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Fallacies ofmemory in nineteenth-century psychology: Henry Holland, William Carpenter and Frances Power Cobbe Jenny Bourne Taylor ThePresent, inourlives, is evercloselyboundupwith the Past, and the cord that unites them is all woven of strands ofmemory.' Frances PowerCobbe testedthatcordin "The fallacies ofmemory," alengthypiecepublishedin theAmerican magazine The Galaxyin 1866 and reprinted the following year in HoursofWorkandPL·y. She found it extremely frayed. Cobbe begins her discussion self-reflexively: "The aberrations ofmemoryhave in them this peculiarity: we neverremember that our remembrance is not merelyhabitual, but faulty .. . We treat all mistakes as exceptional, rather than instantial."2 The act ofrecollection can never be separated from its representation and the cultural and institutional contexts in which that remembering takes place. Even the most articulate and well-educated people lack the verbal resources to describe a particular remembrance; historical writing is selective, generatingits particularmythologies andlegends, while (shewrites) "in our Courts ofJustice it is notorious how continually the most honest witnesses contradict one another on the simplest matter of fact, and thereby prove the inaccuracy ofmemory, even when acting under the pressure ofconscience, alarmed by judicial oaths and the tremendous result of a trial for a capital offence."3 Cobbe describes how specific scenes are transformed in the "screen memories" ofvisual recollection, such as in the case ofa "most scrupulously conscientious friend" who, describing a performance oftable turning, distinctly remembered that volume 26 number 1 Fallacies ofMemory in Nineteenth-Century Psychology no onewas anywhere near the table, butwho later, when consulting her notes of the event, saw that she had described six people with their hands actually resting on it. "Whenever we bring memory to test it is habitually found to be defective," Cobbe concludes, "and it is this that must serve for the basis ofscientific analysis ofthe faculty."4 She modestly admits that she has no pretensions to develop such ascience "nor to the remotestsuggestion, [to] help to throwmore lightman has alreadybeen shed bypsychological writers upon the nature and laws of this department of our mental organisation." But one thing she can do, she asserts, is to take apart the memorial metaphorso belovedofpoetsandrhetoricians-thatofwriting: We remember, not the things themselves, but the first recollection ofthem and then the second and then the third, always the latest recollection of them. A proof thatdiis maybe so found byanybodywhowill carefully studythe processes ofhis own mind, after he has once detailedatlength, inwords, anyscene hehas previously witnessed. He will find himselfconstandy going over precisely whathehas narratedand no more.. . . Thus, in accordance with various laws ofmind, each fresh trace varies a little from the trace beneath. . .5 Cobbe's remarksseem to sharplyanticipate late twentiedi-century debates aboutthe transmutation and displacement ofmemory, although they take place in a very different context; and in some ways they offer a subtler notion ofthe process ofsubconscious modification than those ofrecent anxieties surrounding "false memory syndrome": for Cobbe, die 'fallacies ofmemory' are notdeliberately implantedbut the inevitable result ofmemory always being a representation, never the thing itself. Her aim here is to debunk what she sees as prevailing myths about memoryas well as to mourn theloss ofa knowable Past onwhich present identity depends: "That dear Past, by whose grave we are standing all our later life ... to know that what we deem we recall so vividly is but a poor shifting reflex - hardly of the thing itself only of our earlier remembranceofthe thing- this is sad and mournful."6 But there is also Victorian Review (2000)99 J. B. Taylor a sense here in which Cobbe is able to contemplate the "abyss" ofamnesia because, for her at least, identity rests on a larger concept, one which exists beyond memory, and which, paradoxically, is at once expressed through, andtranscends, asense ofthe mind's own materiality. Like her other articles exploring aspects ofthe unconscious mind and the current state of mental science, Cobbe was writing for a general audience at a timewhen psychologywas rapidlybecoming established as an important medical specialism and a growing intellectual discipline, but before its boundaries had hardened and while it was developing a "scientific" language. Herpieces firstappearedinpopularmiddle-browpublications such as Fräsers and MacmifarisMagazine, journals which responded to thewidespread fascination with the powers ofthe mindin mid-Victorian culture andwhich aimed to explain newdevelopments in mental science...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 98-118
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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