Memory

Eric Hobsbawm is a Fellow of the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism is published by Abacus in April.

www.littlebrown.co.uk

Slippery tracks of perception

In English we use the same word for the mental mechanism of acquiring and retaining information for future use as for the recovery by unaided mental effort of past experiences: memory. These are very different exercises, though probably the second meaning of the word is today the primary one. The first has faded away so fast with the spectacular advance of mechanical means of retrieving information, from reference books to Google, that we forget how essential mnemonic techniques used to be in past societies and may still be in some professions.

However, both senses have one thing in common: they are about now. That memory is about the past is an illusion. What we retrieve from the limitless data bank every human being accumulates during his or her lifetime, and what we do with it, is for use in, and dependent on, some later present, and often modified in the light of that present. This is true even when we recover data acquired by the deliberate effort of memory, and to which personal feelings are not relevant, such as the "knowledge" laboriously memorized by London taxi-drivers. Using it now or at any time in the future is the object of the exercise, not the past when it was acquired or the time between then and now. Moreover, getting it right is of the essence. Whatever the time and circumstances in which I learned the multiplication table by heart, if it is to serve its purpose it must be recalled exactly. The Freudian slips to which misremembered texts lend themselves belong to a different order of discourse.

The connection between the present and memory as recovery of the past is equally central, though not so obvious. Here, to the permanent irritation of professional historians with their insistence on "evidence", accuracy is not crucial, though it is naturally preferable. The reconstruction of the past by dipping into a selection of the infinity of past experience, has other and basically non-chronological motivations, social or personal. For the retrospective shaping and reshaping of a person's life, the strength of remembered feelings, incidents or images may be more indispensable, and therefore more memorable than, say, the precise date of one's wedding or divorce.

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