According to Greek mythology, the cave of Hypnos can be found by those awaiting death on a poppy-lined mountainside in the underworld. The river Lethe trickles through the soporific cave. The Greeks say that all who sip from the waters of the Lethe will surrender to forgetfulness and be released of all earthly memories. With the lightness of liberation and the soft breath of the damp cave, their supple bodies will fall to the floor of the moonless chamber where they will remain as their souls prepare for reincarnation.
Learning, then, is the rediscovery of the knowledge that lies dormant in the soul. This rediscovery is expressed with the Greek word anamnesis, which means to unforget, remember, or recover the truths that are always already embedded in us. This also explains the derivation of aletheia, the Greek word for truth, in which the prefix a suggests the negation of what follows, lethe, or forgetting. Aletheia is the recollection of insights from our past lives, a recollection that draws truth out of concealment. To remember is to rediscover truth.
These are not the firm and situated empirical truths that some traditions find compelling. These are not truths that can be captured, articulated, discerned, or determined. When we cling to that form of correctness, we risk stifling and enframing the dynamism of the world; we risk mistaking this empirical account for an objective reproduction of the world as it is. And as this happens, something essential is forgotten. Such representational models of thinking reject that the world is constantly developing, and they fail to reconstruct more comprehensive truths that are sensitive to extraordinary and subtle change. Anamnesis encourages us to reimagine a truth that is amenable and responsive to all amendments and modifications, a truth that has not been decided definitively but that instead invites inquiry and adjusts itself to reflect new discoveries.
In this same way, when I speak of remembering, I am speaking of a poetic or reconstructive re-remembering and a creative revealing. Martin Heidegger refers to poiesis as the artistic gathering of diverse elements and crafting from those elements a human art that resonates deeply with and reveals the essence of the reconstructed materials. It is through this form of poiesis that we are able to rediscover aletheia, and it is through the poetic form of storytelling that we are able to weave together the discrete materials of our lived experience. We pick up the odds and ends of what we remember and what we’ve forgotten, and we use these to make narratives about ourselves that might deviate from and subvert reality or “what really happened.” Yet, through this process, we are able to create more resonant accounts of what has happened to us and of who we are.
Because memory is located within a particular kind of philosophy aimed at “capturing” being and making it accessible in the form of logical propositions, memory has been thought of as being primarily representational. It is commonly assumed that when we experience an event, it is consolidated as a mnemonic trace, which is then stored away in the singular repository of the memory, remaining there until some later moment when we are prompted to recall it.
However, in 1932, Sir Frederic Bartlett, the first professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge, challenged this idea when he published Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. There, Bartlett argues for a reconstructive approach to memory that problematizes the historically accepted reproductive model. He concludes that memory does not operate as a fixed and rudimentary structure of preserving, stimulating, and reproducing experiences; on the contrary, remembrance is a creative process that actively reconstructs events from a developing network of impressions.
This way of understanding memory establishes recollection as a mode of creative composition; to remember is to creatively assemble the past from the perspective of the present. Paul Ricoeur echoes this project philosophically in his 1984 reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he posits the theory of emplotment that explores the distinctly human art of composing narratives. Narrative composition, like the mnemonic process, reconstructs experience to give a sequential order to episodic and isolated events. According to Ricoeur, we poetically reimagine scenarios so that we may lend coherence to our disjointed lives.
Ricoeur’s approach suggests that when we remember and identify ourselves, we do so by telling stories. We understand our lives through our evolving narratives. We have narrative identities. However, these stories are constantly being rewritten, and as they change, our identities fluctuate with them. In this line of thought, life stories are the poetic solution to discordance, and remembering is the art form by which we reinterpret our individual experiences and derive meaning from them. Thus, memory has a distinctly personal dimension that evades objective representation and provides us with self-understanding.
Dismembering the Mnemonic Storehouse
Demonstrating, once more, the larger tradition of an objective and static approach to being, predominant theories of memory rely on metaphors and analogies of filing cabinets and storehouses in which experiences of past events are crystallized, consolidated, and tucked neatly away in chronological order, to be called upon and summoned for future review or else forgotten. Saint Augustine, for example, evokes a “great field or a spacious palace” where “countless images of all kinds” and “all the thoughts” have been stored away “for safekeeping.” Others believe, “the storehouse is [the] place where things are put in the hope that they may be found again when they are wanted exactly as they were when first stored away.”
However, recent studies in neuroscience and psychology have discovered that there is no mnemonic storehouse, and thus, there are no pure memories. In fact, the reconstructive approach to memory illustrates that the memory is not a passive system of imaging and reviewing the past. Rather, each time we recall an event, we reconstruct it in a new and different way. We recall an event according to our most recent images and rememberings, attitudes and impressions, opinions, understandings, needs, desires, stories, and narratives.
When recollecting an event, we are not transported to some prior point in time as a seven-year-old witnessing our first encounter with lovemaking or death. Instead, we conjure that scene based on our present capacity to interpret what such an event would look like. As stated by Charles Fernyhough, a contemporary psychologist who explores the interstices of literature and memory, remembering can only happen in the present through a “prism of intervening selves.” Therefore, in remembering, we ask ourselves how it would feel to be in the midst of such a formative moment.
We imagine what it would feel like to walk beyond the closed door and back out it with shame and misunderstanding. Or, to be standing beside a coffin in the cold wetness of the mid-December rain, several months after the death of a young cousin to whom in the years afterwards you will be compared to and told stories of, and wonder whether you will also be struck from the earth at the age of twenty-three and whether there will be a young child standing there at your funeral in her mother’s cloak, who will walk with her soon-to-be step-dad back to the green minivan with her soon-to-be step-sisters with whom she will only speak every third-year. And you will wonder if in the years following your death, the young girl will listen to the recording of the voicemail you left for your mother, panicking, just before the towers collapsed and you died, hoping you could’ve spoken with her one last time, heard her voice, told her you loved her; and only a couple of years before listening to this tape, that same seven-year-old girl, who is now a young woman, will sit in your bedroom, exactly as you left it, on the night that your father will die of cancer in a room down the hall, and she will look at the photographs on your bedroom wall, recognize herself in them and wonder if you knew her better than she can remember. Sitting there in your bedroom she will find a Magic 8-Ball, the very same Magic 8-Ball that she will give to her now ex-boyfriend to help him make decisions, and on the night that your dad will die she will ask it, “Will my Uncle Bob get to see my cousin again?” to which it will reply, “Undoubtedly,” all while sitting at a table fourteen years following your death, contemplating the nature of remembrance and storytelling while writing a reflective essay.
This is how we remember formative events. We do not view them as one would a video reel or an exact replica of that moment frozen in time; rather, we remember definitive moments in narrative form, creating stories from bits of past and present images that seem relevant and applicable at the moment of remembrance. The story changes with each telling, to each person, for new information is often gleaned, and as this happens, the identity shifts, new understandings emerge, and the elements that comprise the story are displaced and replaced.
The Mnemonic Schema
For Bartlett, past experiences are constituents of an evolving framework, or schema, into which active impulses are filtered and modified, and patterns of remembering and understanding are developed. Whenever a mnemonic entity enters the frame, whenever something new is remembered, the experience is molded by its relationship to other memories, and other memories are modified by their relationship to the incoming impulse. There is a constant interplay of new and former experiences. The memory system constantly rearranges itself, and as it does so, the memories themselves are reassembled. Because of this, an event is uniquely re-created with each recollection. This living mnemonic schema also weaves together emotional and intellectual information, assembling stories and narratives while reinterpreting our pasts from our situatedness in the present.
Zsolt Komáromy suggests that we would not be able to define all of the unconscious and internal as well as the outer, more observable conditions of our past experiences that relate us to the world. Memory then has the freedom to choose “among these relations, building out of them a new experience, always differing in some ways from the original it re-creates.” This does not suggest that “remembering would be free of all external factors determining it.” On the contrary:
The autonomy of memory depends precisely on these determining factors: the more such there are, paradoxically, the greater is memory’s autonomy, since the more relations to the world there are involved in a recollection, the greater the density of experiencing embraced by memory, the greater latitude there is for selection, for shaping, for the freedom of construction.
With each incoming impulse there is a greater opportunity for creative composition. The larger the developing network of memories and experiences (i.e., instincts, impulses and desires, interests and ideals, knowledge, information, and inklings), the more relationships there are to be delineated and the more possibilities there are to compose personal narratives. Memory, then, is not a reduplicative system of reproducing the past; rather, memory is a complex and developing system that creates scaffolds of meaning while poetically reconstructing the past.
I do not remember the death of my cousin as a singular or untouched reproduction of the day itself. When I recall that day, I do so with all of the associations I currently have. I actively reconstruct the image of being a young girl, imagining what it would feel like to be in that body. In doing so, I impose my current understandings of death, family, children, and many more emotions and sentiments that I harbor about the effect of that day and what it represents to each of the members of my family. I take these fragments of experience—the image of a cemetery, the rain, the mourners, the green minivan, the photographs in my cousin’s room, the Magic 8-Ball, the conversations with my grandmother—and with them, I build up a scene. I build up a world. I build up a story, and within the image that I have now conjured of the funeral stands each of these elements, wound up inextricably, if only momentarily, with the memory of my cousin’s death.
The reconstructive approach brings “memory into line with imagining.” From this perspective, “memory is endlessly creative.” It is dynamic and fluid. Memories communicate with our desires and mimic the movement of our interests and opinions. As our understandings evolve, our memories do too. As Bartlett states, “If, then, we have to treat the traces as somehow living and carried along with these active factors of ‘schematic’ organization, it is no wonder that they display invention, condensation, elaboration, simplification and all other alterations.” Similarly, our memories reflect our present understanding of the world and our own lived experience; we are known to assemble stories of the past to substantiate our beliefs. For these reasons, “memory [is] imprecise if viewed as a mechanism accurately reproducing discretely stored items of data.” Memory is not an empirical repository of historically irrefutable evidence but an art by which we actively reconstruct, dismember, and re-remember our pasts.
Emplotment and the Poetics of Storytelling
Although the term poetry descends from poiesis, poiesis does not refer to poetry alone. Instead, the ancient Greeks used the word more generally to describe an art form that is an active doing, making, and creating. It is a meeting point of the self and the world that transforms natural material and uninterpreted experience into something entirely new and intensely personal.
In the Poetics, Aristotle speaks of two entities that together produce poiesis. The first concept is called muthos, which Ricoeur translates as emplotment. This is a process of unifying disconnected events, organizing experiences, and composing narratives. When we participate in emplotment, we situate discordant events into the narrative arc of story.
The second entity that constitutes poiesis is a concept referred to as mimetic activity or, in Greek, mimesis. Mimesis is often translated as mimicry or imitation; however, Ricoeur insists that we resist affiliating this concept with mere reproduction. Instead, we must understand mimetic activity “in the dynamic sense of making a representation, of a transposition into representative works.” That is, we must understand it as an artistic and expressive depiction of an event that alters and transforms the original.
Ricoeur argues that human beings instinctually understand through narrative explanation. As a result, we have a narrative understanding of the world. We actively produce “plots in relation to every sort of static structure, anachronological paradigm, [and] temporal invariant.” We fathom our own lives by composing plots that represent them.
For instance, when I am prompted or inclined to explain myself and proclaim who I am and why I am Willow, I do so by telling a story. I could make use of a few adjectives, “curious, quiet, concerned,” but these traits could belong to anyone. So, if I would like to share with you the essence of what I feel—the core of emotion and understanding that sits in my upper chest cavity, that has been slowly and progressively developed through pain, passion and regret, and countless excruciating and seemingly insignificant moments of being—I will tell you a story. The story of who I am. I am not an impersonal amalgamation of events but the recipient of experience; I am the subject that is wrought with anxiety and determined to understand it. My narrative makes my life meaningful. It is the story that I tell that relates who I am and how I experience the world. The truth of who I am emerges with my story.
As demonstrated here, humans make sense of experience in narrative form. Consequently, if narratives are composed through muthos (emplotment) and mimesis (mimetic activity), and narratives produce meaning, then muthos and mimesis are the processes of making meaning. And, if poiesis is the craft of composing stories that is mediated through muthos and mimesis, then poiesis is the art form by which humans understand their lives and make them meaningful. As such, narratives are the mythopoetic result of the primal act of narratively understanding who we are.
Ricoeur illustrates how we draw from the aggregate of isolated and incongruent events and thread them together to posit a theory of how we have come to be. Each element represents a probable cause for the next, which makes the story whole and complete. Aristotle suggests that a thing is whole when it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, “it is only in virtue of poetic composition that something counts as a beginning, middle, or end.” Further, what constitutes “the beginning is not the absence of some antecedent but the absence of necessity” in the created sequence of events; “as for the end, it is indeed what comes after something else, but ‘either as its necessary sequel or as its usual [and hence probable] sequel.”’ There is no beginning, middle, and end in the lived experience. As poets and narrators, we create them. Thus, “to make up a plot is already to make the intelligible spring from the accidental, the universal from the singular, the necessary or the probable from the episodic.” To make a plot is to create a meaningful sequence of chance events.
When emulating and representing actions and organizing events, we find pleasure in comprehending the incomprehensible, making conclusions from the unfinished, and recognizing the form of that which is often jumbled and without order. In doing so, it is possible that “this pleasure of recognition . . . presupposes . . . a prospective concept of truth, according to which to invent is to rediscover.” Therefore, in the process of identifying compatible elements of experience and delineating relations between them, self-truths are revealed and the inner-workings of the mind are given form.
Thus, when we speak of mimesis, the operation by which we creatively emulate experience:
We must not understand by the word some redoubling of presence, as we could still do for Platonic mimesis but rather the break that opens the space for fiction. Artisans who work with words produce not things but quasi-things; they invent the as-if.
Each time a plot is constructed and story is told a possible truth is brought forth. When we speak of the break, the rupture, the fracture, and the fragments, we speak of the distance, the space, and the clearance that makes room for prospective connections to be drawn and redrawn, for stories to be written and rewritten and for possibilities to be disclosed and revealed. As storytellers and narrators, we poetically compose our own malleable truths, challenge them, deny them, and create them anew.
Narrative Identity and a Poetics of the Self
According to the narrative view of personal identity, as theorized by thinkers such as Marya Schectman and Alasdair MacIntyre, identity is constructed through the narrative composition of autobiographical memory. That is, we piece together our identities through the narration of a life story. However, these constructed identities are not like that of a physical entity with a fixed form. Rather, “these identities are mobile . . . narrative identity takes part in the story’s movement.’” Consequently, if our identities are formed through the emplotment of autobiographical memories, and autobiographical memories are in a state of possible flux that is mediated through the scaffolding system of interchangeable fragments of experience, then identity, too, is a poetic construction. We compose stories to understand who we are and the world that we live in. We are the myths we create, the stories we tell, the narratives we compose, and the truths we bring forth. We poetically create the self. We are poetic creations; we are mythopoetic, auto-poetic beings. Through anamnesis we rediscover the self by poetically re-membering who we are.
In this vein, we ought to reconsider what we mean by truth, and the mnemonic system that creatively partakes in restructuring the self helps us to revisit ancient models of knowledge and revise them. In fact, the reconstructive approach to memory and the poetics of the self provide an avenue by which we can rethink the infallibility of representational systems of knowledge and notions of protected and unalterable truths. It is possible that many of the truths that we define ourselves by are more malleable and imperfect than we are willing to concede. And if we welcome the possibility of a dynamic and comprehensive truth that is sensitive to change and compatible with flux, we might discover that there are further delineations to be made and connections to be drawn and thus more opportunities for our narratives of the world and of others to be poetically reimagined. Through anamnesis, we rediscover truth by re-membering and redefining our relationship to it.