During our last class discussion, we focused on an excerpt from Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, which discusses the idea of memory linearity and how memory operates as more than a way of remembering events and information. The brain’s function of memory is incredibly complex and, in literature, can be manipulated into operating as a tool that engages the reader in the events of a narrative. The end of the first paragraph states that memory, “operates as an alteration between retrospection and anticipation that is itself, for better or worse, a work of art.” This statement rouses my interest because of the two main components mentioned: retrospection and anticipation. For example, in the third person omniscient point of view of a story, the narrator is made aware of all thoughts, actions, and feelings of a character; he/she view the story as if they are looking through the eyes of God. We, the reader, are made aware of all retrospection in such a story because we are given the appropriate information to infer on the anticipated events as we continue reading. Memory is simply another tool that allows the third person omniscient to operate; however, when applying this idea to subjects of focus in class, the function of a person’s memory can become altered depending on the circumstances.
During life-threatening catastrophes, such as the one suffered by residents of New Orleans as a result of hurricane Katrina, the idea of life and death makes its way into the minds of those affected. The presence of catastrophes creates turning points in people’s lives that allow them to categorize their decisions into two groups: “before and after.” The actions up until the point of havoc are now actions that happened “before.” The actions/thoughts a person continues to make after a major event, for purely survival purposes, are now placed into the “after” category; the anticipated events in a person’s life. The decisions made after a tragedy are influenced by the capacity people have to offer help to themselves and to others; the will to survive and help others in time of need is subconsciously based on one’s memory. To aid in the understanding of why people act this way, the abstract of the book “The Memory of Catastrophe” can be viewed here.
One example of memory affecting the way people make decisions post-tragedy comes from Solnit and Snedeker’s “Snakes and Ladders” chapter, where the story of Donnell Herrington’s heroism is cut short by two bullets. Refusing to evacuate the city, Herrington stayed back and rescued over 100 stranded civilians using a small boat. After finishing, he proceeded for Algiers with hopes to leave the city via the Coast Guard. He was shot twice among arriving in Algiers by a vigilante who had previously been shouting racially-charged threats at him. Katrina was not the cause for this hate-crime, but it was the platform that allowed the vigilante to be reminded of their disdain for African-Americans; and it were these memories that became unlocked as a result of the lawless land created by Katrina. The events brought forth by Katrina allowed for the vigilante to retrospectively focus on his life before the circumstances, make a life or death decision by arming himself (no concealed-carry permit), and anticipate the lives he would be taking as a result of this tragic, new platform.