Written by Max Muller:
Some imagine our memory merely as a tool to retrieve past events or thoughts. That it operates as a purely mechanistic, objective tool that passively stores information. As such, it enables us to learn things and allows people to function properly in their daily lives.
However, this conception of human memory is rather limited. Although it does perform the above-mentioned tasks, it is not confined to purely practical matters. A person’s memory is not merely concerned with what he or she does or can do – it also determines who and what the person is.
Human beings are necessarily finite, both in terms of space and in terms of time. We live within a particular time frame and grow up under some set of historical particularities. Thus, to a large extent, our circumstances and experiences determine who we are.
In order to understand ourselves, we look back upon past events. We aim to come to an understanding of our role within them. In doing so, we continuously re-visit our memories to re-interpret them, casting light on the way we are situated in the present.
By selectively choosing to focus on certain memories and at the same time discarding others, people actively and subjectively construct themselves by means of narratives. Human beings are therefore not mere processors of information, they invent and re-work it as stories. Memory comes alive in the act of narration, allowing individuals to form a coherent identity. Human life has, therefore, both biological and biographical origins.
In that sense, it is not surprising that psychologists sometimes encourage their patients to share their life story with them. It allows patients to understand themselves. Their confusion is healed when the re-visitation of their memories results in a more thorough understanding of the way they acted in (perceived) past events. This enables them to act with deeper understanding during the present. Concurrently, their sense of identity is emboldened throughout the process, allowing them to be more at ease with who they are.
Therapists are expensive. In addition, the whole therapeutic process is quite time-consuming, cumbersome and confrontational. Why not engage you, our readers, with my past?
At the risk of seeming exceedingly self-centered, I will take this opportunity to describe some memories of my own. During the writing process, I aim to gain a more thorough understanding of myself. In addition, I am curious as to what you think about my experiences. What do they tell you about me? Do you have any insights as to how I ought to interpret these events? Let us make sense of my life together.
One memory that sometimes resurfaces dates back from more than 17 years ago. At the time, my family and I would visit a place called Cap-d’Agde in the South of France every summer. We would stay in a resort filled with bungalows and spent our carefree days at the beach or near the pools.
Sometimes, however, something out of the ordinary would happen. The owners of the resort would invite a potter to teach kids (and, occasionally, adults too) how to make pots the traditional way. He put a wet blob of clay on a horizontally spinning wheel. With his hands, he would manipulate its shape in a clever way, slowly but steadily creating a pot.
To me, being an eight-year-old, the whole process must have seemed like magic. He barely moved his hands at all, yet sure enough, the spinning clot would always turn into a pot. His precisely applied, manual pressure ensured it.
Another day, the potter maker would take us to his home outside the resort. Upon arriving there, I realized that pottery making represented just a fraction of his artistic inclinations. He had made his whole home himself. Some walls were riddled with minutely illustrated paintings. Others were littered with spontaneously arranged tiles, forming splendid mosaics.
Nothing in the house had sharp hooks or rigid lines. It was a fluid arrangement with bows and curved lines. Looking back on it now, it seemed like an artistic, Mediterranean version of a hobbit home. His house was a Gaudi-esque constellation of furious creativity. The potter had shown a level of dedication that could only be matched by Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. It was a unique anachronism, both temporally as well as spatially.
Its uniqueness was punctuated by the banality of Cap-d’Agde in general. It was a beach town past its former glory, overflowed by foreign tourists who were bored of their mundane lives back home. They were in search of a red-tanned chest and hedonistic escape. The town’s most famous nightclub was aptly called Amnesia. The nudist beaches and swingers clubs were phenomena – famously described by Michel Houellebecq in his book Les Particules Elementaires – that embodied the town’s indulgence.
So what does this memory tell about me? What does the fact that it resurfaces every now and again mean? What insights can it give me with regards to my current phase in life?
One theme of the memory seems to be the contrast between sloth and sacrifice, between laziness and dedication. The potter had gone to great lengths to build a perfect house for himself. Viewed from this point of view, the memory perhaps tells me I have a choice: put in the effort and succeed, or be idle and fail.
By extension, the story reveals the importance of a goal worth fighting for. It is not possible to put in a lot of effort into something that’s not worthwhile. Whatever the potter’s motives were, they were important enough to him to put up a Herculean effort. Maybe it was indeed a romantic act, akin to Gosling’s efforts. Whatever the case may have been, it reminds me of seeking purpose in the things that I do.
The potter’s dedication had an almost ascetic quality. His efforts stood out amid the lazy tourists. Viewed from this perspective, his architectural work represented a kind of purity amid a degenerated desert. Maybe this represents my childhood innocence, which can be contrasted with adulthood.
Another aspect of importance is the dichotomy between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Although I liked spending time at the beach or playing games on my Gameboy Color, the experiences with the potter were something else entirely. They fueled my sense of wonder and stimulated my imagination.
I guess nowadays I look back upon these events with a sense of nostalgia, perhaps even melancholy. I’m not as easily impressed as I was back then. Even so, I currently probably miss having such experiences. Maybe my life has become as mundane as all of those other adults who aimed to escape their lives in the French coastal town.
Anyhow, I am an amateur psychologist at best, and a self-deluding charlatan at worst. You may have a much deeper understanding of this memory in particular. You possibly know how to put my experiences within a Freudian framework, or recall how the potter’s activities relate to Jung’s theory of psychosocial archetypes.
Please tell me! I’m eager to find out more about myself.
However, this isn’t just about me. You have just seen a glimpse of my past. Hopefully, it has inspired you to probe into the depths of your own mind, too. What are your most important memories? What do they signify to you? I invite you to take a step back and analyze your past. I suspect that — in the end — it could prove to be highly rewarding.