Attitudes to Memory

Attitudes to Memory

Let me distinguish memories from our attitudes towards them. Memories, though changeable, are relatively static compared to our emotional response to them. The memory may fade or disappear with time (or it may not) but our feelings about it are quite plastic and can even reverse valence. A painful memory can become affectively neutral or even quite pleasurable in the light of later developments. What was once serious can become amusing. This is because we mature with time, gain perspective, see the bigger picture. It is attitude that determines trauma not memory content as such. Two people could have memories with the same content but vary in their emotional attitudes towards that content. Childhood events that were emotionally difficult at the time no longer seem so in retrospect. Proust was the master of this psychic domain: how we feel about what we remember not what we remember. The affective aura of a memory is separable from the memory itself. Memory affect is detachable from memory content. This means that a memory could be fixed and immutable while its affective charge is plastic and variable. We might not be able to rid ourselves of certain memories, but we may be able to alter their emotional force. In principle, we could change our emotional relation to memories at will while remaining completely powerless to change the memory itself. In practice, we could lessen the negative impact of a memory while leaving the memory intact. When people speak of “letting go” of the past or “moving on” from it, they mean lessening its emotional hold on them not lessening the presence of the memory itself. They mean something like remaining tranquil in the face of the memory not abolishing it altogether. The impossibility of the latter does not imply the impossibility of the former.

I mean this point to apply to the feasibility of rebirth therapy. Someone might object that simulated rebirth will leave memories intact, so not provide a way of freeing oneself from their malign influence. But this conflates memory retention with memory influence: you could retain the memory but not its affective charge. The affect could be reduced or neutralized without needing to get rid of the memory trace itself. A machine or drug could alter one’s attitude to a memory without altering the memory per se; similarly, the rebirth procedure could have the same kind of effect. So, it is no objection to the efficacy of the procedure that it leaves memories intact, because it doesn’t necessarily leave their affective charge intact. The question, then, is whether, empirically, such a change can be brought about by the procedure, given that it will do nothing to erase the memories as such. By finding, or creating, a new self within oneself, in the act of rebirth, it might well succeed in altering the emotional power of memories—as already happens with the normal passage of time and experience. If we can tap into the pre-trauma childhood self, we might be able to distance ourselves from the memories laid down by negative life experiences. Death abolishes all trauma, and birth begins with a pre-traumatic blank slate.[1]

[1] Rebirth therapy exploits a discontinuity in the removal of trauma: first, simulate death in order to abolish trauma; second, simulate birth so as to encourage the formation of a new untraumatized self. The time gap between these two phases allows the psyche to gather its forces after symbolically annihilating itself. There is something of existentialist psychology in this conception—the idea that we have the power to re-shape ourselves, to create a new facticity (as Sartre would say). I see also elements of Freud, Maslow, Goffman, Laing, and others.

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  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    It’s been many years since I read Mircea Eliade’s the Myth of the Eternal Return. Do you see your Rebirth process/psychoanalytic ritual as just linear, or is there also something cyclical about it? Eg does the dropping of the emotional grapsing to remembered events involve a return to some state? Does the transition from death to birth represent, or involve, a momentary return to a state of initial (psychological) creation of some form?

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