Yesterday I made a technical post on the relation between place and memory — that place-memory association is a two-way street. Overnight I’ve been considering how this impacts self, personal identity, and purpose. What follows are personal thoughts.
Memento is a great and insightful movie. Leonard, the main character, has complete amnesia. At one point he says he feels helpless, dead, living without a past. He knows his name, but has lost identity. If I recall correctly, Locke says that identity requires continuity across time*. Without memory, knowledge of this continuity, a person has lost identity. That is Leonard. More is missing from Leonard than his life story: neither he nor we (the audience) know his essence. Is he Good or evil? A force for harm or justice in the cosmos? Without a representation of the past, identity and essence vanish.
As I see it, a person’s sense of self is conceived as a continuous journey across space and time. Episodic memories are markers along the path. Time is serially ordered, and place clearly marked. Each episode is discrete, but placed along the timeline, they become landmarks and signposts. Without the episodes, the journey is lost, without the journey, the episodes are meaningless and out of context.Our sense of the timeline is a hopeful, ever-changing construction. We don’t really know every event and the continuity — although Penfield and Freudians thought we did. We imaginatively construct it. As I noted yesterday, I relish recalling the past. Cues, like odors and songs, bring back images of place, time and a younger self. These are almost always sentimental and refreshing. These memories are vivid, full of image and feel. They suggest both continuity and change. I was that person; I am now that person further along the path. An inward smile.
This sense of a life as a journey is also important looking forward. We children of the enlightenment feel we are on a path with a destination, that the path is progress. We inhabit a universe that is evolving, not cycling, and our behavior contributes to movement. Having a past is critical to having agency, to designing the future.
Places change, memories fade and change, we reconstruct the past and construct the future.
Tom Hartley’s video of Places I Remember and the 4-mountain test:
*Locke, “Essay Concerning Human Understanding“, Interesting essay on Locke, Memento and Personal Identity; See, also Parfit on Personal Identity for update on Locke. (Re Parfit: I’d jump in front of a trolley before having a brain transplant)
** Many thanks to Tom Hartley for the video.