The Merciful Filtration Of Memory

James Boswell, in his 1785 memoir Tour to the Hebrides, makes the following psychological observation:

I have often experienced, that scenes through which a man has passed, improve by lying in the memory:  they grow mellow.  Acti labores sunt iucundi [“Past work is pleasant to recall”].  This may be owing to comparing them with present listless ease.  Even harsh scenes acquire a softness by length of time:  and some are like very loud sounds, which do not please, or at least do not please so much, till you are removed to a certain distance.  They may be compared to strong coarse pictures, which will not bear to be viewed near.

Even pleasing scenes improve by time, and seem more exquisite in recollection, than when they were present:  if they have not faded to dimness in the memory.  Perhaps, there is so much evil in every human enjoyment, when present–so much dross mixed with it–that it requires to be refined by time; and yet I do not see why time should not melt away the good and the evil in equal proportions; why the shade should decay, and the light remain in preservation.

I have noticed something similar with my own memories.  Time planes down the jagged edges, and the bitterness of past events seems to melt away, leaving only the good.  Why is this?  Like Boswell, I “do not see why time should melt away the good and the evil in equal proportions.”  It is almost as if we have had some mysterious blessing conferred on us by Fortune:  that only what is pleasant and good remains of the past, while the rest is banished from the consciousness.  It must be some kind of defense mechanism, some biological necessity of survival; for perhaps the human mind would lose its balance if it remained constantly aware of life’s iniquities and acerbity.  I do not know.  The loss of memory is no doubt an evil; but the filtration of memory must be counted as a good.  It is not something that even requires conscious effort on our part; the unceasingly active mind performs this task on its own.  The soul has this ability to adopt whatever form as may be needed for survival.  As Ovid says,

The spirit wanders, coming now here and now there,

And adopts whatever form it wishes.

From animals it moves into human bodies,

And from our bodies to the animals,

But at no time does it die.  [Metam. XV.165-168]

There are some who make it a point of pride to say, “I will never forget.”  But when you probe beneath the surface of such statements, you will often find that such motivations are ignoble.  Their desire never to forget arises from a frantic attempt to control that which they have no right to control.  They wish to impose their will on others, and force others to feed an insatiable sense of grievance.  How can this be counted a good thing?  I say we should forget some things, and perhaps many things.  Not all loss is tragic:  some loss is merciful, and is to be embraced by the rational mind.

We should be grateful that we have this power of memory-filtration.  Read the memoirs of those who have suffered:  examine the writings of those who have been confined to prison camps, those who have endured catastrophic injuries, or those who have been witness to unspeakable events.  You will find, if you look closely enough, some kind of fond remembrance of even the most evil of times.  So Hans von Luck, confined to a Russian prison camp at the end of the Second World War, proudly relates how he learned to knit stockings to earn extra income; or we hear of the Depression-era farmer in the American midwest, who engagingly recalls how he shoveled dust and dirt from his living room while mired in poverty.  Time has filtered out the memories of the uncertainties, terrors, and insecurities.  I can only think that if the gods truly wished to punish a man, they would take away his powers of forgetfulness.



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