Perfect Memory? Maybe Not.
July 14, 2010 1 Comment
I’ve often wondered what it might be like to have perfect memory. And I don’t mean a photographic memory. I mean a perfect memory of every perception ever experienced — the inability to forget.
Stripped of forgetting, we become the cumulative vileness we actually are, and we bow, because we must, and lose the authority to dictate any path forward. If this happens across the species, then much of human history does not happen — indeed, civilization never comes into being.
Historians routinely find multiple defects in great people of the past. Now imagine if these great people were afflicted with a perfect understanding of their defects. Imagine, for example, if Thomas Jefferson understood with perfect unforgettable clarity every defect of his character and personality — would he have nevertheless been a great statesman? No. The knowledge, the inability to forget, would have been crippling. He would have spent his days begging forgiveness. And neither the Declaration of Independence nor America would ever have happened.
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne — the personification of memory — was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, and the mother, with Zeus, of the nine Muses: Calliope (Epic Poetry); Clio (History); Erato (Love Poetry); Euterpe (Music); Melpomene (Tragedy); Polyhymnia (Hymns); Terpsichore (Dance); Thalia (Comedy); Urania (Astronomy).
The last, Astronomy, may be a modern exception because it has become a rigorous science, and therefore arguably no longer the beneficiary of a muse. But otherwise all of Memory’s progeny turn on the magnitude of our forgetting, our ability to fashion partial narratives from our selective memory. What is Epic Poetry or History or Comedy but the forgetting of vast swaths of tedium, of reality?
The hormones that wash across our brains, the emotions that impel us forward, the stupid certainties that make us charge, perhaps these are responsible for human progress, perhaps not really knowing guarantees our progress.