Retrieving the past that never was

Sitting on our old car seat on the front porch up here in the mountains, watching the sun drift down a few months back, I got to thinking about memory as key to the past.

My generation tends to wonder if the kids who’ve grown up with instant “presence” can fully comprehend a world (my world) where events could not be immediately shared. I started thinking that we and all generations of the last two centuries suffer collectively from a similar limitation: We can’t mentally recreate the hundreds of thousands of years when the past existed only as personal memory and communal consensus.

Until the invention of photography in the early 19th century, all events died without leaving a corpse. Yes, an artist might attempt to reproduce a face or a battle scene, but the result was filtered through conflicting memories and the unique, often idiosyncratic attitude of the artist. 

Printing was the first development to “freeze” any aspect of the past: Never before could a collection of words be reproduced flawlessly, in quantity, without the inevitable human lapses and errors of a Bartleby. As one result, oral poetry – the recited epic of Homer and medieval bards – largely disappeared. Such prodigious arabesques of memory where no longer needed (though I’ve often wondered what new ways of cadging spare change the literate blind then devised).

Photography upended memory itself. The exact lineaments of a visual object could be fixed and reproduced, essentially without limit. Uncle Eustace, in his twenties, could live not only into his own old age, but into the old age of his grand- and great grandchildren. 

The camera, the mechanical child of physics, has no attitude, no personal investment, no “outlook.” You may quibble that the image depends on the angle of the shot, the stance of the photographer. But any two cameras of the same type and quality could produce the same picture when the conditions were equal. Personal memory and common consensus were trumped by an independent record that could be declared definitive.

Later in the 19th century, sound recording worked a similar revolution. Accurate reproduction was initially limited, but the effect was the same – the recorded song or sonata faithfully reproduced that song or sonata as heard on a given occasion. It was the difference between imagination and immediate perception. Now we could thumb our photo album to pull Uncle Eustace from his grave and place a needle in a groove to relive his laughter.

And here we are at the next step.

I delight in the online world and, like most today, feel cheated when all information does not swoop instantly to hand. (God forbid my ISP should tumble into the ditch, as it did a year or so back: “A tornado hit two miles down the road? Why the hell does that mean I can’t access the news from Ukraine?”) 

Yet in the midst of successfully nailing down an obscure etymology, I’m sometimes hit with a pang of loss: A lingering quizzicality – my cloaked friend all these years – has been executed by the Google mafia.

Will my brain atrophy if I’m no longer required to incrementally trace myriad possibilities back to a most likely probability? And should we really recover the lost eight hours of von Stoheim’s Greed, only to find them mundane? My personal reluctance to use a camera may stem in part from a desire to keep my memories firmly mine, even if that leaves them inaccurate and subject to the muddling meddling of my mind.

As printing silenced the oral epic, so has ubiquitous recorded sound smothered the intimate musical gathering. Here in our mountains, the tunes of the settlers have all but disappeared under the attack of generic country radio – not only for the younger generation, but for just about everyone. 

Only the very oldest residents express nostalgia for the progressive parties that ferried neighbors from one farm to another in horse-drawn wagons (summer) or “bobsleds” (winter) to dance to live jigs and polkas in living rooms where the furniture had been herded against the walls.

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