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Disparate Thoughts on Ballard, the Nature of Memory, a Fisher-Queen, and Fantasy Generally

Monday, April 20th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

RIP, J.G. Ballard.

His was among the strange New Worlds fiction that I encountered as an unsuspecting kid in my brother’s sf collection, higgledy-piggledy among the Clarke, Asimov, and Simak. I didn’t know what to make of it then, but it’s been sitting in my backbrain all these years, still messing with the contents.

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Strangely, one of my grad school professors was, like Ballard, born and raised in Shanghai, and like him was also interned as a boy by the Japanese during World War II. He said, of both the book and movie versions of Empire of the Sun, “It was nothing like that.” I wish now I had taken notes; he gave a number of specific examples. But it shows that memoir (and memory), like fiction, are the product of an intensely personal process. This is the construction of meaning through narrative.

In searching academic literature on memory recently, I came across a review article on “Trauma and Memory” (Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (1998), Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 52:S97-S109). The author compares the recollection of traumatic events with ordinary memories from both a clinical and a neuroscience perspective. Combat veterans and other sufferers of PTSD do not experience recollection of the most traumatic events as memory, but as fragments of direct, unprocessed sensory input. During traumatic experiences, the sense-impressions received by the brain bypass the parts, like the hippocampus, that would organize them into a coherent form of consciousness, and so memories do not form as in ordinary experience. This “organizing” is the creation of a narrative out of the fragments and at the same time, creation of meaning which the fragments lacked. At the clinical level, processing traumatic memory was the stitching together of a story of the experience….. a process which most of us, most of the time, do so effortlessly we hardly notice.

No wonder being told stories, in fiction, in movies, in art, has such a huge effect on how we think and feel. Narrative is how we think and feel. But there are, I think, further depths here. Years ago, I read a dissertation on the structural analysis of psychotherapeutic narratives. What struck me then was how filled these personal narratives were with what I can only think of as mythic symbolism. In one, a woman suffered constant menstrual bleeding and infertility. She perceived it as, in a way, the consequence of a psychological wound, and there was a blond doctor, described in terms having to do with light and brightness, who helped stop the bleeding. I believe there was also a straight-up Grail object (the medicine) in the story as well, and to complete the mythic pattern she ought to have gotten pregnant, but I don’t now remember.

One aspect of myth, fairytale, and fantasy as well is the way that such primary symbols as blood, light, wounding, healing, are present at the surface of the narrative. It’s one of the characteristics that leads some to class them as more primitive forms, while literary realism and narrative based on personal real-life experience are supposed to be more psychologically sophisticated. What those psychotherapeutic narratives showed me was that even in our supposedly de-mythified postmodern society, the narratives (the meaning) we create out of our real-life experiences are shaped profoundly by both mythic structures and mythic symbols. Or perhaps what I mean is that myth is created out of direct personal experience. At any rate there’s a big part of fantasy sitting square in this field, displaced enough from real life so as not to cause too much anxiety, but effective because it is, actually, about real life at this quite fundamental level.

2 Comments »

  1. I know (virtually, anyway) someone who takes a postmodern line that all narratives are false. I prefer to take a postpostmodern line that all narratives are somehow true–that people fashion them because they have some sort of validity which can tell you something about the storyteller, anyway, or the audience the story is intended to appeal to, or both.

    Comment by James Enge - April 20, 2009 10:18 pm

  2. I would say the (true!) postmodern stance would be that all narratives and all meaning is constructed. All stories are the products of human expression.

    “True” as in “universally true” might be something that humans can measure with instrumentation … except that then you get into all the weird quantum stuff where particles seem to “know” whether or not they are going to be measured … but human communication is about selection and shaping and context and who you’re talking to…. by definition incomplete as a purely empirical record of anything.

    But that’s me. I didn’t grow up in a mythic society.

    Comment by Judith Berman - April 21, 2009 1:30 am


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