From time to time, we all get unexpected messages from people we haven’t seen in years. One of these came my way in the form of a fax from a Vivienne, whose charming name I thought I remembered from a different life in a different place, about twenty five years ago.
However, I have a shockingly bad memory for names. I can remember phone numbers: my head is full of disconnected phone numbers. But names are a problem. More than once, I’ve embarrassed myself by mis-identifying one of these rediscovered “old friends,” confusing them with somebody else entirely, and mailing a letter that made my mistake obvious. Nobody likes to be forgotten. So I wanted to be certain who this Vivienne was, before making any reply.
Her message gave two clues. It mentioned a village in England where I used to live, and it named “My new novel, just published in America.” So I got a copy of Vivienne’s new novel, and studied the photograph of her on the jacket. No light bulbs flashed on, no bells rang. She was almost certainly not one of my ex-wives. The novel itself gave few clues, except the evidence that Vivienne was no literary genius, and had read too many gothic romances.
It was time to consult the archives of my life. Since I never throw anything away, these are extensive. I was able to find an address book from this period. Old address books are a treasure trove for the amnesiac. Sometimes the juxtaposition of a name and an address, or a phone number, or even the name of a child or a dog or a spouse will trigger the buried memory. Or sometimes not: I was fascinated by the mental gaps revealed in my old address book. Who in the world was John Akam from Honolulu, and how did I come to know him? Why did I have so many addresses from Sheffield, a city where I’ve scarcely ever been? An alarming proportion of the names in this book had left no memory trace whatsoever, and Vivienne’s name was not there at all.
Without much hope, I dragged out my ancient diaries, hoping to find her mentioned there. I used to advise all my friends and students to keep a diary as a treasury of memories and experiences. I don’t give that advice any more. Diaries defeat our basic mental survival mechanism, which is forgetfulness. There’s nothing worse than having a written record of all your past mistakes, enthusiams, resolutions, relationships, and ambitions – an undeniable record in your own handwriting of everything you ever got wrong. The reason we are not crushed under the weight of past dreams is simply that (usually) we forget what we dreamed about. Freudians may call it repression: I call it “auto-amnesia” – the reverse of those “auto-save” programs on computers.
No modern, up-to-date person keeps a diary. Diaries are not cool. Historians may complain that this is the death of history. Without diaries (and letters), how will we know the past? The answer is, we won’t: just a few fragments of printed-out e-mails, a few archived web pages. Historians will become mere technocrats, harvesting fragments of the past from ancient floppy disks. The future of the past belongs to movie makers like Oliver Stone, who will script it as they wish, and as the box office dictates.
Never mind the fate of the past. Just don’t keep a diary. It’s best to live in the eternally hopeful near-future, which I think is the genius of the modern age. George Santayana said that that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This is the opposite of the truth. Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it forever, like those old men who eternally tell their Second World War stories. Memory keeps us stuck in the past, where all the interesting things happened. A little amnesia would bring peace to Ireland, Bosnia, the Middle East, and the world. Without our long-remembered grudges, we would be much nicer people.
The mysterious Vivienne did not appear in my diaries, even as a secretly coded footnote.
In the end I was reduced to the desperate stratagem of e-mailing someone who I thought might have been a mutual friend in those days, and who has a memory like a mainframe computer. The e-mail bounced right back with the message “I can’t believe you don’t remember Vivienne. We all used to spend hours in the Rose and Crown with Vivienne and Melvin.”
Fine: but who on earth was Melvin?
Copyright: David Bouchier