that Harry Potter, I’m a better sorcerer than he, by far.
And I’d better be, because I’m fighting a pitched battle,
all the while Popular Science is telling me I can’t
believe in my magic.
Nonetheless, I’m brewing an alchemical talisman that no curiously
scarred four-eyed wannabe could whip up: Caffeine, alcohol
and stubborn nostalgia are my ingredients, and a liar’s instinct
my guide—not a kindly owl, or whatever.
I’ve got a spell to cast because technological progress is
trying to dismantle my identity, threatening me with the dire
specter of the objective truth. I’m brewing a potion to protect
all the best moments of my life—all my precious, fond, awkward,
enlightening recollections of days passed.
New research on the functioning of memory has revealed some
fascinating, frightening things. According to psychologist
Elizabeth Loftus, “Memory is a creative event, born anew every
day. You fill in the holes every time you reconstruct an event
in your own mind.”
Because much of what you experience sensorially is fleeting—not
just in its actual, external duration, but as experience—your
brain compensates, provides continuity where none actually
exists in your memory. The sensation is there—on your skin
or in your ear—and then it’s gone: A chill wind plays across
the hair of your neck immediately after a haircut, your skin
still warm from the barber’s straight-razor tidying; later
a companion in a bar introduces you to a friend, with whom
you chat for an hour. Was the wind from the east? Was the
barber himself clean-shaven? Was there anyone in the chair
next to you? Did you shiver at the first touch of the blade?
How was traffic on the way to your appointment with your friend?
How was the radio reception? What did you order at the bar?
The bartender had a combover? A mohawk? The conversational
partner—was it Julia, Julie, Judy, Morgan?—the blonde, the
strawberry-blonde, the raven-haired one, she wore a turtleneck,
a novelty T-shirt, a denim jumpsuit, a lobster bib and leather
chaps? Most information just never makes it into your permanent
files, so to speak. So your compliant liar’s brain embellishes,
gives your memories a scaffolding on which you can drape those
scenes recalled in more vivid colors, the ones that pop (as
a lobster bib and leather chaps likely would).
For this sensation to stick, scientists surmise, there must
be a process of translation. The sensory input must be translated
into language, in which form it can be more easily stored
(this is, of course, a lay explanation—and doubtless a shabby
one—of how the neuro-mechanics accomplish this near-miraculous
feat). It’s for this reason clever hostesses repeat names
of new acquaintances to themselves several times after an
introduction, translating the sound of a voice, the visual
impact of a hairstyle, the crook of an elbow into a word (say,
“Monty”), and into a memory (Monty the stuttering man in bell-bottoms
and flip-flops who upended the punchbowl at the piano recital,
and took a nerve-racking 20 minutes to conclude a staccato
“s-s-s-s-s-sooo s-s-s-s-sorr-sssoorrr-sorry,” for example).
By force of biological necessity then, your memories are stories.
Anecdotes. And according to scientists and psychologists,
you’re making them up as you go along—adding, subtracting,
shifting, expanding, retracting details at every recollection
and retelling. Your life, in other words, is a fable. An oral
tradition of tall tales and legends that you tell yourself
As a storyteller, a compulsive embellisher, I’m cool with
this. I think I knew it all along. I am no more or less than
the stories I tell about myself to myself. Brilliant. Then
I can be anything at all, and at any moment suddenly shift
emphasis. I can emerge from my time as a gothic horror—out
from the shadows of towering and blatant symbols of my sneaky
subconscious desires—into a briefly frolicsome incarnation
as comedy of manners, or star as a rogue in my own picaresque
episode. I would have it no other way. Who would? Who would
renounce the chance to truly author one’s own life? To sit
cross-legged in the warmth of the fire and create your own
folklore. You’re a conjurer, a shaman—hell, a god creating
life by force only of language. If you say there was light,
then damn it, boy, there was light. If you tell a convincing
story, we’ll remember it along with you.
But beware. There are cynics, doubters and apostates who’ve
turned their backs on the faith and will quiz and question
you, trying to unravel your recollections. In the past, it
was a war of words, and he who told it best won (this being
a corollary of the history-as-the-story-of-winners theory).
Now, though, scientists are saying that there may just be
a way to sift the fanciful memories from the factual. And,
honestly, that scares the hell out of me.
A Harvard neuropsychologist, Daniel Schacter, has discovered
that, deep buried in the gray matter, the parahippocampal
gyrus lights up brain scans with increased activity for true,
but not false, memories. Schacter’s work has been typified
as “preliminary,” but it has fueled the once-faltering hope
that such a test could be devised. The forensic usefulness
of such a technique aside, I’m comfortable in coming out against
it, for purely selfish reasons.
Tonight, I’m sitting in my living room with a nostalgically
loaded CD carousel (I’ve got Slanted and Enchanted,
an early Spaceman 3 demo, the soundtrack of Killing Zoë,
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Coltrane’s
My Favorite Things). I’m hoping that I’ve calibrated
the intake of coffee and red wine such that I’m both alert
and loose, sharply spacey. That’s the best state for time
travel. I’m headed into some stories that I’ve told myself
about a certain time and a certain place in the past, and
I’ve got no patience for anyone trying to peer behind my curtain
while I perform my sleight-of-mind.