Unreliable witnesses (again)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2009 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments


The opening line of Nobel Laureate's Gunter Grass first novel [Die Blechtrommel or The Tin Drum] is emblematic of one of the most important stylistic features of the post War novel, not just in German literature, but for that of much of the developed world, the "unreliable narrator":

"Admittedly, I'm an inmate of a mental health institution…"

proclaims the narrator, Oskar (as portrated in Fassbinder's brilliant film adaptation), before proceeding to tell the story of his life (and his parent's conception), twisting and turning, confabulating and confusing, telling and retelling the same events differently over several hundred pages.

You can't trust the little b******, however appealing (or by turns) monstrous you find him: just as you can't trust other unreliable human witnesses to tell you "what really happened" in the real world.

I was thinking about this the other night watching some terrible documentary on TV which involved regression therapy to find the "real memories, hidden in your subconscious".

"Real"? "Hidden"?

Nonsense: individual memory is not a data-retrieval system as this way of thinking suggests; it bends and twists itself in the retrieval – inventing as it seems to recall – even if you remember being a cathar priest in the great anti-heretic purges of the Middle Ages, the vividness of what you recall is not evidence for the "reality" of what you remember. We are not aware of what we do or how or why: our minds are meant to give us good reason but largely to make us feel better.

Equally, was struck today by the more prosaic stupidity of yet another survey asking the general public about which media influence their purchasing behaviour most. They out there can't tell you reliably what they did, what they do now or how any of it is influenced or shaped. Again, it's clear that memory – however credible it seems to the witness and however well you correlate and cross-check it – doesn't work that way.

We are all unreliable witnesses to our own lives.

Why would it change for survey respondents?


  1. Daria Radota Rasmussen
    January 2, 2009

    it is like one of my favorite polish writers said once: the love fed with memories is stronger than one we are currently experiencing.

  2. Alan
    January 2, 2009

    Mark – You wrote: “We are all unreliable witnesses to our own lives.”
    …Not if you practice witnessing your own life. Witnessing has been taught throughout millennia and is considered by sages to be of utmost importance. Pay attention to your peripheral vision or your breath and you will have activated that “witness” which lies dormant in almost everyone.
    Gazing slightly upwards also activates the “witness” and many fine artists have captured the practice on canvas. Here’s an example from the 15th century:
    …Practice this regularly and you will discover that you can indeed be a reliable witness to your own life.

  3. Matt Moore
    January 3, 2009

    Mark – You may want to check out “Rewriting the Soul” by Ian Hacking: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rewriting-Soul-Multiple-Personality-Sciences/dp/069105908X/