I was struck this morning by the cartoon, Garfield. Jon, Garfield’s human being, declares: “You can’t change the past.”
“True,” says the cat. “ That’s why they invented lying.”
But most of our reinterpretations of the past, our “false pasts” and our rearranged ones, aren’t lies in Garfield’s sense of the word. They’re not done with conscious intent. Most often, we change the past – that is, we lie – unconsciously.
Memory, of course, is also what supplies the stuff of imagination. Our past experience of say, a bicycle or a bag of onions, is what gives imagined bikes and vegetables authenticity. In other words, the imagination is rooted in memory.
Of course, memories are of an actual past. They have to be true most of the time, or at least to have a basic substratum of truth. Otherwise, how could we speak of false ones?
If memory doctors cure people with bad memories – if they change memories so that unhappy people are made happy – are they attacking the very foundations of what we call truth, or just amplifying on something everyone does anyway? But consciously, and with deliberation.
Those of us who are older remember when memory was considered reliable and relatively straight forward. We remember when photographs were thought to be real evidence of something that looked that way and therefore had been that way. Even if we’ve been aware for years of the distortions, deliberate and unconscious, that can be made to memory, we also recall that we once walked on terra firma.
I’m reminded that when novels first became popular, many religious leaders forbade their parishioners to read them. They were afraid they would no longer be able to tell the truth from fiction.
In our contemporary world of reality shows and tabloid headlines – in Safeway today, a four-incher reaffirmed that Obama was not born in the U.S. – (I thought they’d finally grown tired of the subject), how ruptured and unstable the once solid earth seems. Virtually overflowing with false memories and lies.
Is truth getting more and more complicated, or is it just my imagination?