“I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains adamant. At last – memory yields.”
Well, ain’t that the truth.
What’s really interesting is that Freddy was commenting on something that wouldn’t get a proper name for nearly a century – cognitive dissonance. In short, cognitive dissonance is the experience of having two conflicting opinions or emotions active in your head at the same time. As an example: buying a lottery ticket. When you go to the counter to buy your ticket, you know that your chances of winning are very, very small. At the same time, though, you truly believe that you could win. You can’t commit to both of these thoughts, so you have to choose one and then justify it to yourself. You might say that you’re buying the ticket because you always have, or because you feel that your numbers are “due,” or because it’s a small price to pay for the chance to fantasize for a while.
On the other hand, you might walk away from the counter without your ticket, running the numbers in your head as a reminder that you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than to win. Or you might come up with a vast conspiracy theory in which no one actually ever wins the lottery – winners are manufactured by The Government, who is using the whole process to keep you docile and needy.
Either way, your brain is struggling to reconcile these two ideas, and it does this largely without letting you know what it’s doing.
In the case of Nietzche’s quote, he’s probably referring to something more significant than deciding whether to drop five bucks on some numbers and a dream. He’s looking at the operation of cognitive dissonance that is powerful enough to alter memories themselves.
Think about this: You’re at the supermarket, and the new kid at the register is slow and making mistakes. As you stand in line, you get more and more frustrated, making note of every little error that he commits. Finally you snap. You start yelling at the kid about how he should take the job seriously, how a monkey could probably do it, and how you think he should really reconsider his life goals if he ever wants to be a useful member of society. And then you storm out.
Looking back, you realize that what you just did was really assholish. If you had seen someone else go off on a register jockey like that, you would have thought, “Jesus, what a prick!”
But… but you’re not a prick, right? Of course not! You’re a decent person, with a decent life, and not the kind of person who would take out their anger on some random teenager. That’s not you!
But you did it. You remember doing it.
It is at this point that Nietzche’s quote comes into play. You remember being an asshole, and yet you know you’re not an asshole. One of these has to give. So you think back on the event, and you start to remember things. The kid had a slouch to his shoulders, wasn’t standing up straight. Clearly lazy. And the kid was slow. Unmotivated. He never looked at the customers, but just kept those cold, glassy eyes on the register. And you think you might have heard him say something really quietly, or at least let out a deep sigh when you unloaded your 27 assorted cans of gourmet cat food on the conveyor belt.
You’re not sure if he called you a faggot, exactly, but he seemed like the type.
By the time you get home, your memory has been adjusted to match the event, and now that young, fumble-fingered kid at the supermarket has become an incorrigible reprobate who should count himself lucky that you didn’t leap over the conveyor and beat some sense into him. At last, your memory of the events correspond with your understanding of yourself, and the cognitive dissonance is dealt with. Whether or not that’s what “really” happened is irrelevant, because it allows you to feel good about yourself.
And if one of those has to go, memory is definitely the one that’s going to blink first, so to speak. There is research out there that suggests that the more you access a memory, the more you change it. For example, there are people who distinctly remember watching TV on 9/11/2001 and seeing the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. They’ll swear up and down that they saw it happen live, even though there were no TV stations broadcasting it at the time. Even the very act of remembering a long-held memory has the effect of altering that memory in some way. The physical architecture of the brain is changed when you remember, and that in turn changes the memory itself.
As unsettling as it is, our memories are very open to interpretation and amendment, and in a fight against our own self-identity, memory will almost certainly always lose.