Last night Rafael Rodriguez, Bill Heroman, Alan and Sue Kirk and I were enjoying a nice meal at the King's Head in Teddington. I had the gammon steak, a fried duck egg, and chips. I washed it down with a lovely (hoppy, but not too hoppy) local brew called Twickenham Summer Sun. Bill asked about the pie of the week, learned that it was beef and ale, was told that it was delicious, and then ordered a hamburger. It was almost as if he just wanted a burger. If so, why would he ask about the pie of the week at all?
Over supper we chatted about a number of topics. About where babies come from. About how some people believe that the Queen is a reptilian shapeshifter. About, of course, memory distortion. The conversation lasted for over an hour, maybe two.
In our discussion about memory distortion (what I call memory refraction), we all agreed that memory becomes more vague, less detailed, and more supplemented with generic mnemonic patterns over time. We agreed that if the five of us got together for another supper at the King's Head five years from now we'd be hard pressed to reconstruct the conversation with much detail. We might come up with a general outline while forgetting entire portions of the conversation. But we agreed that parts of the conversation would be easier to remember than others.
The conversation included an autobiographical story told by Alan Kirk. Rafael had heard this story before and prompted the story to be told for the benefit of the group. Alan recounted the story. And now we come to the virtues and vices of narrativization. Because Alan had told that story before, because it had a purpose in our conversation, because it had a memory structure (plot line), and for an number of other reasons, that story is a relatively stable memory. In other words, a portion of our conversation was narrativized.
So if the five of us got together at the King's Head pub in five years Alan's story would probably be retold with a high degree of similarity. While other parts of the conversation will become vague (we call this mnemonic distanciation), the narrativized portion of the conversation might not fatigue in the same way. Alan might retell the story slightly different, or with expanded detail, or with a couple lies tossed in for flavor, but the narrative functions as a vehicle for memory (what we call a mnemotechnique). Hooray for narrativization! If used with care, it can reduce the fatigue of distanciation.
But what is narrativization if not itself a form of memory distortion (or memory refraction)? Alan's story has been reduced, details have been emphasized to serve the telos of the story, details have been left out that seem irrelevant to the agenda of the storyteller. A beginning, middle, and end has been imposed upon Alan's past, by Alan, for Alan and friends. Narrativization can indeed be used to deceive or promote an ideological aim. But in this case, we all played along with Alan as if the story was true. Because the story was true.
We all agreed that Alan's story was incapable of representing the past with 100% accuracy. But the story, while not preserving the past, was a useful link to our perceived past nonetheless. Because it was a true story. A flawed, manipulated, distorted, true story. And we all perceived it as such with no great difficulty.
So let's imagine that Rafael, Bill, Sue, Alan, and I got together for Twickenham Summer Sun in five years. If our purpose was to help each other remember last night's conversation the part that was narrativized would be both the most distorted and the most true part of our reconstruction.