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Memory: The Seamstress

19/12/2013 15:33 GMT | Updated 17/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf, although distinct thinkers of two Areas of Knowledge (the Human Sciences and Literature), both use memory in their work.

To Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, memory is 'traumatic', because memory is often the cause of his patients' despair. Thus, his growing knowledge base of memory's impact on individuals forms a foundation for his most renowned discourses, including 'Civilisation and its Discontents', that sometimes mention 'memories' in order to develop ideas for Freud's arguments. British writer Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, is celebrated for her avant-garde style of writing, as exemplified by her stream-of-consciousness, third-person omniscient narration in 'To the Lighthouse'. In Woolf's writing, memory also plays a significant role as the use of flashbacks feature characters' memories that highlight characters' development over time, and is thus a major literary device that contributes to the success of the fiction.

As the 'Father of Psychoanalysis' and a physician, Freud uses his experience with patients and their psychotic circumstances to form general conclusions on the role of memory in his thinking and writing. In Freud's 1909 'The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis', he writes, 'Our hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences. Their symptoms are the remnants and the memory symbols of certain (traumatic) experiences.'

Although Freud, to a large extent, believes in the negative implications of memories as observed in his patients' cases, he simultaneously believes in the role of good memories' therapeutic power. Woolf once metaphorised 'memory' to a 'seamstress'. Using this metaphor, one may consider that this 'seamstress', memory, juxtaposes different elements of the thinkers' ideas. To Freud and his ground-breaking theories in Psychology, memory helps link a few key words together: 'childhood', 'dreams', and 'desires'. In his 'Civilisation and its Discontents', Freud suggests that one of the fundamental parts of human existence is 'to satisfy desires' and includes examples on 'ego', 'super-ego', and 'sexual desires'. Particularly famous for his dream analysis, Freud raises the concept of 'subconsciousness' in dreams that a childhood memory, although possibly forgotten over the years of a person's growth, can be recurrent in the same person's dreams as he or she matures. The purpose of dreams, Freud emphasises in his 'The Interpretation of Dream', is 'to satiate human desires', often through 'memories' from earlier stages of one's development, i.e. childhood memories, in order to eschew from 'traumatic experiences'. Thus, 'Memory' is indeed a seamstress who sews together different aspects of Freud's theories.

The metaphor of 'memory' as a 'seamstress', surely, can also be considered from its original perspective. British novelist Virginia Woolf, in her Orlando, describes memory as a 'capricious' seamstress who 'runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.' Similarly, in 'To the Lighthouse', Woolf shows how 'The most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.' As Woolf defies the traditional constraints of chronology and perspective to daringly explore the limitless possibilities of characterisation, she is distorting time. In this way, the narrator is free to switch from one instance to another, often including flashbacks as she omnisciently introduces the character's thoughts (memory of the past). As Woolf has once commented, 'We know not what comes next, or what follows after.' as she metaphorises memory as a seamstress, her writing is similarly going back and forth. For instance, in Part Three ('The Lighthouse') of the novel, Woolf portrays James' feelings toward the lighthouse during his expedition to the Lighthouse. James believes that both the Lighthouse from his memory and the Lighthouse before him, of actuality, do exist. He is able to compare his imagination of the Lighthouse to his current perception of it. Through the flashbacks, 'he remembered his father saying, "you won't be able to go to the Lighthouse"' and 'the lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye' with an abrupt shift of 'Now-', James' growth is highlighted, as an example of how Woolf uses memory in her characterisation. Indeed, in 'To the Lighthouse', memory plays a large part in defining her style of writing that has inspired other writers of the Postmodern Period.

Freud and Woolf are influential beyond their lifetimes due to the lasting impact of their groundbreaking-thoughts, part of which is based on their observation of the role of memory in individual's everyday living. From the discussions above, it can be concluded that memory is a seamstress who has the freedom to link inter-related aspects of theories together. Therefore, the role of memory is very important in both Freud and Woolf's thinking.