Cultural Memory Loss

This afternoon I needed some music to settle Bump down for his nap, and decided to put on Moana to serve as background noise. I love the soundtrack, and I find the movie compelling. Along with the excellent music there are some great characters, excellent gags, and a wonderful journey arc. But what I find most compelling is the theme of forgetting.

Moana’s people are safe, and remain on a sanctuary island which has but one rule – no one can leave. The only reason given for this rule in the first act of the film is a partial truth, beyond the reef surrounding the island is only death. It’s not until Moana is given the gift of memory, both through a vision of her people’s past and her grandmother’s stories, that she understands what that death is – a darkness which was released into the world and would inevitably make its way to the island 1. In many ways the movie Moana presents the balance between the choice of blissful ignorance and the danger of knowledge. Danger is the cost of knowing.

The loss of cultural memory is something I find myself musing upon, a lot. I’ve written two novels, and published one, and the loss of cultural identity plays a role in both stories. A third novel, which lives only in my daydreams at the moment, also plays off of this idea. When a culture forgets where it’s been it also forgets what it is and what it can be.

In each of my stories the type of cultural loss I’ve explored has been through atrophy. This atrophy is not always caused by nefarious means, but these stories still play off of a fall from grace motif – and reclaiming memory is a way of returning to a more fully realized state.

Atrophy, however, is not the only way for a culture to loose a memory. A culture’s memory can also have a false story imposed upon it – which derails the cultural identity of a people. My friend, Carol A. Park, explores this theme in her novel Banebringer, but we also see this at work in cultural narratives nowadays. The erection of Confederate memorials in the early 20th Century helped propagate the “lost cause” narrative of the American Civil War, and the echos of that narrative are seen in the re-emergence of hate groups in the present. Donald Trump often rewrites the news cycle, in near real time, to fit the narrative in his head 2. There have even been attempts to wipe the holocaust from cultural memory by sowing cynical seeds of doubt in people.

While the atrophy of cultural memory could be considered tragic, the act of inserting a false narrative into a cultural’s memory is more like memory rape. It rips something essential from a culture and replaces it with an abusive tale more appealing to those in power. While this is a far darker motif than my typical writing, it’s something I may have to explore in the future. A lot of stories can be told against that sort of backdrop.

  1. Indeed, it already had. 
  2. “Fake news! Sad. I’m a stable genius.” He’s not even subtle about what he’s doing to our cultural memory 


  1. Ron King says:

    Interesting thoughts. I haven’t seen the movie, but I wonder if some of the same dynamics relate to a loss of cultural imagination? If we experience the loss of a future orientation, do we also need to balance blissful ignorance and the danger of knowing in order to find it? Maybe denial of our possible future is similar to forgetfulness of our actual past.

    It seems both liminal spaces (islands) have rules that keep us isolated and a tree of knowing good and evil that connects us with the danger of entering our past and future. There is truth we need rooted in the memory of our past and hope of our future.

  2. Ah, the Orwellian, “The country is now at war with Eurasia, has always been at war with Eurasia…” however that quote goes…

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