them refreshed? In time our own lives fade, even from our own memories.. which is why I write them down.
By the way, I eventually revised my thoughts on that dinner party audiotape from long ago. The machine had recorded the SOUND, sure.. but missed many other important details that made it so much fun to be there on that particular night. Even a video camera, recording both sound & visuals, could not have shown what that moment in time meant to us. That collective camaraderie and joy to be in each other’s company was what my memory had recorded. That tape machine must have been broken..
Its recorded Dinner of Fools was actually a Dinner of Wits, and my memories prove it.