Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Remembering and the prism of prejudice
Do we really remember stuff or do we rather see glimpses of the past through a prism of our prejudice? Sometimes that crystal is kindly, showing the past as a wondrous, carefree time filled with pleasure. Other times – other people – see the past as dark, scary, a place of evil ghosts and terror.
In one respect we can nail down the past – there are events and occurrences, things that happened. The day you started school, the time you broke your arm, family marriages, births and deaths. Are these the past or are they simply a framework on which we hang reminiscence?
Throughout my upbringing, we were told (with varying degrees of assurance) that our surname – Cooke – was Irish. Nothing wrong with that and the name is certainly is a good Irish name and we were brought up Roman Catholic too.
Yet when someone actually looks at the family history, it turns out that my father’s family has very little Irish connection and that the surname – originally without what we liked to called the ‘superior’ E – takes us back to the Isle of Wight. Turns out there’s a great deal more Irish in my Mum’s (Anglican) family than in my Dad’s (RC) family.
Reminiscence, in this case, had trumped history. The truth – the framework of facts – had been broken by the weight of that remembering. History was replaced by myth – in this case harmless but such myth-making might be dangerous.
There is a fine tradition of family biography. We are rightly fascinated by where we came from and how it made us what we are. But there’s a dark side to this – what I’d call the search for excuse rather than explanation. Too often this involves reminiscence cloaked in darkness, painting of the personal past as a terrible time.
We do this dark remembering because we believe it cathartic – let it all out, says the therapist. But does that person stop for a second and consider how such reminiscence might hurt others? Do we examine the truth or merely state that our recollection – however dark – is a true recollection? And, in our reminiscence, do we condemn others as wrongdoers so as to set ourselves as victims?
I suppose that it doesn’t matter much really if we are discussing the distant past (although the damage of myth is plain to see in Ireland, the Balkans and many other places of conflict) but what if our reminiscence – the myth-making – is about the living? We cannot let indulgent catharsis come ahead of truth and our remembering is not truth. Yet too often we are tempted to tell others of our remembering.
For me, if we remember only bad things – and blame our current predicament or the struggles of our lives on those things – then we are little better than the things we criticise. We choose to hurt others as a means of explaining our personal position.
We want that remembering to justify what we think today. And so we do it through that prism of prejudice.