Memory

Alexander Waugh's latest book, The House of Wittgenstein, is published in June by Bloomsbury.

The new pariah

Don't judge a person by his clothes, or by the colour of his face, by the food he eats, by the size of his bank balance, by his accent, by the books in his shelves or the paintings on his walls... There are so many strictures of this sort doing the rounds nowadays that one begins to wonder if anyone is allowed to judge anyone else at all. Political correctness – the social formulation that proscribes the right of one man to pass judgement on any other – is the invention of an American society stupefied with admiration for Thomas Jefferson's "self-evident truth" that "all men are created equal". But people are not created equal, that much is obvious, and those who are restrained, either by law or by threat of opprobrium, from casting their natural knee-jerk judgements upon others, are liable to go mad biting their tongues.

For my own part I have given up judging people on their appearances, on their actions and even on their opinions – not because I fear society's frown, but because I don't think they are particularly refined yardsticks. Marvellous folk can say and do remarkably wicked things and rotten meat smells sublime when smothered in a sweet scented sauce. No, there is only one sensible way to judge a man, and that is by his memory. It is not quite as difficult as it seems and the system does not (as many may fear) have the automatic effect of pushing every winner of The Weakest Link and every cheap-jack mnemonic conjuror to the top of the pile. Efficient recall is no measure of character – among the direst bores I have ever come across are those (usually men) whose conversation brims with facts, statistics and quotations. Judging people by their memories does have the unfortunate effect of making a pariah of the amnesiac, but we mustn't blubber about it. Someone has to occupy the bottom slot, and at least amnesiacs can be drawn from every race, colour, class and creed – so that's a consolation.

So how do I recognize the splendour of people's memories? Well, for one thing, a good memory is a well-oiled machine for storage. It should be well edited, as efficient at deleting material as it is at collecting or embellishing upon it. It ought to retain as much fantasy as fact, rid itself regularly of second-rate or redundant material, alter history (for better or worse), and allow the store of its riches to be used for the regurgitation of wisdom, gossip, humour and useful information.

We must never confuse a person's memory with their opinions. To judge a person by his or her opinions is a grave mistake. If we could all stop believing that our views were inseparable from our personalities the world would be a much more peaceful place. But so long as we continue to assume that a contrary opinion is equivalent to a mortal slight upon our very being, or that someone else's odious opinion is proof, in itself, that the person who uttered it must be odious per se, then the human race will never manage to live in harmony with itself. By contrast, a person's memory is indistinguishable and inseparable from his personality. Insult a memory and you deserve a punch in the nose, for you insult a person to the very quick.

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