I barely even remember going to kindergarten. Actually, that’s too charitable: I don’t remember going to kindergarten. Or first grade. Or fifth grade. Or high school. Or college. Or, for that matter, stuff I did two years ago.
Is this an exaggeration? Only barely. I remember occasional shreds from years past, but that’s about it. On the bright side, this means that if I had a nasty fight with you a few years ago, there’s a good chance I have no memory of it. On the not-so-bright side, it means that if we were close friends in high school, I might or might not even remember knowing you, let alone remember anything substantive about what we did together.
After reading this I’m beginning to think that whether a person is fundamentally forgetful or the contrary (rememberful?) may be a huge difference among people, maybe as big as the more famous—though still not famous enough, and not sufficiently understood—gap between introverts and extroverts. I realized only a few years ago that I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum from Kevin. I remember huge amounts of things from a long time ago, in particular things I’ve heard. (I don’t remember visual things because I don’t notice them in the first place: another thing that makes me odd in a world where sight is king.) And ever since I realized that most people aren’t like me, I’ve also realized how different life seems for someone like me from how it must seem to someone like Kevin.
On the plus side, I almost certainly know more things than lots of other people. What others, I’m told, forget from high school and college—the names of Japan’s unifiers and how they were different, ways of criticizing Marx’s labor theory of value, the drawn-out nomination fight at the 1924 Democratic Convention—I often remember. I can quote, with substantial though not perfect accuracy, pieces of political talk shows from twenty years ago and movie lines from Ghostbusters II (which I saw once, when it came out, and it wasn’t even a very good movie). Nor is it just a matter of facts. It’s nice to remember a lot of detail about my first date with my wife, and the second and the third, and the Tony Bennett concert I went to when I was 22, and funny things my son said when he was three. And though I’m no extrovert and don’t make new “friends” easily, I seem to form deeper-than-average connections with old friends by remembering things about their parents that they told me about in college, or the name of the boyfriend or girlfriend who broke their heart when they were 24. I once wanted to be a novelist. I didn’t have the writing skills to pull it off but I did have the memory, and I don’t think everyone does.
On the minus side, I remember things that others gladly forget: lots of bad dates as well as the good ones, the words someone used to convey a professional disappointment, things I said that offended other people, things other people said that offended me. This creates obvious psychic burdens. (I recently asked an old friend who knew me in college whether a couple of very liberal people we both knew when I was a freshman disliked me because they mistakenly thought I was pro-life. She gave me the only sensible answer but one unfortunately unavailable to me: she had no recollection of the dislike and barely remembered the people.) But it also has instrumental costs. I recently realized that I was misreading a situation in my academic department due to remembering very vividly some disputes that occurred about eight years ago. Most of the people involved in those disputes don’t even teach in the department anymore, and those who do have long moved on—except me. Moreover, as you might imagine from the mention of Ghostbusters II, I’ve had to work very, very hard in social contexts to remind myself not to make references that seem obvious to me but no one else. There’s a fine line between knowing lots of a propos anecdotes and merely boring people, or baffling them, or both. Rememberfulness isn’t the same thing as Asperger’s, but it can seem the same unless one corrects for it. There’s probably a reason most of us evolved to forget most things. It ensures that what people remember will be what people around them keep reminding them of—that is, what people around them actually find interesting.
Nietzsche writes somewhere about a “will to forgetting” as the only method of being able to move on, to act. He has a point. On the other hand, people like Locke and Hume who defined personal identity in terms of continued memory also had a point; forget too much, and you’re no longer able to make sense of your life or take responsibility for it. An old college friend once told me that academics are strange because we “keep trying to make sense of why things happen. It doesn’t matter! Things happen, you deal with the consequences, you move on. It’s all a big game.” She works for Goldman Sachs, and has done extremely well by considering it all a big game. I don’t think Kevin is like that (though perhaps being a little bit like that made him a much better and more decisive businessperson than I could ever be). But much of what makes him an admirable person is that he quite obviously tries to compensate for forgetfulness, through blogging and other things that put him constantly in mind of both history and others’ knowledge, rather than embracing it. Both forgetfulness and rememberfulness run the risk of placing the beneficiaries-cum-sufferers in an odd relationship to the rest of the human community.
In other words, there are lots of things I wish I could forget, and forgetting them would put me more easily in sync with other people. But I wouldn’t be the person I am, wishing that, if I didn’t remember.