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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