Thursday, 24 September 2009

The pensieve and the traps of memory

Can you picture a stone basin with strange engravings around the edges – runes and other mystic symbols? A silver light is emanating from inside. You cannot figure out whether its content is liquid or gas. It looks like liquefied light or solidified gas, bright and silvery white, continually whirling around, in an endless dance.
Its surface is agitated like feathers in the wind. It resembles the clouds swirling around, taking various shapes.
If you attempt to touch it, the silver surface starts rotating at a tremendous speed and becomes transparent like glass. You can see through its surface, as if you were an invisible observer, scenes from the previous life of the owner of the basin. The scenes appear like animated images in a crystal sphere, like a blurred projection on a screen.

This basin is the magician’s pensieve and it has been invented by the author of Harry Potter’s adventures, Joan K. Rowling. At moments where the wizard feels that there is a great jostle of thoughts in his mind, he transfers, he “transfuses” some of his thoughts into the basin, in order to examine them later, taking his time. He touches the tip of his wand near his temple, and the wand extracts, as if hitched on it, a strand of silver threads. The strand is from the same bright silvery – white substance and takes its place in the basin.

In order to recollect a particular thought, he sieves the bowl like a gold digger would, he stirs it and the thought he is looking for starts swirling, taking a particular shape.

A container to store thoughts, reminds me at first of the “brain – attic” metaphor for memory, used by Sherlock Holmes in the “Study in Scarlet” of Arthur Conan Doyle:

“A man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it
with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort
that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets
crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has
a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very
careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic”

The pensieve could have been a fascinating metaphor for memory and thought, if it did not intrinsically hide, as I will try to convince you in the following paragraphs, a disparagement of the faculty of memory. It is in fact a trick, by which the art of memory and recollection is transformed into a “time – machine”.
It is not the first time that Mrs. Joan K. Rowling uses magic objects in her books in order to account for events that have happened before the birth of her hero, Harry Potter. In the Chamber of Secrets it is the diary of Tom Riddle that allows whoever writes in its pages to “connect” with the memory of the trapped Tom Riddle, experiencing Tom’s memory as his own. (See also Magical objects in Harry Potter ( )

The same holds with the memory of Dumbledore. Harry Potter has access to somebody else’s memory without the integrity of the headmaster being at stake. The teacher is not forced to reveal an important secret to his pupil. Instead, his memory is stored in the pensieve – a kind of animated akashic records - - and is of an objective nature: Thoughts and memories are not processed, arranged or organized. They are stored “elsewhere” to avoid jostling in the inelastic walls of Dumbledore’s brain. When another person recollects them from the pensieve, it is as if he re - calls and re –vives the past. In doing so, he can sometimes notice events or aspects that the person who had stored them in the first place had not noticed.

This has been confirmed by the author herself in an interview (cf:

JKR: It's reality. It's important that I have got that across, because Slughorn gave Dumbledore this pathetic cut-and-paste memory. He didn't want to give the real thing, and he very obviously patched it up and cobbled it together. So, what you remember is accurate in the Pensieve.
“MA: So there are things in there that you haven't noticed personally, but you can go and see yourself?
JKR: Yes, and that's the magic of the Pensieve, that's what brings it alive.
ES: I want one of those!
JKR: Yeah. Otherwise it really would just be like a diary, wouldn't it? Confined to what you remember. But the Pensieve recreates a moment for you, so you could go into your own memory and relive things that you didn't notice at the time. It's somewhere in your head, which I'm sure it is, in all of our brains. I'm sure if you could access it, things that you don't know you remember are all in there somewhere”

“Confined to what you remember”, means that human memory is imperfect, not only in the sense of its capacity to contain many events and thoughts, but in the sense of its subjectivity and selectivity. There are latent aspects of memory, hidden in the unconscious which - sometimes – through therapy can be revealed. The operation of the pensieve, abrogates the subjectivity of this selection. Selecting is not a flaw, since it reveals for the observer what has been concealed by the observed,

Honestly, based on the above, I do not think that the “real thing” is indeed real. It is rather a clever invention of the narrative that created the manipulated receiver of a trapped soul hat deceives the receiver by transforming him into a reader over one’s shoulder. Nevertheless, the enchantment of eavesdropping is lost, since what you hear (or what you read) is not what the other person remembered, what impressed him, what he decided to recollect or how he reconstructed the past.
He could communicate this to you by telling you a story. The access to the pensieve is only offering an accurate record of past reality, a Deus ex machina that makes up for the needs of the narrative. In any case, it is not a way to reach out the Other.


Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki