The Memory Mavens, Part 10: Memory and History (1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Jorge Luis Borges en 1963
Jorge Luis Borges en 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” lived the first part of his life completely in the moment. Recalling his first encounter with the enigmatic figure, the narrator relates an incident from long ago when he and his cousin Bernardo were racing on horseback, trying to outrun a storm. They heard, suddenly, the sound of footsteps on the brick footpath above. It was Funes.

Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: “What’s the time, Ireneo?” Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: “In ten minutes it will be eight o’clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco.” The voice was sharp, mocking. (Borges, 1967, p. 36)

In those days, Funes always knew the exact time; he knew about now, but remembered nothing of the past. Later, when the narrator meets Funes, he explains how an accident changed everything.

For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. (Borges, 1967, p. 40)

A garbage disposal

The fall left Funes unable to walk, and that paralysis becomes a metaphor for the crushing weight of all remembrances, which immobilize and suffocate. For while he can remember everything, his mind is inundated with every detail about every moment that he has ever experienced — and not only the event itself, but the clear recollection of each time he has recalled that event.

He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils. And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal. (Borges, 1967, p. 40)

He remembered details such that each vision was a unique item in the catalog of time. He could remember the exact formation of a cloud on a given morning or the exact pattern of “the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once.”

The ability to ignore insignificant details allows us to correlate one fact with another. But Funes had lost that ability; for him, nothing was an insignificant detail.

Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details. (Borges, 1967, p. 43, emphasis mine)

The importance of forgetting

Funes’ example warns us that knowing a fact is not the same as understanding it.

Paul Ricoeur, in Memory, History, Forgetting reminds us that memory without boundaries becomes a flood of details. And that flood prevents us from interpreting the past, which is, after all, the ultimate purpose of history. He writes:

Present in our mind is the fable of Jorge Luis Borges about the man who never forgot anything, in the figure of Funes el memorioso. Could there then be a measure in the use of human memory, a “never in excess” in accordance with the dictum of ancient wisdom? Could forgetting then no longer be in every respect an enemy of memory, and could memory have to negotiate with forgetting, groping to find the right measure in its balance with forgetting? And could this appropriate memory have something in common with the renunciation of total reflection? Could a memory lacking forgetting be the ultimate phantasm, the ultimate figure of this total reflection that we have been combatting in all of the ranges of the hermeneutics of the human condition? (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 413)

Throughout this monumental work, Ricouer seeks to find the relationships among memory, history, and forgetting. Finding the balance among these three forces provides our understanding of the past. Funes’ example warns us that knowing a fact is not the same as understanding it.

Paradoxically, the delirium of being exhaustive proves to be contrary to the very project of doing history. (Ricoeur, 2004, pp. 400-401)

On the other hand, history tends to destroy memory. That is, it supplants traditional memory. He reminds us that Maurice Halbwachs wrote:

General history starts only when tradition ends and the social memory is fading or breaking up. (Halbwachs, 1980, p. 78)

The pharmakon of history

Several times throughout the book, Ricoeur alludes to the notion that history is both remedy and poison — a pharmakon, alluding to Jacques Derrida’s essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Does it preserve or destroy memory? Or does it do both?

The unending debate between the rival claims of history and memory to cover the totality of the field opened up behind the present by the representation of the past does not, therefore, end in a paralyzing aporia. To be sure, in the conditions of retrospection common to memory and to history the conflict remains undecidable. (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 392)

Rather than throwing up his hands in defeat, Ricoeur saw the tension between history and memory as an “open dialectic” that offers us a way forward.

Framed in this way, the history of memory and the historicization of memory can confront one another in an open dialectic that preserves them from that passage to the limit, from that hubris, that would result from, on the one hand, history’s claim to reduce memory to the level of one of its objects, and on the other hand, the claim of collective memory to subjugate history by means of the abuses of memory that the commemorations imposed by political powers or by pressure groups can turn into. (Ricoeur, 2004, pp. 392-393)

Questions of scale

As we showed earlier, without applied forgetting we lose our ability to interpret the past. Some of history’s most important tools, then, allow us to focus on particular people, a specific region, or a fixed period in time. We lose the vast “sweep of history,” but we gain insights in details that we could not see otherwise.

The key idea attached to the idea of a variation in scale is that, when we change scale, what becomes visible are not the same interconnections but rather connections that remained unperceived at the macrohistorical scale. (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 210)

In this context, Ricoeur introduced optical metaphors.

History, too, functions in turn as an eyepiece, a microscope, or a telescope. (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 211)

But if you imagine that means the objects in the lens grow or shrink in size, you’ve missed the point. Historians focus on different scales in order to see different things, new connections — insights that were invisible before, but not because they were too small, but because they were lost in the cacophony of competing details.

What the notion of scale includes within itself in the use historians make of it is the absence of commensurability of the dimensions. In changing scale, one does not see the same things as larger or smaller, in capital or lower case letters, as Plato puts it in the Republic about the relationship between the soul and the city. One sees different things. One can no longer speak of a reduction of scale. There are different concatenations of configuration and causality. The balance between gains and losses of information applies to the modeling operations that bring into play different heuristic imaginary forms. (Ricoeur, 2004, pp. 211-212, emphasis mine)

Ricoeur called history’s power to focus in tightly or to pull back and take in a broad narrative the “scale of the gaze.”

Scholars with telescopes

. . . if you were going to quote-mine an author to bolster a bad idea, Ricoeur would be the last place to plant your shovel. But that’s what Anthony Le Donne did.

Do not suppose that I claim to understand fully Ricoeur’s work. I should not be so vain. It cannot be entirely understood in a single reading. It requires contemplation. It takes time. His scope is vast and his prose is dense and rambling. In fact, if you were going to quote-mine an author to bolster a bad idea, Ricoeur would be the last place to plant your shovel. But that’s what Anthony Le Donne did.

In a previous post, The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (2), I mentioned that Zeba Crook and Le Donne had exchanged conflicting ideas about memory distortion in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (vol. 11, 2003). Crook first laid out his case: Essentially, that most self-professed experts in memory theory who attempt to apply its findings to NT studies are far too optimistic.

The title of Le Donne’s response tells you his position in a nutshell. He called it “The Problem of Selectivity in Memory Research: A Response to Zeba Crook.” He gently derides Crook, as you can tell from this line in the abstract: “This essay demonstrates that Crook misunderstands and misrepresents social memory theory both in and outside Jesus studies.”

Crook’s charge concerning a telescope metaphor appears to have particularly galled Le Donne.

Le Donne sees memory distortion as more benign than is warranted. First, he claims that memory distortion tends to work like a telescope, which he claims distorts images in order to bring them closer. The analogy of the telescope is wholly inaccurate. No theorist of memory, individual or collective, suggests that memory is telescopic. Telescopes do not distort images; if they did, no one would use them. Telescopes transmit a distant image with perfect accuracy, which Le Donne has already admitted is not the case with memory. Further, telescopes refract light, they do not refract, or affect the image itself, and thus the telescope is not at all analogous to how memory, or memory distortion, works. (Crook, 2013, p. 63, bold emphasis mine)

Crook, by the way, is absolutely correct in every respect. But under a heading entitled, “A General Lack of Judicious Argumentation,” Le Donne takes Crook to task. He writes:

I would like to thank Dr Crook for this opportunity to correct an omission that I made in my monograph. I should have cited Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting. I will here quote him directly in reference to Crook’s claim that no memory theorist uses the telescope analogy:

Rereadings of the past are in this way reconstructions, at the price sometimes of costly demolitions: construct, deconstruct, reconstruct are familiar gestures to the historian . . . History, too, functions in turn as an eyepiece, a microscope, or a telescope. (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 211)

Crook’s confident and unqualified statement is, yet again, flatly incorrect. To claim that ‘no theorist of memory, individual or collective, suggests that memory is telescopic’ is tantamount to the claim that Crook has read every book, essay, review, heard every lecture in every language in nine different fields of study! (Le Donne, 2013, p. 63)

In reply, Crook admits he was wrong about the particulars, but laments that Le Donne chose to ignore the substance of the criticism.

More useful and edifying, however, would have been for Le Donne to engage my concern that the telescope is an inaccurate (or worse, self-serving) analogy for memory distortion, and that it is at odds with the evidence I (and others) present for wholesale memory manufacturing (which, thankfully, is not how telescopes work). (Crook, 2013, p. 101)

The dangers of quote-fishing

But Crook was not wrong. No, neither he nor I (nor Le Donne, for that matter) have read or heard every word on the subject of memory. However, I do know that I have searched high and low, and I have not found a single reference in which a competent expert compared memory to a telescope.

And Le Donne has not found a reference, either. For Ricoeur did not say memory functions like a telescope. He said history functions as an eyepiece, microscope, or a telescope. Perhaps for Le Donne history and memory are two sides of the same coin, but for Ricouer they were two related, but distinctly separate entities.

In addition, Le Donne’s quote from Ricouer joins the end of a paragraph that likens the task of history to that of architecture and urban planning. In that metaphor, the new parts of the city are created “with their contexts scaled in terms of nature, the landscape, communication networks, the already constructed parts of the town, and so on” — hence the reference to “costly demolitions.” (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 211)

In the ellipsis that follows “familiar gestures to the historian,” Le Donne has omitted a 55-word paragraph. Whether he did that because he genuinely misunderstood what he was reading or because he wished to mislead the reader is not clear.

Ricoeur’s optical metaphor refers to history’s ability to gain understanding from perspectives of scale. It does not refer to memory.

On the other hand, Le Donne writes:

The telescope allows us to see things that are not visible to the naked eye. This is so because a telescope has a series of lenses that bend light. By bending the light between the not-visible object and your eye, these lenses make the object seem larger than it is. Thus the image available to sight is a “distorted” version of the object. Therefore, we do not see the object as it exists in reality, but a “dis­torted” (in this case, enlarged) image of that object by way of re­fracted light.

This is exactly what memory does for us. We are unable to see the past. It is not visible. However, we have a tool called “memory” that focuses our attention onto present cognitive states associated with the past. Through the process of memory, we are able to see an approximate image of the past. Therefore memory distorts the distance between the not-visible past and the present. Memory acts like a series of lenses that, by their design, bend light: The fact that we do not “see” the past as it exists in time is the very reason that we must rely on our memories. What we see is a bent, or refracted, version of the past. Memory is memory refraction. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 108)

Le Donne is wrong here on every point. Memory does not function like a telescope. Telescopes do not refract images. Memory does not distort in order to make things visible. Memory is not refraction.

Not only did Ricoeur not say memory functions like a telescope, but he never alluded to any sort of “bent, or refracted, version(s) of the past.” Rather, he said that history allows us to change our perspectives and alter our scale of perception — “L’histoire, elle aussi, fonctionne tour à tour comme une loupe, voire un microscope, ou un télescope.” (Ricoeur, 2000, p. 270) At each level of “magnification”, we are able to discern different connections, and so we can more fully understand the interrelationships of people, places, things, movements, events, conflicts, etc.

Le Donne trawled deeply and desperately for any scholarly work that might have mentioned memory and telescopes. Unfortunately, the only thing he caught in his net was Memory, History, Forgetting. In his haste to look less foolish in the wake of Crook’s criticism, he accidentally hooked a quotation that has nothing to do with his own ill-conceived metaphor. His attempt to correct Crook only magnified his own errors brought them into sharper focus.


Once again, we see how scholarly review fails in NT studies. Crook accepts his incorrect correction. The editors and readers of the journal fail to notice that Le Donne cites a reference to history as if it were a reference to memory. Nobody has actually read Ricoeur, presumably because they’re too busy catching up on the recent mediocre bestseller by Bart Ehrman or slogging through another million-word pile from James Dunn.

More’s the pity, because unlike much of the modern stuff that passes for scholarship in the NT world, Ricoeur’s work is truly interesting and thought-provoking. Granted, the dense prose translated from the French can make for slow going. Often you must read a passage more than once, and then reflect on it for some time. Reading Ricoeur is not an easy task, but your efforts will be rewarded commensurately.

I could say the same for Jorge Borges, but you already knew that.

Borges, Jorge Luis

Jorge Luis Borges: a Personal Anthology, Grove Press, 1968

Crook, Zeba

“Collective Memory Distortion and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 11, Issue 1 (2013), pp. 53-76.

Halbwachs, Maurice

The Collective Memory, Harper & Row, 1980

Le Donne, Anthony

“The Problem of Selectivity in Memory Research: A Response to Zeba Crook” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 11, Issue 1 (2013), pp. 77-97.

Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011

Ricoeur, Paul

Memory, History, Forgetting, University Of Chicago Press, 2004

La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, Seuil, 2000

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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7 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 10: Memory and History (1)”

  1. In response to Ehrman’s new book about memory, I would say a meta-question we should ask before we try to determine whether a pericope reported in a gospel is an instance clear vs. of distorted memory, is if we can determine whether a particular pericope in the Gospels is (I) an instance of historical memory (clear or distorted), or (II) if the Gospel writer was just inventing non historical material for his own purposes? The apocryphal works about Jesus and the forged pseudo Pauline epistles demonstrate conclusively that the writers of that time were more than willing to invent unhistorical material that never happened to suit their theological purposes, so there is no reason to think the canonical Gospel writers were any different. What criteria would you use to distinguish historical from invented material?

    1. I had a grammar mistake above. That first sentence should read “In response to Ehrman’s new book about memory, I would say a meta-question we should ask before we try to determine whether a pericope reported in a gospel is an instance of clear vs. distorted memory, is if we can determine whether a particular pericope in the Gospels is (I) an instance of historical memory (clear or distorted), or (II) if the Gospel writer was just inventing non historical material for his own purposes?”

    2. Ehrman gives the answer in his Blog (the free preread) of May 15: “Here are the data: Christianity started out as a small group of Jesus’ followers after his death – his disciples and a handful of women who came to believe he had been raised. That much seems pretty certain and is what is reported in the New Testament itself. There seems no reason to question or deny it. ”


      1. Either Ehrman is playing games with us. Or his own memory is failing.

        Over and over, a thousand scholars have noted failings in one aspect of the Bible after another. And failings in memory too. But then, just when we might cumulatively suspect that Jesus was not real at all? Then suddenly, Ehrman’s own memory fails.

        What’s wrong with this guy? Can’t he connect the dots? Or is he just playing coy? Mayby he’s pretending to be at least a marginal believer. So believers will listen to him, when he is being more critical?

        Or maybe he really thinks that religious historians who affirm Jesus, are real, actual historians.

      2. Ehrman did his first undergraduate degree at the notoriously-biased Moody Bible College. It’s possible therefore, that Ehrman has literally never actually had a real history course in college. Not a single one. Just “history” taught by and for ministers.

        Later Ehrman ended up in a seminary: Princeton Theological. Where a current professor, Dale Allison, admits that students are impatient with history. Unless it brings, or seems to teach a “theological reward.” A religious moral.

        So my best guess? It’s possible this guy has literally never taken a real, secular college history course. Not a single one. Certainly not in his first three years. And not in Princeton either.

        So Ehrman’s totally blindsided when it comes to real historical standards. All he’s ever heard are in-house religious histories. And then papers from Historical Jesus scholars.

        He’s had an incredibly narrow, biased education. It’s remarkable he ever came as far as he has to date.

  2. Some might suggest that our final memories of anything, are inevitably cullings, simplifications, mental rewrites, narrowings, of the huge number of ideas, impressions, that someone might have had, during an original experience. If that is true, then that is just another way of saying that memories are often inaccurate. Or specifically among other things, selective.

    It is unfortunate though, that Le Donne should have used the viewing of things through telescopes, as an illustration of selective, narrowing — telescoping or tunnelling — vision. Since although an individual telescope might temporarily narrow our vision- to say just one sun instead of them all – they can also deepen our vision of that one sun, immensely. Even as turning our telescopes next to other targets, eventually gives us a deeper AND broader vision.

    Was Le Donne attempting among other things, a dig on Science here? If so, it seems to misfire.

    Possibly parts of Le Donne are useful. If he intended to note the selective side of memory. It is unfortunate however, that he used telescopes as his illustration for that. Even as it seems, he himself might have partially misread or overextended Paul R, and his earlier use of this figure.

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