Down the passage we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
We may therefore conceive God to be the natural maker of the bed, and in a lower sense the carpenter is also the maker; but the painter is rather the imitator of what the other two make; he has to do with a creation which is thrice removed from reality. And the tragic poet is an imitator, and, like every other imitator, is thrice removed from the king and from the truth.
– Socrates, Plato’s Republic
The front page of the website for artist Alisdair Hopwood’s False Memory Archive, currently on tour in Edinburgh and soon to arrive at London’s Freud Museum, declares: “WE NEED FALSE MEMORIES.” One could interpret this phrase in one of two ways: the utilitarian—the collective is in need of false memories for its project; or the more abstract—we human beings rely somehow upon a fabricated notion of the past.
The False Memory Archive is based on both principles. As artist-in-residence at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, Hopwood wants to combine the techniques of contemporary art with the latest psychological research. Visitors to his website are invited to type a false memory (“a distorted or entirely invented recollection of an experience”) into a window; the submissions are then collected and arranged into a spare, sleek installation, all black text on white columns and walls. The memories range from the poignantly comic (“I thought that my mother left me for 2 years when I was a child to look for work. I found out in my 20’s that she only was gone for 2 weeks”) to the simply odd (“My mum passed a raw garlic clove from her mouth into mine, in the kitchen”). Others are more uncanny:
I remember biting into a mouse when I was four as a child in Indonesia in order to make my brother be quiet. I was sitting outside in the garden making mud pie and he just kept talking. A mouse ran by and I bit into it. Blood filled my mouth and ran down my face. My brother and the rest of my family have assured me this has never happened.
For psychologists, this phenomenon is well-known and well-documented. Multiple studies over the past several decades, spearheaded by scholars like Elizabeth Loftus, have confirmed that memory cannot be trusted. Childhood hot-air balloon rides or trips to the mall (with hometown details provided by a family member) can be virtually implanted in a participant’s mind, so that he or she is firmly convinced that the nonexistent event took place. These false memories are known to increase with age, as the knowledge and experience gained by children create a more cohesive and fully integrated network of conceptual representations. Ribot’s Law suggests that older memories are more stable, since the more a memory is revisited, the more it is consolidated into other, overlapping recollections. But a recent experiment in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology examined an exception to the law, finding that false memories based on images or scenes rather than vocabulary are more easily implanted in children than in adults. At all ages, most signs show memory as functioning less as a camcorder—press play and the scene unfolds, just as it was experienced—than as the concentric ripples formed by a pebble dropped in a pond, expanding, loosening, and eventually colliding with obstacles that interrupt and warp its tidy path.
Common sense still might seem to challenge these findings. The reliance on eyewitness testimony in courts has failed to ebb, even with initiatives like the Innocence Project, which have sought to expose and overturn false convictions based on witnesses that turn out to have misremembered a crucial scene. But in its revisionist account psychology has mirrored a recent literary trend. The slim memory novel has come to dominate lists and awards: a kind of novel increasingly concerned with the causes and consequences of, and opportunities resulting from, a faulty interpretation of the past. The narrator of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, claims near the start to be recalling “approximate memories which time has deformed into certainties.” Some reviewers criticized the novel for a myopic thematization of memory. Qualifications abound: “That was my reading then of what was happening at the time. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.” The novel is strongest when it departs from such commentary to return to the story, centered around one crucial misremembering during the narrator’s adolescence. Given the blandness of the narrator’s present he returns to the trotted-over, if still enigmatic, past, when his first girlfriend, Veronica, left him for his first true friend, Adrian. Tony, the protagonist, subsequently dashed off a spiteful later to Adrian, before learning weeks later that Adrian committed suicide. Adrian, with a kind of clever, slightly irritating intellect, had been the center of Tony’s group at school; he would ignore a history teacher’s questions before responding to his admonitions with, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” The rest of the novel relives, reinterprets, and ultimately revises this event, which ends up as an airtight example of Adrian’s dashed-off response.
Barnes’ novel extends the terms of Hopwood’s project—applying false memories to the very nature of memory. It takes its place among other recent fiction dealing not only with fickle memories of events but with the fickleness of interpretation at the moment in which a memory is created. Alice McDermott’s Someone, published last fall, is composed of a series of memories of an Irish Catholic woman. Her memories are simultaneously unique and undifferentiable; “Someone” could be anyone, but is christened in this case with capitalization and choice. Selection, indeed, is what structures and limits the book, the chosen memories unfolding in a loose narrative, in quiet scenes. It is the conscious selection of memory, rather than the phenomenon of memory itself, that creates or imposes meaning upon a life.
As a character in the short story “What is Remembered” by Alice Munro (another memory-driven author celebrated this past year) thinks, “The job she had to do, as she saw it, was to remember everything—and, by remember, she meant experience it in her mind, one more time—then store it away forever.” But memory, she learns, doesn’t work like that. A brief affair with a doctor who later dies in a plane crash resurfaces again and again, in later years, and yet never in its entirety. Instead she hears a scrap of a phrase, or catches a glance between a couple: “She would keep picking up things she’d missed, and these would still jolt her.” Never, in these recollections, can she remember what the doctor looked like.
These characters’ failures to recall, coupled with earnest appeals to remember, are troubling on a deeper level because they come to challenge or at least call attention to the central conceit of storytelling: “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” What else is fiction but an attempt to implant false memories in a reader by constructing a make-believe world? Of course, this conceit is no secret to most; the phenomenon is as old as the novel itself. Long before the modernists began a concerted attempt at laying bare the device—think of Georges Braque’s trompe-l’oeil nail in Violin and Palette, a reminder that the painting is only just that—storytellers questioned and played with the terms of this deception. Literary scholars like E.C. Riley have argued that the emerging genre of the novel at the end of the16th century, under Cervantes’ revolutionary aegis, was host to a particular vulnerability of the status of truth and fiction. Poetry had shed the necessary trappings of truth-telling and instead it was the novel that would come to concern itself with the role. Books in this genre—Don Quixote is a prime example—would often be framed as a memoir, or as a series of documents collected and arranged by an author who claimed only the role of editor. (Such a conceit would persist: Robinson Crusoe, after all, was structured as an unwieldy autobiography, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque….) Yet even Cervantes would tug against the truth-telling dictate throughout the Quixote. He played on cultural prejudices in creating a fictitious “author” of the text, Cide Hamate Benengeli, an Arab and thus thought to be wily and dishonest. And Don Quixote’s mad attempts to become a hero, his tendency to read danger and adventure into a windmill or a procession of nuns, come from his firm conviction in the verisimilitude of the books of caballería that he has spent his entire life reading—books that similarly position themselves as fact. His is little different from Tony’s fear in The Sense of an Ending—“that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”
In Part I, Book IV of the Quixote, the priest holds his audience enraptured by reading a story: El curioso impertinente. In this, one of many stories-within-a-story, the friendship of two young caballeros, Anselmo and Lothario, is tested when the latter asks his friend to court his own lover. The test of loyalty backfires and the majority of the characters end up dead, or at least distraught.
“There’s something of the impossible in it,” says the priest, closing the book, “but in what refers to the way of telling it, it doesn’t disappoint.” This is the first case of many in which style clambers up and over “truth,” in which the artifice of storytelling—the construction of false memories—is privileged over a one-to-one adherence to reported fact. “Fictitious stories are good and delightful to the extent that they approach the truth or the semblance of it,” the priest later proclaims in Part II. But the novel seems to hint that his is an antiquated, even reactionary approach to literature. In the famous book-burning scene, Quixote’s loyal friend Cardenio begs the priest not to hurl into the fire all the hero’s books that are not true. Even while admitting their unworthiness astride the pillar of Truth, he appeals, instead, to style—to beauty—as a justification for longevity. Beauty is truth, truth beauty: The artist’s trump card has long been to elide the difference between the two.
The malleable boundaries between truth and fiction are belied, today, by the distinction and codification of separate genres: between “fiction,” for instance, and “memoir.” But the debate has never really gone away. Part of the appeal of Hopwood’s project is the interest, the shock, at realizing the possibility of false memories: a possibility we nevertheless act out on our own. For Hopwood, this reaction has an ethical dimension. “If we accept that autobiographical memory is a ‘creative act’ and that the fictive plays an important role in understanding the formation of a subjective truth,” he has said, “then how can we attempt to objectively identify and challenge pathological delusions, misinformation and damaging myths?” What is the difference, he seems to be asking, between the fundamental blur between truth and fiction, and the calculating attempt to manipulate those categories for a particular political or social purpose? On the one hand, of course, the “narrative moment” continues to envelop the academy, starting from the assumption that history itself is a narrative, that personal misremembering is paralleled by social forgetfulness that scholars should still try to remedy, all the while acknowledging the partiality and contingency of their own efforts. But on the other hand, we place such a premium, still, on truth-telling, on integrity. It is a commonplace to note that a writer who has something to say would, 50 years ago, have written a novel; today, he writes a memoir. According to Nielsen Bookscan, there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of memoirs published since 2004. Despite a possible understanding that Truth is gone and no replacement (happiness? community?) has yet taken the crown, we yearn nevertheless for “real” stories, for true tales. And when they turn out to be false, we are hurt, and angry—as in the revelation that James Frey had fabricated parts of his best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, embellishing details of criminal action and jail time. Amid the frantic Oprah invites and dis-invites and publishers’ waverings lay deeper and more unsettling questions regarding the integrity of those who use their own past as material. At the time, Michiko Kakutani argued that the affair signaled the seedy underside of the postmodernist move toward skepticism, toward questioning the authority of narrative, firmly established over in the deconstructionist camp. See what happens when you poke holes in capital-T Truth? she seemed to be pointing out. Without a single overarching narrative a certain responsibility to facts was lost; Frey could justify his actions by maintaining that what he wrote about felt true. He could claim, disingenuously, that it was true somehow in another, greater way.
Kakutani’s analysis is overly simplistic. Few would claim that memoir is no more than a simple compendium of listable, checkable facts, just as few would deny that fiction draws on the author’s life. Certain kinds of fabrication are accepted as a matter of course. And this has been true long before the deconstructionist turn; Rousseau’s Confessions are packed with self-conscious claims to truth-telling along with stories told in such detail that some fabrication is undeniable. Memoirs and biographies are full of long, quoted, dubiously accurate dialogue uttered years or decades before publication. It would seem that what scholar of journalism Norman Sims has called the “reality boundary” is more akin to, to borrow a phrase from the scholarship of imperialism, a permeable and malleable “contact zone.” And in some cases—though, crucially, not others—the reader accepts this willing suspension.
But Kakutani is on to something when she bemoans the single narrative’s fragmentation into multiple truths. Frey’s justification for fabricating elements of his own life was based on a tale of suffering, in a book centered around addiction and recovery. It is a similar argument to that of Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, which distinguishes “happening-truth,” the facts on the ground as the narrator fights in Vietnam, from “story-truth,” the constructed narrative that somehow becomes truer than the grouping of facts in its ability to help in the recovery from trauma or in dealing with horrific events. O’Brien’s book toggles between the two. Can we equate different kinds of suffering—slaughter in Vietnam and drug and alcohol addiction? Can we distinguish them? In any case, The Things They Carried is—how significantly?—a collection of short stories.
Once Primo Levi had written Survival in Auschwitz, a memoir of his experiences in a concentration camp during World War II, he found that this was somehow not enough—that he would need to return to it once again through fiction. “The problem of being a counterfeiter, of feeling false, worries me,” he said in an interview once. “There’s a clear difference between telling stories you claim are true, and telling stories like Boccaccio.” But it was a question he would admit he was unable to resolve. Still, though, the incommunicability of Auschwitz, the struggle to fully encapsulate it in prose, is never equal to a denial of Auschwitz. This is, perhaps, the anxiety Kakutani signaled: the possibility of a slippage from questioning the truth of the past, from challenging an authoritative narrative, to denying that horrors took place. And the response—to write fiction out of fact in a way that restores truth to what seems devoid of fact or sense—can seem, as Levi intimated, heretical. The danger, of course, becomes that existing structures of power—the figures, governments, and institutions responsible for transmitting the past—invariably privilege certain of these narratives over others. The multiplication of possible histories, rather than a mounted challenge to History with its own limitations and prejudices as such, becomes itself vulnerable to a hierarchy of validity.
Hopwood’s project is situated firmly within the assumptions of the archival trend. Gaining momentum and credibility, especially since World War II, the archive serves perhaps to counter the shortcomings of narrative proliferation. It proposes an alternative to the memoir, a competing textual form in which to chronicle the past and even its slippery spirit. The installation is not only a compendium of false memories but a false memory archive, one in which they can be stored, searched and, crucially, remembered. Archives, so fraught with controversy and meaning decades ago, have come to be a central part of modern life. On the outskirts of European cities; in the damp basements of municipal courthouses; encased within Google’s whirring steel data repositories in Nevada and Arizona, information is accumulating. The origin of the archive is the anxiety of forgetfulness, of false or lacking memory. And its central question is what to include, and what to leave out—a question so provocative, with so much at stake, that increasingly little is left out at all. The archive, with its material evidence and concrete documentation, might seem to support a single narrative of the past. But as more and more is recorded, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile all the evidence, to funnel all this data into one consistent story. The story fractures, again, into fragments of history, as the archive once again promotes a variety of interpretations on what has gone before. In a way, this process restores agency and importance to lives so casually extinguished. The oral history collection at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, seeks to record and publish testimonies and interviews with survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution. The few available journals or other documents written by African-American slaves accomplish a similar goal. But the process also signals what historian Pierre Nora has called the effect of a new consciousness: “the clearest expression of the terrorism of historicized memory.” With our e-mail histories recorded, centuries of censuses filed, and correspondence sanitized, stored, and uploaded so as not to allow the edges of ancient pages to crumble, it is no longer clear where the archive ends and reality commences. It becomes difficult to separate the significant from the superfluous and, more importantly, to make the active, ethical choice of what to remember and what to allow to slip away.
Kierkegaard believed that a person’s resilience could be measured by what we tend to consider the opposite of memory: the ability to forget. Not by his or her forgetfulness—rather, by the active effort to clip away the unneeded and un-useful. In the process the two become more alike than distinct, and personal identity emerges: “the Archimedean point with which one lifts the whole world.” To decide what to remember and what to forget becomes another way of deciding what kind of person one would like to be.
If the rise of the archive is linked to the ethical task of preserving forgotten or underrepresented narratives, confirmed through historical rigor and social validation, the personal dimension of truth, fiction, and memory forms a more dialectical relationship. Autobiography and memoir may rest on self-deception, but even memory is similarly vulnerable to mistakes and misinterpretations. And even memory relies upon a construction of the past in which the conventions of style and genre dictate and determine how we talk about ourselves. The participant in the False Memory Project with the mother who left to look for work could employ that event as one example of a broader narrative of a lonely, isolated childhood, which becomes one explanation of a life spent in search of community and companionship. Just as fiction plays with lived memory and forgetfulness, real-life memory draws upon the tools of fiction in both creating and limiting its potential.
In some ways, all identity can be understood as narrative identity. Individuals, strung between contingent “human time” and deep “historical time,” struggle to understand their place and function within their own particular moment; in large part this takes place when historical time becomes human time by being articulated through a narrative mode. As philosopher Paul Ricoeur puts it in Time and Narrative, “Narrative attains its full significance when it becomes a condition of temporal existence.” In many ways, this process is a part of life, not just a part of literature: We make sense of and, in a certain sense, construct our own identities by telling ourselves stories about our own lives—making identity mobile rather than fixed. Psychologist Jerome Bruner, who has worked on narrative for decades, goes further. The ways of telling and of conceptualizing, he argues, become so rigid that they end up structuring experience itself—not only guiding the narrative of a life into the present, but also helping to structure it into the future. “In the end,” he has written, “we become the autobiographical narratives by which we tell about our lives.” A life as led becomes no more than a life as told.
This process is at the center of Hopwood’s False Memory Archive. “What’s interesting is that the submissions become mini-portraits of the person,” he has said, “yet the only thing you are finding out about this person is something that didn’t actually happen.” What he calls a “lovely paradox” actually defines all memories, not just ones that turn out to be false. But the relationship between the two—the indistinct but visible line between stylized memory and falsified events—does tell us something about the possessor of these memories. Perhaps, then, the conscious fabrications of Frey and others frighten us so because they are exaggerated examples of what we all do, constructing narratives that help to explain the past and lay the groundwork for the future. Conscious fabrication is a particularly egregious method of telling a story that reveals who we wish we were, rather than who we are—revealing, too, how the two are not as different as we would so often like to think.