There is a mistaken assumption that memories are reasonably accurate movies, little pieces of trustworthy journalism, reliable reporting about prior events. It’s a comforting, if false assumption. I’m afraid the truth is much less comforting. Truth is like that.
Believing that memories are reliable helps us cling to the notion that there is a clear and linear continuity binding together the moments of our lives, both as individuals and as society, into a knowable whole. Everything – history, identity, even our very notion of truth – is built upon the foundation of memory. So if we’re wrong about memories, if they’re not as reliable as we think they are, then we might be wrong about everything else too.
Memories are simplistic portraits of highly nuanced and complex phenomena, like children’s drawings of quantum fractals – phenomena that cannot be reduced to a single narrative and painted with crude brush strokes.
Memories cannot be objective. In fact, they are the very definition of subjective – everyone has their own private memories of even the most communal events. And the way we perceived that event was largely filmed, so to speak, through the lens of our own prejudice and conditioning. It really is true that we do not see the world as it is – we see the world as we are. At root, memories are projections of what we think we saw, not what happened. They are creative acts. And we’re the artists.
What’s most troubling is this irrefutable fact: when you are indulging in a memory, you are not going back to the past. Here’s why. A memory is a thought, and thoughts by definition exist only in the present. In other words, the past doesn’t exist, except as a thought occurring in this present moment. You can never return to the past. There’s no such place.
All of this leads to the next question. Have you ever wondered why so much art is about memory? From Proust’s madeleine to Citizen Kane’s Rosebud, art looks back. Think about how many songs and movies and novels and plays and paintings and poems and short stories and television shows are anchored to an earlier time. Why is that? For a lot of reasons. Sometimes artists are genuinely trying figure out how we got here. Other times it’s pure escapism. People simply want to swim in a dream world of a past that never really existed. The same dynamic applies to so much of fantasy literature and film.
Even the world’s creation myths can be seen through this lens. Many people believe that the world’s creation myths are attempts to answer the question: How was the world made? But Joseph Campbell and others suggest that a far more personal question is in play: What am I? The idea is that if I could understand the creator’s essential nature, I might begin to understand my own essential nature.
All of the world’s creations stories, if read as history, are of course patently absurd. Did any of the people who wrote these stories witness the events they describe? Obviously not. How can human beings be reliable witnesses of their own emergence?
And yet stories of the past, creation stories included, have enormous power and purpose. And what is the fundamental purpose of this kind of art? What are we really after when we write a song or a myth about the past?
It depends. Creation stories, as we have seen, have a largely investigative purpose. They are poetic attempts at metaphysics, and if read metaphorically, have much to teach us. Or at least they help us raise beautiful and profound questions. Creation stories allow us to confront and frame the ineffable forces of the cosmos itself. But if you’re writing a song that simply draws the listener into an idyllic vision of a lost world, whether that world be “Dixie,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” or “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” you’re trading in nostalgia. Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, the songwriters of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” taught us all how to sing “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,” but neither of them had ever set foot in West Virginia. They made the whole thing up.
Maybe Plato was right when in The Republic he warned us to be wary of artists. Artists, he argued, don’t deal in truth or reality. They lie for a living. They weave threads drawn from real experiences into entirely fictional but comforting burial shrouds. They don’t lead us to the light, but to the comfort of the coffin.
But there’s another side of the coin. There always is.
In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote that poetry (and by extension all art) strengthens our capacity to empathize by exercising our imaginations, for it is our capacity to imagine that makes empathy possible. If you cannot imaginatively put yourself in another’s life, another’s circumstance, another’s skin, then you cannot experience their suffering. And if you cannot feel their suffering as your own, you cannot experience compassion. Without empathy we are sociopaths – no one but ourselves is real. Art then has an enormously important and therapeutic role to play – it is an instrument of global awakening and social justice.
Still the fact remains that art trades in illusion. Artists create artificial worlds where they, like gods, ascribe value and meaning to everything in them. Depending on the artist, this can be a benign process, or a simply enjoyable one. But it is also how pedantic, manipulative, and dangerous propaganda is constructed.
When in the early 20th century, some 40 years after the end of the Civil War, white supremacists in the American south began to push back against the enormous strides freed slaves had realized during early Reconstruction, they concocted and propagated a false narrative about the war that served their racist agenda. Racist white leaders reframed the war as a noble cause that had little or nothing to do with enslaving African Americans. And they erected statues of Confederate generals all across the south as totems of their self-serving nostalgia. For generations, every black child walked past these statues on their way to school – schools named after prominent slave holders. The paradigm of racism and inequality got codified into the consciousness and baked into the structures of the community through art, song, and even curriculum. This is how a lie takes hold, with art as the glue that holds it together. Can you whistle “Dixie?” Yeah, I can too.
“Dixie” was written by a white northerner in the mid-19th century and quickly became a standard on the minstrel circuit, the most popular form of entertainment at the time – white singing groups in black face depicting black people as infantile simpletons. Songs like “Dixie” wistfully portrayed slavery as a bygone age of bucolic happiness. The lie of the happy slave salved white conscience, and made possible all the horrors to come – black codes, Jim Crow, lynching, and institutional racism.
Who owns the past? Who gets to sing about it? And what is their agenda? These are important questions we ignore at our own peril.