Memory’s Legend and The Spoils of Victory.

Posted on March 17, 2011


I discovered a false memory a couple of weeks ago.

I re-watched Legends of the Fall because I couldn’t quite remember how a key narrative moment fits into the larger story of the film. It is a moment which, for a long time now, has resonated with me and seems congruent with an important moment in my life.

Before I continue, I should confess, thanks to an over-adoration of Hemingway as an adolescent, I have a very soft spot for androcentric, period piece, soap operas like Legends of the Fall. And yes, despite, it’s many faults — oh, so many faults! — I enjoyed watching it the second time around although I doubt I will ever watch it again.

Confession complete; now onto the false memory!

In the film, our hero, Tristan (was Brad Pitt ever so dreamy!?), haunted by the guilt of not being able to save his brother, deserts his family and his late brother’s fiancé, who has since become his lover, and plunges headlong into a world of depraved and destructive experience. After several scenes which recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, our hero suddenly wakes up from a stupor, amongst a pile of naked bodies in what is probably an opium den, and decides to return home. The implication of the scene, I recall, is that Tristan has finally and abruptly sorted out whatever he needs to sort out and, because of this, he now promptly returns home.

I wanted to revisit this scene because, in my own life, I had an experience not unlike it, however, in keeping with my highly introverted nature, my not-so-terribly-depraved and mostly conceptually destructive journey was almost entirely intellectual, even if it happened to take me to the very distant shores of Waiheke Island, New Zealand.

Much to my surprise, in watching it again, I discovered that the key narrative moment never occurs in the movie. In fact, the moment when Tristan decides to return home is never depicted. He simply turns up one day driving a bunch of — presumably once wild but now tamed — horses. Moreover, there is a scene in the film where Tristan wakes up from a stupor and makes a key decision but the scene actually involves a narrative turn more or less the opposite of the one I imagined. In the movie, Tristan wakes up from a stupor and writes a nihilistic letter to his patiently waiting lover, telling her to move on (and she does, right into the arms of the third brother)! In sum: not only did I imagine a narrative element that is never depicted in the movie, my brain grafted the imagined element onto an actual scene which is, from a narrative perspective, very, very different. My memory is not only false but it also corrupts a bit of accurate data.

Coming face-to-face with a genuinely false memory, it occurred to me that I must have other false memories, many of which will never be definitively determined to be false or not. Memories about books, movies, and any other unchanging “texts” are unique because many of the memories I have of them can be tested. Either Tristan got up and went home or he didn’t. In contrast, our memories of the “text” of lived experience can’t be tested adequately because our friend’s memories are as potentially inaccurate as our own whether they are shared or not. For most of our memories, there are no unchanging texts with which to test them.

It is said that history is written by the victors and, I’m sure we all agree, that’s true. Many of our war heroes would have been their war criminals had the war ended differently. It only really occurs to me now that this claim applies to our own personal histories. I am who I am for a whole lot of different reasons, I easily might have turned out to be someone very different from the person I am today, and that other person would likely remember a very different personal history than the one I remember. Moreover, the history remembered by today’s victor suits his needs, aims, and purposes and tomorrow’s victor will likely rewrite our history once again.

Discover any false memories lately? Feel the need to confess a love for a horrible, movie, book, or TV show? I want to know!

Posted in: Philosophy