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.