Remembering: A Phenomenological Study

Remembering: A Phenomenological Study

Remembering: A Phenomenological Study

Remembering: A Phenomenological Study


In this title, the author focuses on varieties of human memory, including recognizing and reminding, reminiscing and commemorating, body memory and place memory.


through spiral upon spiral of the shell of mem
ory that yet connects us….

—H.D., “The Flowering of the Rod”

The fact is that we have almost no systematic
knowledge about memory as it occurs in the
course of ordinary life.

—Ulrich Neisser, Cognition and Reality

In the case of memory, we are always already in the thick of things. For this reason there can properly be no preface to remembering: no pre-facing the topic in a statement that would precede it and capture its essence or structure in advance. Memory itself is already in the advance position. Not only because remembering is at all times presupposed, but also because it is always at work: it is continually going on, often on several levels and in several ways at once. Although there are many moments of misremembering and of not successfully recollecting, there are few moments in which we are not steeped in memory; and this immersion includes each step we take, each thought we think, each word we utter. Indeed, every fiber of our bodies, every cell of our brains, holds memories—as does everything physical outside bodies and brains, even those inanimate objects that bear the marks of their past histories upon them in mute profusion. What is memory-laden exceeds the scope of the human: memory takes us into the environing world as well as into our individual lives.

To acknowledge such a massive pre-presence of memory is to acknowledge how irreducibly important remembering is. If we need to be convinced of how much memory matters to us, we have only to ponder the fate of someone deprived of its effective use. Consider, for instance, the case of the unfortunate “M.K.,” a high school teacher who at age forty-three was suddenly struck by an acute episode of encephalitis. Within hours, he lost access to almost all memories formed during the previous five years. Worse still, he had virtually no memory of anything that happened to him afterwards: since the onset of the illness, “he has learned a few names over the years, a few major events, and can get around the hospital.” This laconic summary, tragic in its very brevity, conveys the empty essence of a life rendered suddenly memoryless by a microscopic viral agent. Such a life is without aim or direction; it spins in the void of the forgotten, a void in which one cannot even be certain of one’s personal identity. Not only does it show that what most of us take for granted can be abolished with an incompre-

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