Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Memoirs and memories

1. One objection to the historicity of the Gospels is the argument from silence. Here's an example:

The argument from silence can be a legitimate and powerful argument. It all depends on whether there's a reasonable expectation that if something happened, we'd have a record of that, or multiple records. There are different explanations for a writer's failure to mention a significant event he knew about, even if it's relevant to his writing. 

2. Paradoxically, a writer might not mention something, not because he's ignorant, or because it didn't happen, but because it did happen and he's knows all about it. For instance, no one knew Dante Rossetti better than his brother Michael. Yet, as I recall, Michael said that being his brother disqualified him from writing an autobiography of Dante. That's not because Michael didn't know enough about his brother, but because he knew too much, and he was protecting Dante's posthumous reputation. Likewise, Warnie Lewis is in invaluable source of information about his brother, but there are lots of sensitive details he left out of the public eye. 

3. Here's another reason a writer might fail to mention something significant. When I was about 40, I wrote a memoir. It was a way to take stock of my life up to that point. Paradoxically, it's quite possible, when writing an autobiography, to inadvertently leave out significant incidents, not because you forgot, but because you remember too much. Our memories are stored in the subconscious. Although we can summon memories to conscious awareness, it's impossible to be conscious of more than a tiny fraction of what we remember. So when you're writing a memoir, it can be difficult to screen out the plethora of memories you don't want to write about in order to focus on the memories you do want to write about. There's no direct way to filter the search parameters so that you just pull up the memories you want to write about. There's a huge amount of mental sifting and sorting required to write an autobiography. It's very easy for significant incidents to slip your mind in the writing process, because human powers of concentration are so limited. 

4. In addition, some memories aren't just a matter of direct recollection, but inferential reconstruction. I'll take an example from my own life. As a boy, I had a dog I was very fond of. I vividly remember the day I got her, and I vividly remember the day I had her euthanized. I have no direct recollection of the date, month, or year for either event. 

Because memory is associative, the trick is to link a memory with another memory that has some datable or broadly datable information. I have a rough idea of when I euthanized my dog, because that was after a trip to Europe. 

I remember that I got my dog on a summer day. My parents drove to a residential neighborhood in Seattle. My dog was in the front yard. As I recall, this was near Cornish. 

And that makes sense because my mother may well have gotten the dog from one of her teaching colleagues. She founded a school for the fine and performing arts on the Eastside, and the teachers she hired would naturally be drawn from Cornish and the UDub. 

But what about the year? I still don't know for sure, but I have a ballpark idea. It took me years to get a bead on that.

Recently, I remembered that even though my grandmother was not a dog person, she appreciated my dog because my dog was very protective. That's back when my grandmother was living in town and came to visit us every so often.

But around the time I started junior high, she moved across the mountains to Yakima. And how do I know when that happened? Because I later read some dated correspondence between my mother and my grandmother that mentioned a time when we went to visit her. That means I must have gotten my dog at least a couple of years before I started junior high. 

Yet it's just a fluke that I have enough random, contextual bits of information to piece it together. That illustrates how hard it can be to nail down the chronology of naturally memorable events we know from firsthand experience. 

5. I'd add that the Internet has made it easier to pin down or flesh out certain details in our recollection. But, of course, biographers and autobiographers didn't have that supplementary source of information for most of human history. 

6. The historicity of the Gospels is frequently defended on the grounds that the writers were deliberately selective. And that's no doubt true to some degree. But for reasons I've just given, eyewitness testimony can be inadvertently selective as well. Silence, per se, carries no presumption that the writer wasn't a firsthand observer. Ironically, he may unintentionally omit significant incidents because recollection is so indiscriminate. 

1 comment:

  1. I think it’s possible to leave out a memorable person or event in one’s writings because it might prove too psychologically or emotionally difficult to bring up. It might be too raw to relive the memory as it were.

    For example, I have a friend who was a firsthand eyewitness to the Boston Marathon bombing (2013). She saw it right as it happened. All she has said to me was she saw body parts flying up into the air. In any case, it’s too traumatic for her to talk at length about. Let alone write about. Even today.

    Another example, I have deceased relatives whom I dearly loved, but I don’t think I could bring myself to talk about them at length except to trusted friends.

    It may or may not be relevant that the Gospel writers willingly wrote the Gospels despite the loss of their friend and, indeed, Lord. Of course, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that Jesus rose again. As well as by the fact that a lot of time had elapsed. Indeed, maybe one reason (among several other good reasons) the Gospel writers didn't immediately write the Gospels was because they needed time to process everything as well as because to do so would have brought back some painful memories that they didn't wish to relive quite yet. Then again, maybe all this is irrelevant and inapplicable to the Gospels.