The privilege of memory

January 13th, 2013 | Alina Müller

I left my home city twelve years ago and my birth town twelve years before that. Sometimes when I go back, I take a friend from outside along. On their first tour of the city, I point out some of the ‘landmarks’:

‘This is where I went to school until I was eleven years old. I loved my teacher Maja’

‘This is the swimming pool where I learned to swim. We used to always buy candy at that shop around the corner’

‘This is where I had my first cafe latte ever. My friend L and I would sit for hours’

And I’m really excited as I point out the random buildings, as if this was also the first time I had ever seen them in real life. If you’re lucky and come along to my birth town, the landmarks are even more obscure:

‘This is where my grandfather used to go to get merchandise for the grocery store he was running. I used to always stop by there to check if he was around.’

‘This is where a lot of my mum’s friends lived – I don’t remember their names anymore – they would get together and make Nescafe.’

I’ve always wondered how this information and the places I point out register with my travel companions. During the sightseeing I study their facial expressions and they never seem to match my excitement. How could they? I’m navigating the city using a mental map forged from fragments of memory – some my own, some really aged and some constructed from stories I’ve been told and repeated to myself throughout the years. The buildings and streets I insist that my friends look at (and ideally photograph) recall relationships, experiences and people that, without the privilege of memory, to them remain just random spaces.

Despite the distress stemming from the unfulfilled desire to share, I can never blame my guests. In fact their experience as the unprivileged tourist is more familiar to me than that of the privileged ‘sharer’ in this respect. Having moved around a lot, there’s often been a disconnect between myself and my immediate physical surroundings.

In one of his works, the French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs describes this  ’breakdown of contact between thoughts and things’:

Auguste Comte remarked that mental equilibrium was, first and foremost, due to the fact that the physical objects of our daily contact change little or not at all, providing us with with an image of permanence and stability. They give us a feeling of order and tranquility, like a silent and immobile society unconcerned with our own restlessness and change of mood. In truth, much mental illness is accompanied by a breakdown of contact between thought and things, as it were, an inability to recognise familiar objects, so that the victim finds himself in a fluid and strange environment totally lacking familiar reference points. So true is it that our habitual images of our external world are inseparable from our self that this breakdown is not limited to the mentally ill. We ourselves may experience a similar period of uncertainty, as if we had left behind our whole personality, when we are obliged to move to novel surroundings and have not yet adapted to them.

This breakdown Halbwachs describes is central to the immigrant experience. And so I can’t help wondering what is lost and, since we can’t live for long without a sense ‘of permanence  and stability’ (despite what our ‘mobile and restless’ generation often tells itself), what we can do to recover it.

Could we find a way of extending the privilege of memory?

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