The Best of Roald Dahl
It seems like in my journaling or blogging or whatever, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the nature of memory — the ways that it helps us, the ways that it holds us back, and the ways that it sometimes tricks us. We think we’ve had an original thought, told a clever joke, written a unique melody, but then we find out that we’ve actually just recycled something that we’ve heard or read before. Or we have the opposite experience — someone whom we’ve known for a long time recounts some story in which we’ve said or done some momentous thing, but we have no recollection of the event. Did it happen? Are they mixing their stories up, or are we? We remember the exact circumstances of the first time we met our lover, but they remember only our retelling of the moment. The fact is we can’t retain everything, so our brain is forced to pick and choose. Those of us who lament that we are “bad with names” in fact just don’t pay enough attention when people introduce themselves. I can meet someone and then minutes later not have the faintest idea what to call them, not because something in my brain fundamentally can’t retain the information, but only because I wasn’t really present when they first shook my hand.
Every once in a great while, I start reading something, only to realize after some number of pages that I’ve read the thing before, some years prior. Usually it happens with fiction that left me so unaffected as to fall right out of my head the moment I turned the last page. My mother used to be an enourmous consumer of romance novels. Of course, they were all exactly the same, and it was impossible for her to know which ones she had already read. Nonetheless, it mattered to her for some reason not to read the same one twice. (I still don’t understand why.) So she developed a system: she would go to the local library’s used book sale, buy a stack of 20 or so romance novels for 25 cents each, and as she read each one, she would leave a mark on the inside back cover to signal its completion. Whe she had read the whole stack, she would donate them all back to the library. Then, at the next book sale, she would root through the piles and pick up only those romance novels that didn’t already have the mark in them. Of course, it didn’t guarantee that she wouldn’t end up with a different copy of the same book, but it probably didn’t really matter if she did, as long as she didn’t realize it, because they were really all the same book, anyway. But the mark system satisfied her, and there were always a couple of brown grocery bags full of books lying around the house, one incoming and one outgoing. The system may persist to this day; I’m happy not to know.
In any case, I experienced one of those tricks of memory when I read the The Best of Roald Dahl. I thought it was my first time with the book in my hands. A couple of the stories sounded familiar, but then a lot of the stories are a lot alike: a seemingly meek and mild-mannered person has some grief with a less-than-meek antagonist, and in the surprise plot twist, we find out the the meek protagonist in fact has a murderous streak and someone gets killed in an unusual and grisly way. And then I came upon the story “Royal Jelly”.
The legend of the Beeboy is not well-known, and I don’t care to retell it here. Those who know it, know it, and those who don’t, don’t. Suffice to say that it’s a tag that I’ve carried with me since I was seventeen years old, an alter ego that has taken on different meanings over the years. What I didn’t know was that the origin myth was lost even to me. I remember when I started being called “Beeboy”; I remember the first drawing of the Beeboy, the sculpture of the Beeboy, the first ‘zine and the first album to be put out under the Beeboy(!) Productions label. I had honestly thought that the whole persona had been the invention of myself and a couple of friends, seventeen years ago.
And then I read “Royal Jelly”, the story of a man who feeds his malnourished child on queen bee nectar and ends up converting the infant into a fat human-insect hybrid. I gasped at the realization — I hadn’t invented the persona at all. At least, not out of my own fancy. I had absolutely read the story before, in that year when I was seventeen. I had surely borrowed the book from Bughead, who was a huge Roald Dahl fan, and who had been there for the birth of my own Beeboy myth. It was a crazy moment — this totally integral creative identity that I had been employing for nearly two decades had its birth in something that I had utterly forgotten. It was like forgetting the birth of your own child, and then coming across a photo of the event years later.
Thing is, I’m forgetting so many moments all the time. There’s just no way to know what’s important while it’s happening, which events will be life-changing and need to be filed, and which ones will end up as useless mental trivia that stick with us for no good reason. I don’t remember quite where I was sitting when I started writing this entry. Maybe someone spoke to me. Maybe I’ll meet that person again, have to be reminded of their name, try harder to tuck it away this time. Maybe that person will go on to change my life, totally alter the arc of my existence. I’ll reach back for the beginning, try to find that first moment when I met them, and it won’t be there any more. Maybe they’ll have a story about it, or maybe it will simply be lost, a story to be invented rather than recounted.
Then again, recent research suggests that the act of retrieving memories alters them during the retrieval, because they get re-associated with the context in which we recall them. Think back to where you were on September 11, 2001. If you were like most Americans, you were glued to the television. Do you remember watching footage of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center? Seventy-three percent of the subjects in one study do. Thing is, that footage wasn’t actually aired until September 12. Which means that seventy-three percent of the subjects in the study report recalling something that didn’t actually happen. It’s just the constant review of the footage that happened in the days that followed that caused them to re-associate the memory with what they saw the day of the traumatic event. Memories, in a sense, wear out. We change them a little every time we “use” them, in a kind of mental Schrödinger’s cat scenario. Conviction is no indicator of accuracy. It’s quite possible to be entirely convicted of a version of events that rather completely clashes with reality.
So, we can try to journal and photograph everything and live with the information-retention fetish that is the modern world, data-mine our memories to create some Matrix of Truth. Or we can accept the fluidity of it all, and just try to tell good stories. I certainly do plenty of both. Given the choice, I suppose I would probably choose good stories over maximum data retention. In the world of Google, Facebook, Flickr, etc., I think the latter is probably the easier one to achieve. I can only hope that we don’t lose our collective handle on storytelling, crushed under the burden of so much recorded Truth.