The Wayward Course of Memory
by Robert Fulford

(Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2014)

In the autumn of 1945, at the age of thirteen, I saw a star-encrusted MGM comedy, Week-End at the Waldorf, with Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, and Van Johnson. It was filmed in glossy black and white, with what I later learned to call "MGM lighting," a style that bleached out even the distant possibility of nuance.

The producers set out to make a featherweight parody of Grand Hotel, the famous 1932 Greta Garbo film about several interlocking dramas unfolding in a Berlin hotel. In Week-End at the Waldorf MGM proudly displayed a collection of famous names, like a countess exhibiting her jewels. In the hotel Van Johnson, back from the war, is falling in love with Lana Turner, a stenographer named Bunny. Walter Pidgeon is a famous war correspondent, Keenan Wynn a junior reporter. Robert Benchley plays a columnist, a kind of narrator. It was an agreeable film but in my view certainly not memorable. On that last point, I was dead wrong.

Twenty-five years passed. My oldest children, then 12 and 10, wanted to be taken to a movie, and I noticed that Week-End at the Waldorf was running at a revival house. In my mind it was amusing but unthreatening, the two qualities a father desires in entertainment for the young. After the usual negotiation, which included a clause on popcorn and soft drinks, we settled on my choice.

Watching it, I was astounded by the details I remembered. I knew the ending of certain scenes as soon as they began, as if I had seen them the day before. The old war correspondent was annoyed when the junior reporter awakened him by knocking on his hotel room door. As the door opened, I knew the camera would pull back so that we could see the correspondent had posted on his door a sign saying "do not disturb" in eight or ten languages. He asked the reporter whether he was a linguist and then ran through the various languages on the sign.

After a while I stopped telling the children what was coming next. They weren't at all impressed, no doubt because they had no idea what twenty-five years meant.

Forty more years passed. Turner Movie Classics showed Week-End at the Waldorf on television, and I stumbled across it while looking for something else. I watched for half an hour and still could predict each scene.

This experience, not at all unusual in my life, demonstrates the most perverse and arbitrary quality of memory, its mad and maddening unpredictability. We might consider it natural if people retained scenes from movies they cared about -- if I, for instance, more or less memorized Ford's Stagecoach or Hitchcock's North by Northwest. That would make a kind of sense. But Week-End at the Waldorf? Hardly.

The standard texts describe the hippocampus as the part of the brain "where memory is organized." But not, I suggest, organized well. Whatever happens in this process has none of the reliable quality associated with a librarian's word like "organized." Fickle, volatile, erratic -- those are appropriate adjectives. Memory emerges from the hippocampus like telegraphed news dispatches in the American Civil War, when both Union and Confederate armies made a habit of snipping the wires of the other side, so that bulletins from the front often arrived in fragments.

To make the hippocampus bulletins even less credible, they pass through a totalitarian system of censorship. Unconsciously we try to obliterate whatever data might be dangerous and therefore should be treated as confidential: ask any psychoanalyst, or for that matter any wife or husband.

History also offers a parallel to this form of secrecy. During the First World War the officials of the Kaiser's Germany thought it best for morale if they withheld bad news of the fighting and reported only the victories of their soldiers. So German civilians believed they were winning until early in November 1918, when the news broke that they had suddenly, inexplicably, lost. Their actions in later decades suggest that this ugly surprise drove them mad.

Our conscious minds, calling up transmissions from memory, have no means of recognizing the distortions created along the way. What makes it worse is that these fragmentary accounts of our personal history often enter consciousness when we least expect them, and often when they are least welcome. Embarrassments of the distant past, which we have "long forgotten" -- cruel words said in anger, for example -- are suddenly unearthed in the cluttered files of the hippocampus and speedily reported. There must be no one on earth who has never been betrayed by this randomly triggered intracranial version of the Freedom of Information Act.

"Memory," says Cees Nooteboom, the Dutch novelist, "is like a dog that lies down where it pleases."

I'm eighty-two, an age when you are entitled to free prescription drugs and portentous thoughts about the future. Naturally, I brood about memory. I had a stroke a few years ago, the mild kind that my neurologist classified as "lucky." But, stroke or no stroke, memory often weakens in the old; for one thing the brain is shrinking. So in recent years I have noticed curious gaps in what the hippocampus was reporting.

By now I'm used to recently acquired words and names making surprising and unaccountable disappearances. The term "word-finding" describes the system by which the right word at the right time appears to those with still sharp memories. Some old people learn an antonym, word-losing: Words long known and never neglected, not obscure words at all, suddenly are found to be AWOL. I've worried ever since I somehow lost the word "treadmill." Again and again, I reached for it and discovered that it wasn't in my accessible vocabulary, where it had been living for decades. Logically, this might betray a dislike for exercising on the treadmill; I might have unconsciously jettisoned "treadmill" out of disdain or boredom. That might make emotional sense. In fact, I enjoy my half an hour daily on the treadmill; it gives me a chance to watch Turner Classic Movies. Even so, it could be that I harbour a deeply unconscious dislike for any kind of exercise but don't care to acknowledge it. Or, possibly, the hippocampus just doesn't give a damn, one way or the other.

Only someone in his ninth decade could understand that I'm glad I can still call up the $20 prize I won in late adolescence from the CBC'S Jazz Unlimited program. It was for an essay on the theme "my favourite record." I chose Four Brothers, a Woody Herman record, and I can bring back the four saxophone players whose solos gave the tune its name: three tenors, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward, and a baritone, Serge Chaloff. The prize came in the form of a gift certificate from a record store. I bought a Billie Holiday album, which included her version of "Yesterdays."

That's one of the thousands of bits of memory that remain with me. But perhaps I won't have it forever. Slowly, I hope very slowly, memory is bidding me goodbye. The signs are clear. Odd facts vanish without explanation or apology. Testing myself recently, I tried to list without hesitation the twelve prime ministers who have governed in my lifetime, starting with Harper, going back to R.B. Bennett. Swiftly I scored eleven, but I flunked out on Kim Campbell. A few years ago I would have had all twelve.

I am good with long-term memory, not so good at short-term. That can be a bother, but it has compensations. If you are eighty or so you must have, in the nature of things, more dead friends than living ones. The people older than you are mostly dead and so are many people your age. The past is not a place to dwell, but it always repays contemplating. I can remember, for instance, a couple of dozen older colleagues, men and women who ushered me into my profession, helping to turn a timorous and not terribly swift journalist into a happy and productive craftsman. I like to remember the young Globe and Mail reporters, all of them in their twenties, who tried to instruct me in my late adolescence. They found my gaucheries not appalling but forgivable. They were followed by a platoon or so of editors who took me by the hand and steered me in something approximating the right direction. They are now installed (fairly securely, I hope) in the long-term division of the hippocampus.

I can call these people back from the grave, listen to them, maybe continue arguments we had long ago. I have lost many, many contemporaries, victims of drink or exhaustion or just bad luck. I miss them, and miss especially our youthful times together. With memory's help I'm glad to invite them back when they are needed and glad to welcome them when they make unscheduled visits.

It is only when your once-proud memory weakens that you begin to know memory's importance and its mysterious nature. A memory that comes to you exists in time but not space. It has no weight, no dimensions, no sound, no colour, no texture. Yet it is a fact, often a significant one. In any case it's as much a part of a human as a finger or an aorta. It is as real as the brain that creates it.

Memory is to an individual what a library is to a city and what the World Wide Web is to twenty-first-century civilization. It holds my history and establishes my place in civilization by charting my myths and my principles. It contains my mistakes and my satisfactions. The daily lives of all of us are governed by the mazes of technology, commerce, and culture, but we rely on our memory-stored traditions to guide us through them. It's only by consulting what the past taught us that we can even begin to understand the present. Kierkegaard expressed a central truth when he said that "Life is lived forward but is understood backward."

Memory is a box that more or less automatically fills in the course of a lifetime. Everything goes in, from T. S. Eliot to high school romance, from childhood misery and the joys of maturity to the neon lights of Tokyo, from The Tempest to "Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey," a song that clogged the airways in 1943, entered my unprotected brain and has not yet had the grace to go the way of "treadmill." No one can catalogue the contents of the box, and probably that's just as well -- many of us, perhaps all of us, would be ashamed of the chaos revealed in our reservoir.

What we all fear most, those who are climbing the upper rungs of demography, is the day when the box empties. We rarely discuss that event; the thought of it is too hard to keep in mind for more than a moment. When forgetting is the subject, I prefer to be amused by my favourite confession of memory failure, delivered by Lord Palmerston, the nineteenth-century British prime minister and foreign secretary, when he was asked about a major European issue of his day, the long-running territorial dispute between Denmark and Germany:

"The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it."

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