Memory, History, and Civilization


I know things that I cannot remember. If I can’t recall a piece of information, do I still know it? At times, usually long after the recollection would have been useful, forgotten bits of memory resurface, and I again have access to the information. Sometimes it’s a scent or a sound or a color that whacks the chassis of my memory in just the right way to coax the mechanism back into operation. Sometimes it’s inexplicable.

I never forget faces, but I sometimes forget names. I forget the names of people I meet at social gatherings, sometimes within seconds. Sometimes within minutes, despite inwardly repeating the name to myself in an effort to retain it. I forget the names of people I choose not to know. I forget the names of people I have known in the past—coworkers, classmates, people with whom I shared drinks, conversation, and hard work. These are often people whose acquaintance was a matter of necessity alone. No amount of self-interrogation will produce their names. They are lost to me. Yet weeks later, perhaps while running or cooking or in the moments before I open my eyes in the morning, a name will come to me. I’ll hear the person’s voice and experience the same emotions I felt the last time I saw that person. Though their names were lost to me for a time, I knew them. I never forget the names of people I love. I never forget the names of people I despise.

Some of my journals are older than my children, and it’s clear that my memory of events is far from accurate. More often than not, when I search an old journal for a person, event, or details such as an address, I find that what I read matches my memory not at all. My own handwriting reads like a letter from an alternate past. My journals are mental time capsules from a version of myself that I have overwritten like an internal hard drive, so many times that the original information only exists in the form of dried ink on paper. In my mind, facts are fungible, malleable things. Only in these journals do memories become artifacts that can be handled years later like weathered objects pulled from a chilly bog.

What does all this tell me about the things that I know? How can I be certain I’m right about anything I’ve learned in my half-century of life? There must be an aggregate of knowledge that exists in a thinking person’s mind that doesn’t depend on any one, particular bit of information. Maybe this is what we call street smarts, horse sense, or wisdom. Yet, as I type these words, it occurs to me that claiming wisdom in oneself must be the first step toward becoming an old fool who thinks he knows everything and has nothing more to learn about the world and the creatures that inhabit it.

History and literature provide human civilization with the wisdom of facts. We can read about the triumphs and mistakes of those who lived and loved and suffered before us. Memory isn’t a prerequisite for our species’ progress, but the ability to interpret humanity’s past is.

We remember things that we cannot know. Such memories are inborn. The compassion of humanity lives in us as it has in all those who came before us. This knowledge of the soul doesn’t require a written record to comprehend. We know in the marrow of our bones, for example, that stealing children from their mothers is a monstrous act. Yet some choose to use their innate will and intelligence to circumvent their conscience. They act outside morality to seize power or wealth and convince those who understand the faulty nature of human memory and reasoning that evil is a justifiable path to good. In such cases, the ape with the biggest stick often gains the upper hand and does a great deal of damage. Intelligent people go along with the gas-lit madness, succumbing by reasonable increments to fascism. Sleepwalking into oblivion.

Others read the journals.

We’ve seen this again and again. Most of us are too young to remember, but we have the history. Fascists constantly try to reinvent themselves. This time, in America, they’re draped in stars and stripes. They tell us that compassion is weakness, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. Again, they deny history and offer an alternate reality of their own invention.

The free press is the canary in the coalmine. When journalists begin to suffer arrest or worse at the hands of authoritative figures, as they do in under several current authoritarian regimes,  we’ll know we’re in an existential crisis as a nation. As always, the success of tyrants depends on our complicity, and our continued silence may only mean the monster will devour us last.


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