Jane Austen’s Musings on Memory

The Crawfords, trapped by superficial narratives

If our memories are often unreliable, it may be because we are “storytelling machines.” That, at any rate, is what John Lehrer argues in an article in Wired. (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish for alerting me to the piece.) Rather than passively perceiving the world, Lehrer writes, “we tell stories about it, translating the helter-skelter of events into tidy narratives.” If the facts come in conflict with our tidy narratives, often the facts gets sacrificed. Thus our faulty memories.

Lehrer cites the following study to make his point:

We are so eager to conform to the collective, to fit our little lives into the arc of history, that we end up misleading ourselves. Consider an investigation of flashbulb memories from September 11, 2001. A few days after the tragic attacks, a team of psychologists led by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps began interviewing people about their personal experiences. In the years since, the researchers have tracked the steady decay of these personal stories. They’ve shown, for instance, that subjects have dramatically changed their recollection of how they first learned about the attacks. After one year, 37 percent of the details in their original story had changed. By 2004, that number was approaching 50 percent. The scientists have just begun analyzing their ten-year follow-up data, but it will almost certainly show that the majority of details from that day are now inventions. Our 9/11 tales are almost certainly better – more entertaining, more dramatic, more reflective of that awful day – but those improvements have come at the expense of the truth. Stories make sense. Life usually doesn’t.

As I was reading this, I was reminded of Fanny Price’s musings about the nature of memory in Mansfield Park:

“How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

Fanny shares these observations with the glamorous Mary Crawford, but Mary couldn’t care less. The interchange reveals which of the two has substance—and why Edmund Bertram is lucky in his final choice of a wife.

Our penchant for storytelling, incidentally, indicates why we are so drawn to novels and why we must be careful around them. A good novel has the capacity to complicate our inner stories, moving us beyond superficial narratives to deeper meanings.  A superficial novel, by contrast—say, a simplistic Cinderella romance or a bloodthirsty vigilante thriller—can confine us to our shallow fantasies. Although Mary Crawford’s attraction to Edmund is, I believe, driven by a deep desire for something meaningful, in the end she can’t shake free another story, that of being married to a celebrity husband who shines in the London social world. She needs to read Mansfield Park to get her priorities straight.

I’ve strayed from the observations about memory so let me just add that good novels are also very effective at alerting us to how our minds (as with 9-11 memories) play tricks on us. Literature’s most thorough and systematic exploration of memory is, of course, Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

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  • Jason

    Thanks for the post. Your consistency continues to amaze me!
    The spirit of it reminds me of Robert Fulford’s lectures/book “The Triumph of Narrative.”
    The book has the virtue of making the tried-and-true seem new (not to speak of the many, many ideas that were new to me!). I could quote for days…

    “Stories, in order to become stories, must be simplified, stripped of extraneous detail and vagrant feeling. We find it easier to do this with the lives of others – though from time to time, we may apply the same technique to our own history.”

    …on language learning: not until I could go through narratives in Slovenian and French (usually news broadcasts) did things begin to click for me.

  • Sean

    Great post! I would go a step further and point out that superficial novels and such pander to base emotions and often times follow a terribly hackneyed template. Nabokov calls these templates “traditional patterns of fiction.” He points out that superficial novels also allow readers to “recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise.”

    Storytelling is the only way we can connect ourselves to this world. Tim O’Brien said that sometimes we need to lie in order tell a larger truth. I see magical realism serving a similar purpose. There is no such thing as nonfiction, simply a subjective version of the events.

    “Good Readers and Good Writers” is a great place to start for anyone wanting to plumb into this discussion.

  • Robin Bates

    Sean and Jason, I don’t know either of the books you mention so I’m going to track them both down. Next semester I will be teaching the course “Theories of the Reader” and I want to enter into the complex ways that we use literature to process the world. Sean, I love the statement “there is no such thing as nonfiction,” which I think I will use. Are you quoting O’Brien’s The Things They Carried?

    It’s interesting how aware people have become aware of the role that narrative plays in our lives. Politicians are always talking about the need to control the narrative. So those people who understand how narrative works have special insights to contribute. We see more clearly the connections, and potential interactions, between literary narrative and the narratives we use to define ourselves.

  • Sean

    Indeed, O’Brien’s novel makes for an interesting discussion between storytelling truth and “reality” truth. I start the year off by telling my students the fallacy of nonfiction, and from there we can move into the role of narrative in literature.

    I usually tell them an extremely emotional story on the first day of class and they follow the emotional highs and lows; they become personally invested. When I finally let them know that it was all made up, some are angry, others amused, and a few know exactly what I’m moving toward. How do you retroactively get those emotions back? Does finding out that the story was “not real” actually make a difference? The point is that it should not matter!

    I always chuckle when I think of James Frey subjecting himself to Oprah’s wrath in front of millions, accused of “lying” in his memior…and what did we say a memior is? Oh yeah, a subjective version of the events and such.

    Your class next semester seems like it will be a lot of fun!

  • Robin Bates

    Am I right, Sean, in remembering that The Things They Carried has “fiction” mentioned somewhere on the back cover or spine? I think it’s important that it do so and that it doesn’t pass itself off as a memoir–or that, if it does at first for artistic purposes, it acknowledges what it has done. As I remember James Frey, didn’t he make things up and pretend that they actually happened? As slippery as truth is, I do think that those writing works that purport to be factual have certain fact-checking responsibilities that novelists do not. Journalists must check and double check everything or they just become Fox “News.” Novelists, on the other hand (as I am reminded by Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, which I just finished teaching), have the obligation to be true to human nature and to the laws they set up to govern their novels.

  • Sean

    Your memory serves correct, Robin. The O’Brien novel is fiction/metafiction and deals with storytelling as much as it does with the Vietnam War. I agree with you about certain works having fact-checking responsibilities. I would put autobiographies in this category; they can serve as important historical documents. Journalism must also adhere to these responsibilities as well. If not, then it’s as you say–networks can create their own narrative without any responsibility to the facts.

    Memoirs, by contrast, are afforded a little more wiggle-room, as stretching the truth is allowable within the framework. The late Frank McCourt told me at a NCTE conference back in 1999 that as hazy and clouded as some of his memories were on the subject of his childhood, his intentions for writing were always rooted in the human condition as he knew it to be. Talk about a great storyteller!

    Keep up the great posts!


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