Memory and Imagination

Reproduced from Roquetta, Menorca’s English-language periodical, May 2017.


“Memories – may be beautiful and yet – what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget,” sang Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.

There is a deeply imbedded truth in the lyrics of the song – and it may well be related to the way in which our brains work. Research has shown that there is a common brain network underlying both memory and imagination. Although there are separate functions, when we remember something, we actually re-imagine it – which is why, at times, memory is unreliable. For example, recollection of pain may be something too difficult to handle.

Interestingly, despite not having the benefit of modern neurological research, humanity may, since ancient times, have been taking advantage of this characteristic, as re-enacting has been used as a way of remembering events, traditions and beliefs.

There are numerous examples of this, some very close to those of us in Menorca, such as the flag ceremony re-enacting the handing over of Menorca from British to Spanish rule following the treaty of Amiens in 1802. The Spanish tradition of fiesta processions is a way of re-enacting stories of faith and of the saints – and not too far removed from the British tradition of Mystery Plays of the middle ages.

Farther back in time, the most time-honoured tradition of remembering by re-enacting is the Jewish Passover meal (sometimes known as a Seder meal), in which the story of Passover and escape by the people of Israel from Egypt is told through a symbolic meal. In Christian tradition, many churches remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with Palm Sunday processions. Equally, churches may read the story of the Passion of Jesus either on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, with the congregation placed in the role of the people crying, “Crucify,” – which is a good way of challenging us to ask where would we have placed ourselves, had we been there.

In fact, in many ways, Christian worship is a way of re-enactment, with Holy Communion being the re-creation of a meal in which there is intense meaning, and a meal in which there is constant re-imagining of our place as people fed spiritually.

At the beginning of June (this year), we will celebrate the festival of Pentecost, often described as the event at which the church was born – remembering something that was too intense to fit ordinary language, so we have imagery of “tongues of fire” upon those given the gift of speaking the gospel. And what is “speaking the gospel?” It is telling the remembered story of Jesus and imagining a present and future in which that story becomes a way of life.

All this remembering and re-imagining ought to make our world one in which we learn from the past and create a better future. In many ways, we live in a world which is safer and more prosperous than at any time in the past. However, the world is far from perfect, and the flaws and failures of humanity are very easily presented to us, leading many to wonder about the point of having any faith at all. I read a comment after chemical attacks on children in Syria, “Where is God? How can anyone believe in God?”

It is not the first time that question has been asked – and unfortunately, it will not be the last.

Elie Wiesel in his autobiographical novel, Night, recounts one day in Auschwitz, when the SS guards hanged two Jewish men and a young boy in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the child did not:
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked… But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive. For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face.”
‘Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”
‘And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is–Hanging here on this gallows.”

For Elsie Wiesel, God was present in the suffering of the child. In God’s seeming absence, God was there, sharing the pain.

Human beings have the gift of free will; all too often we exercise it for dubious, selfish or even awful means. We have the gift of memory and imagination together with free will that we might remember the errors of the past and imagine a better present and future. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill, although it was first written in 1905 by George Santayana in The Life of Reason, and it is not clear that Churchill actually quoted the phrase verbatim. Regardless of who said it, it is true – which may well be why we have these intellectual gifts of memory, imagination and reason, which together guide us to use our free will to improve, rather than worsen our world.

Should we simply accept that what is too painful to remember, we can choose to forget? As individuals, we lose our identity when we lose our memory; the same is true of us as a society. Collectively, we have a responsibility to remember what might be painful as well as what is pleasurable, to avoid the “endless repetition of history,” which is a phrase that Winston Churchill did use – in the House of Commons, on 2 May 1935.

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