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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2016

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SEPT 2016 Issue
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The Submersion of Personal Memory

Every time I write an account of some personal episode, it seems more impossible to rely on my memory alone. I need only attempt to describe a city neighborhood or cite a news item from the era in question, and I naturally resort to Google to hone or complete my memories. If it hopes to describe the twists and turns of a mind as accurately as possible, the literature of introspection, whether autobiography or psychological novel, ought now to mention the name Google every sentence or two.

Often, when I have called to the screen the detailed map of a city I have traveled to or an exact chronicle of the events that made the front page of the newspapers, I fear that excessive precision will betray the true state of my memories and end up conveying a sense of inauthenticity. But once one has tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge it is too late to recover one’s former psychological innocence. So I seek a kind of compromise between fidelity to my fallible memory and the quest for precision, which is as old as the representative use of signs. I shuffle all the cards I have in hand, those dealt me by memory and those dealt me by Google, and from time to time, I indifferently assign them phrases like “I can no longer recall whether it was in April or May that […]” and “If memory serves […]” and “I believe that at the time […]”—without worrying whether it is true or not.

It is not certain that we should expect from this evolution in writing a general increase in truth-telling, despite the spate of realistic, overly documented accounts that the advent of the internet as an infinite source of factual information has inevitably provoked. Personal memory’s submersion under the memory of the world has washed away the old boundary between memory and imagination, between the true and the false, between I and not-I. An American friend recently told me that he knew someone who was helping a celebrity write his memoirs and that this celebrity, abetted by his ghostwriter, had undertaken to concoct an episode in his life, in which he pretends to have been present thirty or forty years back at a baseball or basketball game (I forget which) that is now considered historic in the United States (for reasons that also escape me). The ghostwriter and his client have watched video archives of the game on YouTube so as to describe the scene as minutely as possible. They have been able to find out whether the sky was cloudy or sunny; they have been able to drink in the atmosphere of the ballpark and the mood of the spectators; they have been able to revisit the historic moments, the ones that a man who was really there would be unable not to remember.

Lived experience has lost its privilege. It once provided its subject with exclusive images-memories, but now he who lacks lived experience can have images of his own. Who can speak more accurately about that baseball game from forty years ago: the man who was there but has only distant personal memories of it, or the man who was not there but has had occasion to watch the whole thing ten times on YouTube? Once a little time has passed we all find ourselves in the same place, whether we have lived the event or not: we are left with nothing but images, and the man with the greater number is no longer the one we thought.

In Blade Runner the most elaborate androids are the androids who are convinced they are human, because they have childhood memories. The scene where Sean Young shows Harrison Ford a photograph of herself at only a few years of age, as proof of her childhood and thus of her humanity, is to me very powerful, because it reminds us—we who are not robots—of a familiar phenomenon: the close resemblance of our memories of distant childhood to the photographs we have been shown after we have grown up. Our memories are in fact probably transpositions of those photographs, although so indistinguishable from true memories that if we lost the snapshots or forgot their very existence we would have no reason to doubt the authenticity of our photograph-transposed memories. The zone of our earliest memories is the zone where the blur of non-distinction is greatest between interiority and exteriority, mental images and mechanically recorded images, personal memory and the memory of the world. It is not impossible that our future might reflect that origin.


Maël Renouard

MAËL RENOUARD is a philosopher and writer. He was awarded the prestigious Prix Décembre for his 2013 novella, La Réforme de l’opéra de Pékin (“The Reform of the Beijing Opera”), and, in 2016, published a philosophical account of life with the internet, Fragments d’une mémoire infinie (“Fragments of an Infinite Memory”).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2016

All Issues