The most interesting exhibit I saw yesterday at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City was about human memory. It honored Geoffrey Sonnabend who, in 1946, wrote a study entitled Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter.
Sonnabend’s thesis was that memory is an illusion. The inevitable outcome of all experience is not remembering, but forgetting:
We, amnesiacs all, condemned to live in an eternally fleeting present, have created the most elaborate of human constructions, memory, to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events.
According to a summary by Valentine Worth available in the museum’s gift shop:
Sonnabend did not attempt to deny that the experience of memory existed. However, his entire body of work was predicated on the idea that what we experience as memories are in fact confabulations—artificial constructions of our own design built around sterile particles of retained experience which we attempt to make live again by infusions of imagination, much as the blacks and whites of old photographs are enhanced by the addition of colors or tints in an attempt to add life to a frozen moment.
It seems to make sense. I don’t know if I would read all three volumes of Sonnabend’s Obliscence, but I can see how many of my own memories have been encrusted by confabulations just as an old shipwreck is encrusted by layers of calcium carbonate and other concretions. Here is an illustration from his work that shows how complicated it gets: