Monday, April 22, 2013

The Mnemonists

[This is a draft of a short story. See here for explicit discussion of the philosophical idea behind the story.]

[Revised April 23]

When he was four years old, my Oligarch wandered away from his caretakers to gaze into an oval fountain. At sixteen, he blushingly refused the kiss he had so desperately longed for. A week before his death, he made plans (which must now be postponed) to visit an old friend in Lak-Blilin. I, his mnemonist, have internalized all this. I remember it just as he does, see the same images, feel the same emotions as he does in remembering those things. I have adopted his attitudes, absorbed his personality. My whole life is arranged to know him as perfectly as one person can know another. My first twenty years I learned the required arts. Since then, I have concentrated on nothing but the Oligarch.

My Oligarch knows that to hide from me is to obliterate part of himself. He whispers to me his most shameful thoughts. I memorize the strain on his face as he defecates; I lay my hands on his tensing stomach. When my Oligarch forces himself on his friend’s daughter, I press against him in the dark. I feel the girl’s breasts as he does. I forget my sex and hallucinate his ejaculation.

At my fiftieth birthday, my Oligarch toasts me, raising and then drinking down his fine crystal cup of hemlock. As he dies, I study his face. I mimic his last breath. A newborn baby boy is brought and my second task begins.

By age three, the boy has absorbed enough of the Oligarch’s identity to know that he is the Oligarch now again, in a new body. A new apprentice mnemonist joins us now, waiting in the shadows. At age four, the Oligarch finally visits his friend in Lak-Blilin, apologizing for the long delay. He begins to berate his advisors as he always had, at first clumsily, in a young child’s vocal register. He comes to take the same political stands, comes to dispense the same advice. I am ever at his side helping in all this, the apprentice mnemonist behind me; his trust in us is instant and absolute. At age eight, the Oligarch understands enough to try to apologize to his friend’s daughter – though he also notices her hair again in the same way, so good am I.

My Oligarch boy does not intentionally memorize his old life. He recalls it with assistance. Just as I might suggest to you a memory image, wholly fake, of a certain view of the sea with ragged mountains and gulls, which you then later mistake for a real memory image from your own direct experience, so also are my suggestions adopted by the Oligarch, but uncritically and with absolutely rigorous sincerity on both sides. The most crucial memory images I paint and voice and verbally elaborate. Sometimes I brush my fingers or body against him to better convey the feel, or flex his limbs, or ride atop him, narrating. I give him again the oval fountain. I give him again the refused kiss.

A madman’s dream of being Napoleon is no continuation of Napoleon. But here there is no madness. My Oligarch’s memories have continuous properly-caused traces back to the original events, his whole psychology continued by a stable network of processes, as he well knows. His plans and passions, commitments and obligations, legal contracts, attitudes and resolutions, vengeances, thank-yous and regrets – all are continued without fail, if temporarily set aside through infancy as though through sleep.

The boy, now eleven, is only middling bold, though in previous form, my Oligarch had been among the boldest in the land. I renew my stories of bold heroes, remind him of his long habit of boldness, subtly condition and reinforce him. I push the boundaries of acceptable technique. Though I feel the dissonance sharply, the boy does not. He knows who he is. He feels he has only changed his mind.

[continued here]


Unknown said...

Powerful stuff! I suppose the Oligarchs' memories of their past lives would have to be partial due to capacity constraints, but that's probably no barrier to psychological continuity. In any case, it makes for a good story. You should write fiction more often!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Joseph!

clasqm said...

My memory of *this* life isn't perfect either. I don't seriously doubt that I am the same person I was in 1960, but I have no actual memories of being a newborn baby. Indeed, there are just flashes of anything before the age of five. My early twenties are a bit blurry too, but there may be other reasons for that ...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...