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Things That Have Interested Me

Received Wisdom

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
10 February 2007

Last year a group of psychiatrists posted a challenge on the internet, offering $1,000 reward to anyone who could come up with an example of repressed memory, in fact or fiction, dating from before 1800. The terms of the challenge (you can find it still on stipulated that, for an example to be valid, the subject must experience severe trauma (abuse, a near-death experience, etc), develop amnesia for that trauma for months or years afterwards, then recover that lost memory at some later time. This loss of memory could not be due to biological factors such as neurological impairment (being hit over the head), nor could it be a case of childhood amnesia.

Oedipus doesn't count. He doesn't recall his mother when he marries her, or indeed his father when he kills him, but he hasn't seen either of them since he was a baby. Nor does he suddenly "remember" events of his childhood after his identity has been revealed. There are proposed examples from Greek tragedy, the Heracles of Euripides and the Ajax of Sophocles, which have also been considered and rejected. The challenge received more than 100 responses, the nearest of which to a winner, according to an article in the New York Times, was the case of Madame de Tourvel in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), who arrives at a convent, after being unfaithful to her husband, unable to remember why she is there. But her amnesia was deemed too short to qualify as a truly repressed memory.

The idea that the brain can spontaneously act to repress traumatic memories, and that these memories can be suddenly recovered, bringing with them the clue to our present situation, is one that strikes us as both powerful and profoundly true. It is certainly a great dramatic idea. Siegfried in Götterdämmerung gradually, as the love potion wears off, remembers his own story, and for that reason, at that moment, has to be killed by Hagen.

The moment of remembering, the moment of self-knowledge, the sense of a mystery being solved, of an unbearable injustice being brought to light - the moment when we "manage / to find out what it is that is doing the damage" - how familiar these concepts are, and yet how modern. Among the earliest cases the psychiatrists could find in literature was Dr Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), who cannot remember his traumatic sufferings in the Bastille. In the paper they publish in the latest issue of Psychological Medicine (you can read it online, at a hefty price) they also cite a poem by Emily Dickinson (1862):

There is a pain - so utter
It swallows substance up
Then covers the Abyss with Trance
So Memory can step
Around - across - upon it
As one within a Swoon
Goes safely - where an open eye
Would drop Him - Bone by Bone.

And there is Kipling's novel Captains Courageous (1896), in which a Pennsylvania preacher loses his family in a flood, suffers amnesia, goes to work as a fisherman on a schooner, is involved in a collision at sea and suddenly recovers his lost memory.

Although the authors of the paper do not address the question, these early evocations of "dissociative amnesia" suggest to me that, wherever the concept originated, it was not in psychiatric literature. Their polemical purpose, as announced on the website, was to examine whether repressed memory might not be "simply a romantic notion dating from the 1800s, rather than a scientifically valid phenomenon". It is not, however, within the scope of their paper to tell us where this "romantic notion" came from.

In the absence of convincing examples (the reward of $1,000 has not been given), they consider four possible conclusions. The first two are that dissociative amnesia did exist before 1800 but (a) they haven't yet found a description of it, or (b) it occurred but was not described. Both of these seem to them unlikely, considering the amazing resources of the internet. The second two conclusions are that this form of amnesia has existed only since 1800 and that (a) it is real, but only recently neurologically imprinted, or (b) it is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but a culture-bound syndrome. Recovered memory, according to this last conclusion, is to our age what swoon or certain kinds of hysteria were to previous generations.

Naturally, the authors have been said to have found the conclusion (the last mentioned) that they wanted. Their arguments are not as crude as they might appear in summary, yet it seems to me that - fascinating though this kind of use of search engines is - it would not be surprising if someone did come up with some examples pre-1800. After all, the challenge had only around 100 replies. Despite the psychiatrists' efforts to publicise their research, very few readers bothered to think hard about the answer.

Second, they are right to be concerned that the phenomenon they talk about may be described, but in terms that are not at once recognisable. This is true, for instance, of clinical depression, a "scientific" term that is, by definition, not used before the date of its coinage. I think that Coleridge's "Dejection" ode is about clinical depression, but I am not confident that I could convince a scientific jury of this. We might well be in fundamental disagreement about the occurrence of clinical depression over the centuries.

Third, at risk of sounding desperate and niggling, I might point out that there is an assumption behind their research that all the evidence of what has ever been written about remains, theoretically recoverable, in the libraries. But most of what was written, and much of what was published, has been destroyed. This is as true of popular works as it is of obscure ones.

Most tracts (where we might expect an account of such symptoms) have been destroyed. Shakespeare quartos are rare, and there is no generally acknowledged Shakespeare manuscript. There are only, I believe, five copies in existence of the first edition of The Pilgrim's Progress. Things that were once very common are now exceedingly rare. This is what the word ephemera refers to. And, for the evidence to turn up, it has to be read, assessed and interpreted by a human being, not an engine. So the prize might yet be won.

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