English Composition 3
10 November 2003
Harmony within the Split Self
A person needs to be in harmony with himself or herself and the surrounding world. Psychoanalysts assert that it is the main condition of the wellness of a person. Inner harmony can be achieved only when consistency within the self is present. Human memory is an instrument of creating consistency within the self. Why and what do we remember? A memoir writer, Patricia Hampl, and a psychologist, Susan Engel, have developed their own theories of memory. In her essay, “Then and Now: Creating a Self through the Past”, Engel presents a psychological viewpoint of creating oneself through memory. She argues that the characteristics of the present self are determined by the past experiences and memories one possesses. She suggests that a person cannot exist without having memories; moreover, these memories need to be consistent and coherent for the person to feel secure in society. Engel also expresses the idea that the past and the present are connected through memories. Engel presents a paradox between the self for the self, which strives to achieve inner consistency, and the self for others, which brings up different memories in different situations to create a different persona. Hampl bases her theory of memory in the piece “Memory and Imagination” on her first piano lesson. In her essay, she explores why human beings use their imagination while remembering the past. She also asks herself why people write memoirs. According to Hampl, a person is an interaction of two selves. The reflective self looks back at the narrative self to make sure that no openly false memories are brought up. Hampl’s essay provides some deep insight on Engel’s theory of memory. Some of Engel’s ideas about why memory is created fully apply to Hampl’s first piano lesson. Engel claims that a person strives to achieve harmony and consistency in the present through reconstructing past memories. Harmony of inner world is achieved through the interaction of two types of selves: self for the self and the self for others, according to Engel, and narrative and reflective, according to Hampl. Each of these selves acts differently to produce consistency within the individual. Engel also believes that some memories serve to evoke other ones by associations.
Engel argues that human beings attempt to create a sense of consistency within themselves. People tend to believe that their personas are coherent and constant over time. As Elliot Aronson contends, “we like to believe we are consistent over time and across situations” (Engel 199). When this coherence within the self is disrupted, an individual feels empty and confused. A person feels that his or her moral foundation and concepts are destroyed. Engel mentions that “we construct reality in a way that restores our self-concept” (199). Our self-concept can only be restored in the presence of inner harmony and consistency; thus, we try to make our reality consistent over time. Sometimes it is hard to achieve this consistency. One of the reasons for this matter is that it is impossible for the human mind to store all of the images of the past. Therefore, we forget some of the events that might have served as links, connecting other memories. As a result, our memory tends to sometimes be abrupt and inconsistent. Engel’s claim that we strive to achieve greater coherence within the selves applies to Hampl’s first piano lesson in that inventing imaginary events of the past helps us to achieve greater consistency.
According to Hampl, invention “isn’t a lie, but an act of necessity, as the innate urge to locate personal truth always is” (187). Hampl implies that invention of past events is an inevitable step for searching for accuracy in memories. By truth, she refers to her knowledge of herself. Hampl asserts that she writes to “find out what she knows” (184). As a result, she invents some parts of the past to unify it, which helps her to find out more “truth” about herself. Hampl acknowledges that some parts of her first piano lesson memory are, in fact, invented. She has invented that the nun’s name was Olive and that she possessed the Thompson book, a piano text. Hampl agrees that she “remembers envying children who did have this wonderful book with its pictures of children and animals printed on the pages of music” (183). Therefore, possessing what she wanted to possess elevated her self-esteem, which ultimately led to the greater harmony and consistency within her mind.
However, striving to achieve consistency within the self is only one part of Engel’s theory of memory. Engel implies that part of her theory is a paradox between the inner consistency that an individual struggles to attain and numerous selves that the individual presents to others. Engel argues that “we work hard to create and maintain a sense of inner cohesion and consistency in our self-concept.” (199). While doing that, we refer to our “self for the self”, which tries to preserve this precious inner balance by creating a positive image of itself (198). Positive image of the self, in turn, leads to elevated self-esteem, which leads to greater inner harmony, and, ultimately, greater consistency. In the meantime, a person displays many different selves depending on the situation that person is in. Engel suggests that “we are always remembering in the company of others”, meaning that other people influence the kinds of memories that we bring up in the conversations (193). Depending on how others expect to perceive our personalities, we will recall certain events to justify their expectations. As a result, “we create different faces, or selves, in response to different social situations” (198). These different faces are manifestations of the self for others. Each time, while communicating with others, we create a different persona to emphasize certain qualities that will be valued the most at this given time. Engel mentions that “we change past experiences so that they confirm how we see ourselves in the moment” (200). Thus, depending on the moment, we might recall particular events from our past to prove and display a particular persona that we wish to be at the moment. Therefore, it is the social setting that influences the kind of persona we would like to present, thus affecting the memories we select.
Engel’s idea of recalling the past in the “company” (193) of other people applies to Hampl’s first piano lesson. Hampl depicts her first experience with the piano music by describing the people surrounding her. She talks about what Sister Olive Marie looked like and how she acted. She mentions that it was her father who led her into the room. Hampl remembers that Mary Katherine Reilly was better at the piano than she was. Nowhere in her description does Hampl describe herself: what she looked like, what she was wearing, etc. Thus, by putting an emphasis on the description of others in her memoir, Hampl reinforces the idea that we do recall events as they were occurring in the company of other people.
Engel’s claim that a person consists of two selves also applies to Hampl’s piano lesson. In the explanation of her piano lesson memory, Hampl comes to the conclusion that it was really her two selves interacting – the narrative self and the reflective self – to produce satisfactory memory. According to Hampl, the narrative self is a persona telling the story and unconsciously inventing some imaginary details to attain more consistency; the reflective self tries to keep the narrative self “ in check” by contemplating what in the story could have been true or false. The reflective self tries to eliminate false memories from the story, making the memoir valid. For example, Hampl’s narrative self was telling a story about the first piano lesson. It unintentionally recalled false memories to fill in the gaps between the true memories. For example, Hampl mentions that it was her father who led her into the room with the piano, that the Sister’s name was Olive, that she had a Thompson book with her. However, Hampl’s reflective self became active when she was analyzing what she had remembered and what could have been false in the story. Hampl starts questioning whether it was really her father that showed her the way and whether the Sister’s name was truly Olive. There is a certain paradox that Hampl faces as well. Although the narrative self creates events that unify the memory by inventing, a memoirist cannot afford writing about events that did not occur. That is why the reflective self is so important to a memoir writer. Although Hampl mentions that ideally “for a memoirist, the writing of the story is a matter of transcription [describing dry facts]”, she cannot refrain from inventing since transcription is a “myth of memoir” (183, 184). Therefore, a memoirist needs to find yet another way to create a coherent and valid story through staying away from too much invention. One way to do that is to recall template memories.
Engel claims that there are special kinds of memories – template memories - stored in our minds. According to Engel, a template memory is “a memory that stands for a large more diffuse meaning or theme in person’s life” (204). Engel implies that our memories are sorted according to themes; recalling a certain event - a template - will cause us to remember more. Association stored in mind is what makes us remember more of events related to the same theme. For example, Engel recalls the tonsillectomy procedure that she had to go through when she was five. She remembers that it was really difficult for her to choose which parent to go home with after the operation. Engel later remembered the tonsillectomy because she was faced with a difficult job decision.