Memory, childhood and autonomy

Isle of Skye © Samantha Groenestyn

I had the privilege to attend a fascinating seminar yesterday given by one Joanne Faulkner, who presented her paper ‘Memory and “the Virtual” in Henri Bergson: Thinking Through Children’s Agency.’ I am aware that many people look back fondly on their childhood, remembering a freer, happier period of their lives; I am not one of them. To me, adulthood brings infinite possibilities, extensive liberties and greater joys than childhood ever could, simply because childhood was a period of being controlled and restrained. Faulkner presents an interesting take on why adults simultaneously idealise and infantilise children in the context of their own memory. In this respect, adults use children to try to attain something they themselves have lost.

Henri Bergson’s explanation of memory is an original one, and, having thought extensively about it for an honours thesis, one I am partial to, though it is not without its flaws. For Bergson, memory is not stored—our brains are not hard drives. Our memories are not stores of photographs that we can flick through. Rather than granting memory a physicality somewhere in our brains, Bergson* calls memory in its purest form ‘virtual’—‘we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception’ (p. 171).

A famous literary example of memory merging with present perceptions is given by Proust** in The Remembrance of things Past. Proust recounts ‘involuntary memories’ that arise from the depths at a physical trigger, so absorbing one that one’s present is entirely consumed by the past. The narrator in Remembrance savours a madeleine with his tea and is transported to his childhood discovery of this flavoursome sensation. His buried past overwhelms the present and is lived again in all vividness through present perceptions.

Adults don’t ordinarily attempt to tap into their childhood solely to relive biscuit-tasting experiences, but Faulkner argues that childhood remains a ‘resource’ to adults, both when observed and when remembered. Childhood play in particular is something beyond the grasp of many adults, and yet something Schiller*** argues to be crucial to aesthetics, and something many creatives consider to be essential to their productivity. Most strikingly, Faulkner argues that adults use children to return to the time when they weren’t afraid of the future.

It is here she draws on Bergson: children are better at spontaneous memory because ‘they have not yet persuaded their memory to remain bound up with their conduct. They usually follow the impression of the moment’ (Bergson, p. 199). This is a powerful thing to be able to do—to be able to accept the present, and look to the uncertainties of the future with excitement, and to leap upon whatever it is that engages one’s attention without suppressing it. Such spontaneity opens the way for new creative connections—Steve Jobs famously claimed, ‘creativity is just connecting things.’ Working within strict boundaries does not allow one the necessary fodder for thought, and children have little notion of boundaries. As adults, ‘almost the whole of our past is hidden from us because it is inhibited by the necessities of present action, [but] it will find strength to cross the threshold of consciousness in all cases where we renounce the interests of effective action to replace ourselves, so to speak, in the life of dreams’ (p. 199).

Faulkner’s paper goes on to explore our repression of children, the way we desire to keep them innocent, the way we worry that girls are sexualised, that boys are violent, that every stranger is a predator. Our method of keeping children down, of taking resources from them, and of denying them their genuine curiosity simply wastes the potentiality that children possess. Children are predisposed to act in ways beyond the reach of most adults, and we envy them this. I have no consistent theory on how children ought to be raised, but as an adult determined to achieve great things, I suggest that the world of adults should shake its fear of children’s potential, and lose its embarrassment at responding to life with childlike reasoning. We ought to use our autonomy as we would have as children.


My citations of Faulkner relate to my own notes taken at her seminar. For further reading, you might like to look into her book, The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. 2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

* Bergson, Henri. 1950 [1911]. Matter and Memory. London: Allen & Unwin.
** Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Vol. 1. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.
*** Schiller, Friedrich. 2004. On the aesthetic education of man. Translated by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

When Anna, Con and I took a road trip around England and Scotland one spring, we were met with unusually felicitous weather on the Isle of Skye, perfecting for sunset strolling and cider-drinking.


7 thoughts on “Memory, childhood and autonomy

  1. The studies on memories had me searching for Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a personal narrative that describes Bergson’s ‘virtual’ memory.

  2. Pingback: Inspiration: Everything Can Change For the Better… | Mirth and Motivation

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