Memory and the Self: Rilkean Memory

Rilkean Memory

The exploration of the role of the act of remembering in constructing – or, as I prefer, sculpting – the content of episodic memory begins with the identification of a novel form of remembering that I call Rilkean memory, after the Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who provided an exceptionally clear statement of the idea. Rilke wrote: “And yet it is not enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.” In my development of this idea – which is driven largely by my philosophical requirements rather than Rilke scholarship – we begin with memories of a familiar episodic sort. The content of these memories fades and eventually disappears. But while the content of memory is lost, the act of remembering survives in a new, mutated, form: as a Rilkean memory. Some may doubt that these Rilkean memories are really memories. For my purposes that doesn’t matter at all. Call them Rilkean post-memories if you like – they still play the same role in the account I am going to develop.

I distinguish two kinds of Rilkean memory: embodied and affective. An embodied Rilkean memory is a bodily or behavioral disposition. An affective Rilkean memory is a mood or feeling. In both forms, Rilkean memories are individuated by the episodic memory out of which they have evolved. And, in both forms, they result from the loss of content of this memory.

Rilkean memory is a (novel) genus of memory that, I argue, is (1) not Freudian (2) neither implicit nor explicit, (3) neither procedural nor declarative, (4) neither episodic nor semantic, (5) involuntary, and (6) minimally autobiographical. First, Rilkean memories are not the same as Freudian memories: the category of Rilkean memory is much broader than that of Freudian memory, and each kind of memory has a different etiology. Second, it is difficult to identify a sense of implicit in which Rilkean memories would qualify as implicit memories – although I don’t rule out the possibility of identifying the required sense. Third, Rilkean memories are not skills or knowledge of how to do things, and therefore do not qualify as procedural. But, fourth, Rilkean memories are not assessable as true or false – and therefore do not qualify as declarative either. Fifth, since they have no content, they qualify neither as semantic nor episodic. Sixth, Rilkean memories are involuntary in that you do not choose them – you either have them or you don’t. Finally, seventh, they are minimally autobiographical in the sense that they have evolved out of states – episodic memories – that are at least weakly autobiographical. A memory is strongly autobiographical if the person who remembers is among the intentional objects of the memory. A memory is weakly autobiographical if the person who remembers is implicated in the mode of presentation of the episode remembered – in that the episode is presented as one the person formerly encountered. Rilkean memories are autobiographical in neither of these senses: they (i) have no intentional object, and so (ii) cannot present such an object as one formerly encountered. However, they are weakly autobiographical in the sense that they are causal descendants of memories that were at least weakly autobiographical.

As minimally autobiographical, Rilkean memories put a person in a concrete, and often significant, relation with their past. Therefore, I argue, they can play a central role in helping explain how our memories can make us who we are in the face of the kinds of loss and inaccuracy that are endemic to episodic memory. However, they do so in two, quite different, ways. The first, and more obvious, way is that they help constitute what I called the style of a person. This style can help counteract the problems – loss and inaccuracy – that impinge on the ability of episodic memory to construct and/or explain the autobiographical self. Roughly, at least some of the slack occasioned by the loss and inaccuracy of memories can be compensated by the style of a person, where this style is a function of their embodied and affective Rilkean memories. My case, here, is based on developing the analogy between the style of a person – existential style as we might call it – and literary style. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. The second way is more difficult to explain, and also more important. That will be the subject of my fifth and final post on Thursday.