“But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story–and there are so many, and so many–stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death,and so on; and none of them are true.
-Virginia Woolf, The Waves
I was a clumsy kid. I’d be willing to bet that we all hit an awkward phase at some point. Mine started sometime around birth and ended sometime around grad school. I was doofy-looking with Problem Child red hair, and I often dressed as Godzilla. I fell down a lot and was easily tripped.
I spent my childhood falling down.
As I spent the night reflecting on yesterday’s post (using my memory, of course), my understanding of the deficiencies of memory started evolving. This evolution is due, in part, to excellent comments from Miranda Stone and Jess West regarding their vivid memories of first grade teachers and first kiss recipients (deliverers?).
And they’re right. They are 100% right. I remember my first grade teacher. She was an awful woman, and I remember her face and how she wore thick-rimmed glasses before MSNBC made it a requirement of the liberal uniform. I remember her constant snarl–you may call it a case of the bitch face.
I also remember the first girl I kissed, but I won’t go into it.
The memories are there. My brain has the ability to call them up. All of them (unless I’m repressing something which is a conversation for a very different day).
So our revision of life and lived experience is something else for at least some of us. It’s not just a faulty memory.
It was some church function I think. I don’t quite remember (see?) what it was. It could have even been a family reunion, but that is way out of character for my family.
I was running around. I must have been in the neighborhood of three-years-old. I was running and I slipped and I fell into a gigantic mud hole. I was covered from head to toe in the thick mud. And I was embarrassed, looking for my family–my mom–so we could come up with a plan to replace my drippy, brown clothes with fresh and clean ones.
In the first grade, I was the picture of a nerd, and not the kind that is popular now. I was the kind of nerd that will always be unpopular. I wore hardcore denim shorts and little Batman t-shirts. There was this new kid in my class–Leo (not a pseudonym). Leo challenged me to a foot-race on the playground, and when we took off, Leo stuck his foot out and tripped me. I fell hard, and I didn’t know how to feel. It was my first encounter with a bully.
Leo continued to find excuses to trip me on the playground. I dreaded recess and started to dread school. One afternoon, Leo tried to trip me and two magical things happened: 1) a teacher saw him, and 2) I jumped over his outstretched foot. It was like a Matrix movie. I swear I experienced the moment in slow motion, and I felt proud.
Leo never tried to trip me again.
My memory is fine. I’m full of those stupid little kid stories from my childhood. And yes, most of them involve falling down. But, as the great philosophers of our time once said, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down” (Chumbawumba).
And as for the stories I told yesterday about ex-girlfriends. I remember them just fine too…if I make myself think about them for long enough.
But there is a line between the expressible and objective reality and the experienced and subjective perceptions of the person experiencing the reality. I define what I experience, and you define what you experience. And in the event that you’re there, you’ll also define what I experience, but you’ll define it for yourself.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, a linguistic determinist, posits that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” which is to say that our ability to make meaning out of experience is limited by our ability to use words to describe it. We are, in other world, held prisoner by our very finite linguistic system.
Furthermore, my ability to convey an experience to you depends directly on both shared/common experience and shared/common language. I can tell you that I was embarrassed and proud, but you only know the feelings that you experience when you have been your version of embarrassed or proud. The language doesn’t exist to convey those things accurately–to transmit my experience to you.
We lean upon the conventions of literature to get as close as possible. Figurative language is a huge help in this. It takes concrete and objective items and compares them to subjective experience. It isn’t perfect, but it’s almost all we have.
So maybe we don’t re-write our lives because we don’t remember them (necessarily). Maybe we re-write our lives because we don’t possess the language to tell our stories as they were lived.
Once, when I was WAY young, I fell in a fire ant bed. I don’t remember it. I only know that story about myself because other people told me.
Maybe our tendency to re-write is a little of both? A little “limits of language” and a little “limits of memory?”