Re-membering Memory

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The book of Isaiah falls into three sections, each with a different author who between them span some 230 years from the 720’s to the 5teens BCE. In the O.T. lesson for Advent Sunday we encountered the voice we now recognize as Trito or Third Isaiah, who in the around 515 BCE addresses the Jewish exiles recently returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. The O.T. lesson for the second Sunday in Advent moves further back in time to the period immediately preceding the fall of Babylon to the Persian armies around 550 BCE. In chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah, we hear the voice of Deutero of Second Isaiah, who prophesies new political shifts that will result in the ending of the period of Jewish captivity in Babylon. Whereas Third Isaiah addresses the returnees, Second Isaiah is still looking forward to their release and eventual return.

The words of Second Isaiah are known to many today who either reject or are in ignorance of the Christian faith because his words are memorialized in Charles Jennens’ libretto, which Frederick Handel set to music in his oratorio The Messiah. We cannot hear the words: 

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

without Mr. Handel’s music resounding in our heads.

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One of the aspects I sorely miss from 30 +years living in London is the ability to catch a thought-provoking play at the National Theatre at the South Bank, that wonderful complex of theatres, concert halls, museums and restaurants along the Thames at Waterloo – only a 20-minute tube ride away from where we lived in North Greenwich.

I was reminded of how much I miss the National when on Wednesday evening I experienced the Gamm Theatre’s very fine production of Nick Payne’s play, Incognito. Incognito means to conceal one’s identity. Payne explores the fragility of our sense of self and the way it fluctuates according to retention and loss of memory.Before the play begins a number of quotations are projected onto the blank backdrop of the stage, all of which highlight the fluid and somewhat fragile nature of something we take for granted as automatic, namely a continuous sense of self.

Identity is that sense of self that flows across time from one moment to the next. Am I at this moment the same person as I was yesterday and will be tomorrow? It’s an important question, which is obscured by our tendency to assume memory and identity as fixed givens. Like the division of time into past, present, and future, some would claim that this continuity of self is a necessary illusion, but an illusion nevertheless.

Our brains operate rather like pattern-mapping and matching machines. The machine analogy has it limits because human brains are like and yet, not like pattern matching computers. However, the ability to recognize experience in the present moment rests on the brain’s rapid matching of the current experience with a template of experience stored in memory. Occasionally, but less often than you might think, we are stumped by a truly new experience, completely unfamiliar. What we experience as unfamiliar results when a current experience can’t be quickly matched to memory.  Sometimes it takes a little longer to locate the right stack, section, and volume in the library that is the memory. Sometimes it’s not possible because a memory template is not there. The indigenous peoples of America first saw Europen ships by not seeing them because what their optic nerves recorded had no corresponding memory template.

Memory plays fast and loose with our linear conception of time. In one way, memory is the past. Yet, the past appears incognito as it were. Unseen- unknown, memory filters our perceptions of the present and shapes our expectations for the future. When memory fragments, what happens to our sense of self and with it, our linear conception of identity flowing across time? This is the subject of Payne’s play, Incognito.

As we live longer with an accompanying increase in the incidence of dementia, the fear that any one of us might find ourselves slipping into incognito or the pain of seeing a loved one increasingly lost to the experience of incognito, increases.

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If all new experience is filtered through the templates stored in the memory, can anything really new ever happen? The answer is yes. Because the brain’s pattern-matching is not an exact computer-like repetitive process. In the human brain, the new is dawning all the time as a process fragmentation and recombination or re-membering. This process of fragmentation and recombination is what I mean by the hyphenated word re-membering – a rearranging of old memory elements into new configurations dictated by the needs of the present.

This fluidity in re-membering underpins human adaptability and our ability to successfully align with our environment. Memory fragmenting and recombining in the act of re-membering -into new configurations is happening imperceptibly – that is until that moment when we realize that something has shifted, that times have changed, that a new perspective opens up before us.

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This is not only true for individuals it is also true for communities. Like individuals, communities form stable identities through the operation of the collective memory.

Mark opens his gospel with a skillful collective re-membering of collective memory. He begins his story of the good news of Jesus Christ with the figure of Elijah represented by John the Baptist. In the new figure of John the Baptist, collective memory is re-membered to evoke a familiarity with the image of Elijah as popular imagination pictured the forerunner of the Messiah.

Mark then draws from the words of Second Isaiah, though regrettably for him, without the internal accompaniment of Mr. Handel’s music.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 

In associating this collective memory with Jesus, Mark creates the opening scene for something new in a re-membering of elements in Israel’s collective memory, which takes Israel’s story in a new direction.

Re-membering is not confined to the Judaeo-Christian practice of reworking tradition in new directions to meet the needs of the present time. Re-membering operates  at all levels of social-civic life. Both as individuals and as communities such as a nation, we are always in the process of re-membering- recombining-reworking elements in our individual and collective memory. The question to ask is for what purpose and what is the result?

I am sure that for those with ears to hear the process of fragmentation and re-membering offers us new ways to interpret collective forces at loose in our current political life.

*****

Advent is a time of waiting. Advent’s waiting is not simply a literal waiting for a date on the calendar – December 25th. Advent’s waiting is a deep universal experience of tolerating frustration and weathering uncertainty. Advent’s waiting is also an invitation to risk having hope and  I refer you back to last weeks exploration of hope here. For waiting is underpinned by a process of fragmentation and re-membering so as to create the new.

But for this moment in time let me end with words from the Irish poet and mystic John O’ Donohue from his poem A Morning Offering:

May my mind come alive this day

to the invisible geography

that invites me to new frontiers,

to break the dead shell of yesterdays,

to risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today

to live the life that I would love.

To postpone my dream no longer,

but do at last what I came here for

and waste my heart on fear no more.

The object of hope, that is longing for a future better than what we already have. Hope is underpinned not so much by what we remember from past memory, but how we re-member the past in the present.

Is re-membering a slipping backward- into the dead shell of yesterdays? Or is our re-membering the opening of a way forward?- Let’s re-member so as to postpone the dream no longer and waste our heart on fear no more.

 


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