Memory and Identity: A Letter Exchange with Gurwinder Bhogal

My interest in the freelance writer and fellow Areo contributor Gurwinder Bhogal was originally piqued by his tweets: a series of gnomic utterances about the slippery nature of identity and about the universal, limitless human capacity for self-deception. “We are each a menagerie of different selves, a cacophony of contradictions,” he has written—adding, later, “never let your idea of who you are solidify.” He talks, often, of how easily manipulated we all are—by politicians and advertisers, by journalists and tech algorithms, but, above all, by our own rationalisations and confabulations. Like me, he is a non-believer in free will and he uses this to motivate compassion: “We’d probably treat people with more warmth and dignity,” he argues, “if we accepted that they ultimately did not choose to be who they are.”

Since, as Gurwinder himself writes, in his first letter to me, tussling with these issues on Twitter is like trying to dance “a tango in a phone-booth,” I chose the Letter platform to allow us to explore these ideas at more length. Letter is ideal for this purpose, since it is both personal and public. I wanted us to discuss this one on one, but I also wanted to be able to share Gurwinder’s responses with you. (I’ve written more about Letter here.) You can find our full exchange in written form here and as an audio file below.

I’ve often heard that the self is constructed like a story, by what Will Storr, in his book, The Science of Storytelling, calls the “hero-making narrator.” (I have interviewed Storr about this book on Areo magazine’s podcast Two for Tea here.) “We experience our day-to-day lives in story mode,” Storr writes. “The brain creates a world for us to live in and populates it with allies and villains.” Yet, while this may be true of how we make sense of our lives as a whole, our experience of memory is often less structured, more fragmented. The threads of memory that connect us to our past selves are fragile as spider silk. As Etel Adnan writes, memories are “avaricious, whimsical, they release things bit by bit.”

It’s less often memories of significant events that trigger recall for me and more often the sounds, smells and landscapes which formed the backdrop to past experiences. Those things that held my primary attention at the time—the people, events and relationships—have grown hazy, as if each memory were a snapshot, accidentally focused on a blade of grass or fence post, leaving the foreground blurry. Seemingly trivial details act as waymarkers amid the scrubby, gorse-covered landscapes of memory, pointing me towards past emotions, towards an intangible, but intense sensation of the way it felt to be that past me.

Or perhaps these memories are less like waymarkers than like landmines, hidden among daisies. Tread incautiously and they will detonate pangs of sadness: either for past sorrows experienced or past joys lost forever. India bombarded me with constant shrapnel of this kind—the wafts of sandalwood from the evening censor; glossy black dal makhani scooped up with fingertips so the taste merged with that of my own skin; the hoarse morning complaints of crows—all these things transported me back. But not to cinematographic memories of happenings, but to amorphous recollections of my emotions as a child. It’s as if I had been to a play and forgotten every detail of the dialogue and action and then—catching a glimpse of a dusty red curtain or a piece of blocking tape on a wooden floor—I were suddenly directly overwhelmed by the emotions the play evoked, bypassing the script and actors altogether. We are all ships of Theseus—every plank, rope and sail has been replaced a thousand times and yet the sight of a piece of scrap wood whose heft and grain recalls those of our old timbers sends us straight back, in memory, not to any specific voyage but to the general suck and surge, the salt chapping our lips and stinging our eyes and the swell of excitement at the prospect of the ocean.

As Gurwinder puts it:

although I have lived a somewhat eventful life, I have little recollection of its most impactful events, and the majority of my most vivid memories are of mundane, fleeting impressions: my mother singing to me in the bath, my friend and I building a spaceship out of apple crates, the struggle to catch a school letter being blown about by the wind. The importance of a life-event appears to have little impact on how deeply it will be inscribed in the mind; memory seems more like a chimp fiddling with a camera-phone, inadvertently capturing snapshots at random, rather than a photographer reserving his Megabytes for HD pictures of note.

Gurwinder and I both have unusually few vivid childhood memories and we have similar theories as to why. We both lost our parents very early and therefore hear few anecdotes about our experiences as children. I have almost no memorabilia, no souvenirs—as such objects are tellingly called—of my early life, and photographs of the child me can be counted on the fingers of one hand. “My memory,” Gurwinder writes, “is largely vaporous, but tends to crystallise wherever it is reinforced by other testaments or souvenirs.”

Photographs and tales told by family members can, however, not only prompt memories but create them out of nothing. Maria Popova calls this mode of recollection “prosthetic memory,” in an article on the photographer Sally Mann. Mann writes that, each time you gaze at an old snapshot, you are, in effect, taking a memory out to examine it. In the process, photographs, far from keeping memories vivid, falsify and distort them:

if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away … In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, dishevelled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.

Memory, Gurwinder writes, is not to be trusted, since “minds are pathological liars, and peculiarly gullible to their own falsehoods.” This is particularly likely in the case of memories shared by third parties. As I note in one of my letters,

Oliver Sacks once wrote that “Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.” We think those memories are intimately ours, but in fact they are family lore, which we have unquestioningly adopted to fill a need, to satisfy the urges of our own myth-making minds.

While writing his memoir Uncle Tungsten, Sacks reports that he was flooded with memories—only to discover that some were completely false: “I assumed that the memories I did have, especially those which were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial, were essentially valid and reliable, and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.” Sacks clearly remembered—he thought—an incendiary bomb which fell in his family’s back garden during the Blitz. He recalled shivering in the cold in his pyjamas, the heat of the sparks from the firebomb, craning his neck to try to make out the adults’ facial expressions in the darkness—but, as his brother Michael later confirmed, he was not in London at the time. He simply read about the event in a vivid letter from his other brother, David. He was so captivated by his brother’s account that his empathy with the narrator took an extreme form: he identified so strongly that he appropriated the memory as his own.

Gurwinder also tells a vivid story within our correspondence:

I was with my aunt at the back of my grandmother’s garden, and we had just witnessed a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. She explained to me that it had once been a caterpillar, but had transformed inside the chrysalis, and was now ready to begin a new life as a butterfly.

We watched the new-born imago lazily flutter its wings, like the eyelashes of someone freshly awakened. After a few moments, it took to the air, and slammed straight into a spider’s web, to be immediately pounced upon.

As I watched the spider wrap the butterfly in silk, I struggled to understand the meaning of it all. What was the point of a creature hurtling straight from womb to tomb, with nothing in between?

My aunt, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, had led me to believe that the world had been created by a god. As a result, the only way for me to draw any meaning from what I had just witnessed was to conclude that God was a cruel practical joker.

Of course, by the time I was ten I’d come to an even more unsettling realisation: there was probably no god at all—the universe was likely rudderless. Yet the meaningless image of a butterfly going straight from chrysalis to web stayed with me, and may have become a chrysalis of my own, catalysing the transformation of my outlook from one of theistic innocence into one aware of what Camus called the “Absurdity of existence.”

This story—whether it actually happened or was a subsequent confabulation, the product of Gurwinder’s myth-making imagination—illustrates how we use memories to construct a stable sense of identity. In a passage reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous description of memory in Orlando: A Biography as “the seamstress, and a capricious one at that,” Gurwinder describes identity as “a coalescence of trivialities which, when viewed accurately, constitutes an incomprehensible mess, but which, when threaded together by imagination, can appear as distinctive and dramatic as the greatest myths.” What is important, in creating an identity which allows us to make sense of our lives, is not accuracy of memory, but the ability to shape memory into a coherent narrative.

Professor Gillian Beer once told me that forgetfulness is a great blessing to those who love literature: since it allows us to enjoy our favourite novels more than once. To the forgetful, works already read retain a lot of their charm on re-reading: they are fresher, sharper, more detailed and vivid on the page than within our faded memories. To remember is to reshape, to reorganise, to file the square peg down until it slips effortlessly into the round hole where we want to house it. It would be disorientating and overwhelming to remember everything. Jorge Luis Borges’ protagonist Funes, the Memorious, cursed with an infallible memory, finds himself

the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform world which was instantaneously and almost intolerably exact. Babylon, London, and New York have overawed the imagination of men with their ferocious splendor; no one, in those populous towers or upon those surging avenues, has felt the heat and pressure of a reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the unfortunate Ireneo in his humble South American farmhouse.

Funes—who “not only remembered every leaf of every tree of every hill, but every time he had seen or imagined them” and who “was troubled by the fact that the dog of 3:14 (viewed in profile) had the same name as the dog of quarter past three (viewed straight on)”—is, Borges’ narrator speculates, incapable of abstract thought. His world contains no general categories, only innumerable and literally maddening details. Likewise, Laurence Sterne’s narrator Tristram Shandy’s attempts to compose a comprehensive self-portrait by listing every event of his life in order, beginning at conception, lead only to digressions within digressions and comic confusion. “And who are you?” the eponymous narrator is asked, towards the end of that unfinished elephantine tome. “Don’t puzzle me!,” he replies.

The Greeks depicted memory as the mother of the muses—but perhaps she might more aptly be thought of as their daughter. “Memory’s truth,” Sally Mann writes, “is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand.” Memories—whether personal or borrowed—are the raw materials, from which we select and which we manipulate and alter, willingly or unconsciously, in order to tell ourselves a convincing story of who we are. The memories we retain and retell reveal, perhaps, not who we are, but who we would like to believe ourselves to be. Our fictional accounts of ourselves stand in for reality and, given the unknowability of the self, perhaps this is not only inevitable but desirable. As Gurwinder writes: “poetry’s (and art’s) ultimate value is not so much that it can accurately describe the chaos of identity and memory, but that, in its neat and elegant simplicity, it can compensate for them.”

Letter is a digital platform for one-on-one correspondence. It combines the intimacy of letter writing with the convenience of an online format and the added value that conversations can be publicly read and shared. I work with Dayne and Clyde Rathbone to make this possible. To find out more, go to www.letter.wiki or contact humans@karma.wiki.

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  1. This Letters exchange was a bit too meandering. I read a few more and they suffered from the same tendency. Letters would be better in my view if a debate topic was identified up front and the writers took a pro or con position.

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