Any visitor to an aged-care home knows that chronic forgetfulness, in its extreme form, is severely disabling. Few things are sadder than the bewilderment of a person no longer able to make connected sense of a series of events, no longer able to bring past knowledge to bear on present situations. Losing the capacity to remember can eventually betoken dementia and the dissolution of individual identity.
Ironically, total recall is also disabling; and this phenomenon, though much less common, sheds light on the nature of memory. It’s the theme of ‘Funes the Memorious,’ a short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Because of a brain injury the character called Funes cannot forget any detail of what he perceives. He is cursed to carry all of it vividly in his head forever – an intolerable burden because he is entirely immersed in the accumulated particulars, unable to generalise or be selective, and therefore unable to interpret his world. So his prodigious aptitude is significantly different from memory, which sorts, arranges and weaves, creating a narrative structure through which experience acquires meaning.
What is true of individual identity is also true of social identity. Researchers working across disciplines have shown how personal and group memory become intertwined in a psychological process fundamental to history and culture. If a civilisation loses its memory, forgetting or repressing fundamental experiences that have collectively shaped it in the past, it will tend to fall apart; and if on the other hand it becomes submerged in a cumulative mass of information without being able to discern meaningful narrative patterns in it, that too will cause its collapse.
Memory has a more central importance in culture and in learning than we sometimes recognise. Ancient Greek mythology provides an insight into this matter. Our word mnemonic comes from the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, who had a pre-eminent cultural status: she was mother of the nine muses, including lyric and epic poetry, dance and music, tragedy and history. Seen as the inventor of language, Mnemosyne presided not only over writing but also over the practice of memorisation required to preserve stories in oral tradition.
With Mnemosyne in mind, I find myself at a point in life (probably not quite the end, perhaps not even the beginning of the end, but well past the end of the beginning) where I often look back over roads I have travelled along and forking paths that have made me hesitate. Occasionally this remembering may be regretful or nostalgic, but for the most part it draws me into inquisitive reflection. I think about the functioning of memory, about how it informs narrative linkages between personal or professional trajectories and the larger meandering history of fields of study – particularly about continuity and change in the subject called English. I recall pivotal moments in my working life, ponder conscious and unconscious decisions I made, trace the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of choosing this option rather than that. Back there in the past I see crooked lines of stepping stones (some seemed at the time to be obstacles) across which I made my stumbling way as a student, teacher, curriculum reformer, author. I glance over my shoulder at the different genres of the things I have written, trying to reconstruct a chain of circumstances that motivated me to produce those various books and articles and other items. Retrospection leads me to ask how I happened to wander into English teaching; why so much of my energy, over the decades, has been invested in language, literacy and literature; why I never confined my activities to one sector of education but kept engaging with schools as well as with universities; why I turned my productive efforts from poetry to polemics, from literary theory and cultural history to the writing of novels…
[The musings reproduced above are the opening paragraphs of an essay I was invited to contribute to the just-published issue (23.2) of the British educational journal Changing English.]