Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Myth of Memory

In modern times we have a distinct conception of the past.  Two kinds of the past exist in our heads.  We have a version of the past we think of as absolute fact.  This is what we call “History”.  We treat history as all we need to understand humanity and its place in the world.  History is the truth, or at least the pursuit of past truth.  History is the documented version of the past as it happened.  Documented evidence and first hand witnesses are used to to write the history of the world as it truly was.

The second kind of past is myth.  Myth is a version of the past we have extensively marginalized in modern life.  If a sketchy story of the past is told to us, we often disregard it with the phrase, “Oh thats just a myth.”
If we are told about the stories of Sasquatch living in the Pacific Northwest, we may scoff at it and roll our eyes.  To the modern thinker any narrative of the world without evidence is of no use to us.  Without a body of Bigfoot, what good is talking about him doing?  We hate myths because they don’t bring us any documentation we can canonize the history of the world with.  As modern, rational, scientific thinkers we have no time for silly stories that are simply untrue.  We bravely march into the future and discard all the stories that don’t provide us with any hard testable evidence.  By removing all meaning or purpose to the past, we can discover it’s true nature.  But we don’t give as much thought to what myth can tell us about the nature of human beings .
Fact? Fiction? or does it matter?

I think that we misunderstand the purpose of myth.  We think of myth as just a primitive version of history.  I think myth is telling us much more than just what happened in the past.  Myth tells us about how humans view the world around them.  They are stories of the way other cultures view existence.  Myths are how cultures tell their stories of why the world is the way it is.  They characterize our collective fears and aspirations into clean and easy narratives.  History is way too complicated and messy to extract any kind of story worth paying attention to.       

I’m going to outline a rather radical idea I’ve come up with.  I think most of what we think of “history” more closely resembles myth.  Not only that but I think our personal memories of our lives are more like myths rather than truths.  I want to argue that we need to change the way we think about our own lives.  In order to evolve and progress as individuals and as a civilization, we need to outline a more mythical version of our past.      

One of my favorite Youtube channels, Idea Channel outlined an example of history that is more like myth.  The historical Nikola Tesla is not really the man with all his personality and characteristics but a retold version of him created by culture.  History creates a simulated version of everything.  It takes the important parts of the past and compacts it into what we need to know.  Like a myth, history is the version of the past that tells the story of why the world is the way it is.  

This is one of the reasons I find religion so incredibly perplexing.  Why are Christian fundamentalists so insistent about knowing what Jesus actually said?  Why does it matter that Jesus was truly the son of God?  Why does the crucifiction have to be a factual event?  What matters is the meaning people take out of or read into the Jesus story.  The story has been translated and retold so many times by fallible humans to create a cohesive narrative that it is truly absurd to think that these are facts.  Don’t use the bible as a historical document.  Take lessons from it like every other great myth told.

The Myth of your life

I recently watched a film called Dark City for my Religious Studies and Science Fiction class.  One of the features in the movie that interested me was the the idea of memory manipulation.  The humans had their memories changed and manipulated by a race of higher beings.  They would experiment with humans and change personal identities by swapping memories with other humans.  People would live their lives thinking that everything was normal but in reality, their identities had been repeatedly rewritten.    

It made me think about how we take our own memories as unchanging truth even though they are so easily changeable.  That “historical” truth becomes the bedrock of our personal identity.  We treat our memories as if they were photographic records of past events.  We pretend that we are walking video cameras that document the world as time passes by the second.  When in reality we are incredibly subjective and selective with our memories.  Memories are re-formed over and over again.  Until they are no longer factual truth. 

If you have been alive for some time, you may have had the experience of sharing a distant memory of an event with an old friend and come to the realization that they way you remember it resembles nothing of your friend’s version of it.  In any given event of our lives, we’ll tell our own version of what happened, but it will be a totally unique version of the event.  What this fact should tell us is that memory should be thought of as not historical truth, but as myths with meaning. Our own memories take the important parts of our lives and add significance to them.  It removes the boring details of moment to moment experience and adds story structure and plot.  Yet we define ourselves by these fractured and colourized versions of the past.  

Many of us are memory fundamentalists.  We treat our memories like they were written in stone facts about the past.  Our memories become the written history of ourselves and we identify with that past.  This is reinforced by the fact that you are incredibly judged by other people’s memory of you.   If you have done bad things in your past, then you are defined by those bad things.  No matter how much you have changed.  No matter how much you desire to move on with your life, you are a bad person because you ARE your past.  If you’ve been to prison, then you’ll always be a convict in the eyes of others.  We define others around us by the past as we remember it.  We hold grudges against people we should probably forgive and cling on to illusions of people that we should let go of.  

I believe the theory of the mythic memory is a great strategy to empower yourself.  By distancing yourself from your past, you don’t have to be held back by it.   Instead of being defined by your past, use it as a story to learn from.  Every instance you’ve fucked up is no longer a stain to be ashamed of.  Those instances are now examples of what not to do in the future.  Your past life is now a story to tell the world. No matter how insignificant you think you are, I believe you have a story worth sharing.  Start narrating your life as if you were the author writing the novel, The Adventures of (your name here).  Think of your life as a movie and you are the playing the hero.  Your life is no longer a historical document but an epic tale of how you turned your life around by overcoming whatever shortcomings you were perceived to have, and decided to live the life you always dreamed of having.      

No comments:

Post a Comment