It’s time to get started on a series of posts about the subjective experience of remembering. I have flagged this change of direction before, and noted that this interest of mine is shared by others, including my Cambridge colleague Jon Simons, whose Royal Institution lecture you can get to via this post, and Charles Fernyhough from Durham, whose book Pieces of Light got me thinking about this some years ago. I am going to mark each post in the series ‘SER’ (which stands for Subjective Experience of Remembering, nothing mysterious; I am your friend, remember) so that they can be linked up more easily by future readers.
In these early posts I am just going to dive in to some moments where I think the SER is conveyed interestingly in literature. The idea is to build up a few thoughts and questions that might intersect with the emerging science and philosophy. It seems fairly uncontroversial to argue that writers might have some strategies for conveying this important part of human thinking. The plan is to offer minimal introductions but to use ‘rubover footnotes’ (i.e., highlighted bits in the passage below; you hover the mouse over them and they reveal a bit of explanatory text) to trace what I think is going on.
I’m starting where I’m happy, going back to the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where this blog more or less started, more than five years ago. You see, I am very intrigued by the thought that Shakespeare depicts specific patterns of thought and feeling in his fairies, who are in some ways so human, but in others so not. In the passage that follows, I think there are hints of this, perhaps in the way that fairy memory works, perhaps in the descriptions of fairy experience.
I feel the need also to say that I think this passage is just wonderful, it’s really one of my favourite things Shakespeare ever wrote. Titania is explaining why she is so insistent on getting back the Changeling Boy from Oberon. She says that this is out of allegiance to the boy’s dead mother, and in making this case she reminisces about what they shared, and what interests me in particular is the way that this memory comes across as vivid, and also authentic. Vividness is a really interesting part of the experience of remembering: what makes some memories more vivid than others? There is a lot of food for thought on this topic in literature, since vividness is a big concern for writers (understatement).
Authenticity-wise, you could, I suppose, make the case that this is a piece of rhetoric, a performance to win people over. You could, but if you’re going to doubt that Titania really means this, well, what’s the point in anything? Without further ado:
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the Indian air, ,
hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with gait
Following,–her womb then rich with my young squire,–
Would , and sail upon the land,
To , and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And I will not part with him.
One theme in my thinking about the vividness of memory so far is the contribution of different senses. We might think of intense memories, intuitively, as pictures, but it seems also that other senses may make crucial contributions.
This seems somewhat particular, in that the reminiscence is located in time — but see next comment…
Does a vivid memory have to relate to a specific and single event? Can one have a vivid memory of a more generic kind, recalling the sensations of multiple similar events? In this instance, it seems like Shakespeare thinks you can: and I agree.
At this point, the reason why this is a funny vision isn’t quite clear. It gets explained over the next few lines. But even after that, there is a sense that you had to be there. And something of that quality — something that doesn’t quite work in the re-telling, something that depends on you having experienced the event from one vantage point — may be part of how vividness works.
A lovely adjective, not easy to visualise, and yet intensely visual: perhaps we know that we can never quite see the votaress as Titania did, and so we get an estranging encounter with what then seems like an all the more vivid memory.
Finally, perhaps, the point of the pregnant friend / trading ships image is revealed. There is some doubt as to whether she is definitely pretending to be a ship for humorous ends, or whether this was just a conjunction of people and view and mood. It’s probably the former, but again, you had to be there.
In my thinking about fairy minds before, I have often paused on moments where it feels like we might be getting an idea of what makes fairies different. I think these ‘trifles’ might be something of that sort. With everyday eyes, fetching trifles may seem like nothing much, playful but trivial; but perhaps for Titania the fetching of trifles is serious work, because fairies have different priorities. We see something of this in the scenes involving Bottom, and maybe in the whole Changeling Boy episode.
The vividness of the reminiscence is reinforced — I think — by this emphatic claim. The repetition of ‘for her sake’, arising from the place of the boy in a story of friendship, is powerful — to be honest I never feel like Oberon has a leg to stand on. Except, perhaps, fairies do things differently; and, also, patriarchy…
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk