Author tells how myth shapes our memories

April 05, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

As Paul Fussell sees it, we can only remember crucial moments in our lives when the facts can be made to fit one of a small number of fictional plots, the roots of which date back thousands of years.

Speaking at a scientific and cultural symposium on memory at Johns Hopkins Hospital yesterday, the author of "The Great War and Modern Memory" said we use the tremendous power of stories and myths to shape our past. In turn, those myths seem to determine which memories we keep and which we toss away.

"Memory seems to retain only things that make sense," said Dr. Fussell, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Unless incidents in our lives fit one of perhaps 14 or 15 universal plots, he said, "they remain general, unstructural, meaningless and unmemorable."

Those plots, which appear in everything from ancient Greek drama to modern motion pictures, include the Cinderella tale, where people of humble origins are able to achieve spectacular success; the Achilles tale, where the hero has a hidden and fatal flaw; the Romeo and Juliet tale, where boy gets and loses girl; or the David and Goliath tale, where the weak and small vanquish the big and powerful.

Dr. Fussell, speaking at the opening session of a two-day gathering titled "Perceptions of Memory," said he has found the strategies of fiction scattered through war memoirs of this century.

Robert Graves' popular non-fiction account of his experiences in the British Army, "Goodbye to All That," is filled with stereotyped characters and fictional plot devices, Dr. Fussell said.

In one chapter, two soldiers tell an officer they accidentally shot a sergeant major. The officer asks them if they mistook their victim for a spy.

"No sir, we mistook him for our platoon sergeant," they reply.

The punch line, the professor said, follows the familiar pattern of captions on cartoons in Punch, the satirical British magazine.

In a memoir written after World War I, a former British artilleryman recalled advising a group of green recruits not to travel by a certain road, which was regularly shelled by German guns.

The unit's officers ignored the advice, and the recruits were wiped out.

If only they had been sent slogging through the fields on either side of the road, the author wrote, all those young men would not have died senselessly.

"It's the 'if only,' not the slaughter, that helps the author remember," Dr. Fussell said. "In war, slaughter is commonplace." Irony bestowed on the incident an organizing theme, a familiar and compelling structure.

Not only to do we choose among memories, we like to improve those we keep. We renovate the past, Dr. Fussell said, by "tidying it up, emphasizing events in which we come out well, forgetting emotional humiliations, failures and disasters -- contriving a livable fictional past for ourselves."

One aging World War I veteran who wanted to write his memoirs lost interest in the project, Dr. Fussell said, after bringing several cartons full of military papers down from the attic.

"As he went through the documents, his spirits sank because he found that the documents were all wrong," the professor said wryly.

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