Memory fascinates me. It’s a gift, a tool, a blessing (mainly). Without memory there would be no knowledge, no purpose or progress, no life as we know it. Through it, we partake of the Spirit of God, of life itself. But our experience of it is not always perfect: due to some quirk of our mind, it can seem to play tricks on us, so that what we may think of as “fact” may be wrong and distorted, though there is normally an element of truth concealed in the most distorted memory, stimulating our imagination.
But how imagination tricks us! I want to tell you about two films – out of several that I could mention – because old films are a good way to check our memory. The first is “The Innocents”, from “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. I saw it many years ago. In the final scene, I vividly remembered Deborah Kerr, playing the governess, in a thunderstorm, standing in the lake at night and bending over the body of the dead boy, with rain pouring down, and in the very last moment, the governess desperately and violently kisses the boy full on his open mouth. Being unfamiliar with the story, I was shocked by this event, and I remembered it for years as a violent act. However, when I recently saw the film again, it was the ghost of the last governess who was standing alone in the lake, and I was touched to see Deborah Kerr, in a rain-swept shelter on the shore gently place her fingers on the cheek of the dead boy and kiss him tenderly on the mouth. Quite different! I’ll ignore the fact that there are loads of arguments about the story, especially the ending, because I’m only interested here in my memory and the “truth” of the film. To me, the idea of such a kiss was powerful enough, and I remembered it as a violent act, which it was not really, in the film.
The other film is “Unforgiven”, with Clint Eastwood playing a gunfighter with a dreadful past, coming out of retirement to protect the ladies of the saloon in a town dominated cruelly by Gene Hackman. The story resolves itself by Eastwood shooting the many people who deserve shooting – clearing the decks with his usual efficiency. The final scene is when he is leaving and says (as I remembered it): “Now you’d better look after these ladies, ‘cos if you don’t, I’ll come back and kill you all!” This was vivid in my memory, word for word, but when I saw the film recently, Eastwood said: “I’ll come back and kill EVERY MAN JACK OF YOU!” (I know, I know – it means the same, but that’s beside the point!) Because of this, I was convinced that two versions had been made of the ending. You see, I just could not be wrong! It never entered my head until sometime after I saw the replay. The words that I remembered were firm and strong in my memory; I was so certain about them that I would have sworn it in a court of law, whatever the consequences, but it would have been untrue. How absolutely sure we can be of “facts”. If I could be wrong about such trivia, how wrong might I – an untrained observer – be about more serious details, involving complex events, feelings, sentiments, motives for actions and words? What child within me scribbles with his stubby pencil my memories of what really may be very important events? A little humility would be most desirable, but that calls for wisdom and understanding.
Now that a hundred years have passed since the end of World War One, we can’t help looking back; I can see a pattern in my own life, in the lives of other people and in the life of the world. It has all been affected by the two World Wars, because they were connected, just as so many lesser conflicts since then have been dependent on the thoughts, moods and actions of all kinds of people, some great, some small, some incredibly evil and some saintly, and all affected by the interlocking processes of history. Right now, we are unwittingly laying the foundations of the next great conflagration. When will we ever learn? Dear God Almighty, we should pray! – pray for remembrance of so many sacrificed so cruelly, pray for understanding, pray for hope, for peace, for love and forgiveness, and not to have to learn the same dreadful lessons all over again. Even atheists pray in extremis, because prayer is in our very nature. And we need to carry out our prayers in actions, looking back as well as forward, because in the correct apprehension of history, understanding and wisdom are born.