Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Unremembered memories, stimuli, etc.

Main text

Memory-related texts are quite common in my writings, ranging from those dealing with childhood nostalgia to those that address the unreliability of memory.


In few cases, however, is memory the actual topic. Consider a text published shortly before this one ([1]), where various memories of the past blend with something that I wrote eleven years earlier, and where I e.g. speak of how I have written about a certain incident at later times and got the details wrong. (This also illustrates one of the reasons why I write—that what I write today can correct, complement, or supplement my memories tomorrow.) Another, if less obvious, aspect is nostalgia: while the first day discussed was in many ways a bad day, it was also a, in some sense, special day and the following period of movie watching was a great time. (Also note below remarks, if unrelated to nostalgia, on how the special, unusual, whatnot is more likely to be remembered than the everyday.)

A sometime issue is how memory can be helped by the right stimulus and/or by simply digging down. For instance, in [1], I tangentially write about a first project out of two in Munich. Of these two, I remember quite a bit of the second, and without prompting, but I found a big blank for the first. I dug down and thing after thing came back to me, because the memories were not so much gone as hidden. (Similarly, in the same text, I mention various movies. Some of them, I remembered with some detail at once, others needed a bit of thinking, and in one case, “Niagara”, I actually needed to draw on older writings to get the right prompts.)

I have experienced much more radical memory “come backs”, however. More than twenty years ago, for instance, I watched the movie “The One”, a somewhat mediocre sci-fi/martial-arts work, which had a reasonably cool and super-powered antagonist (Jet Li), whose last scene I, at the time, considered extremely cool—Jet Li stands at the top of a ziggurat, fighting endless rows of enemies in a “king of the hill” scenario.


With a very small leap of imagination, this scene could be taken to be an evil warrior put into the Greek Hades, doomed to fight for all eternity, moving us from sci-fi to mythology, which provided a major portion of that coolness.

Also note that this first watching was in a cinema, which made the scene more visually impressive.

I soon forgot all about this movie. Last year (2023), I encountered it again. The blurb was not promising (unsurprisingly), but the cast sported Jet Li, a pre-fame Jason Statham, and a rare sighting of Delroy Lindo (who had always given a good impression on my very few prior encounters)—and I decided to give it a chance. At this time, I had no recollection of having seen the movie before, nor had I any recollection of seeing Jason Statham in anything prior to the first “The Transporter” movie. (The latter is an example of the “nectarine phenomenon”; TODO import from Wordpress and link.) I watched on and saw nothing that caused any type of recollection of an earlier watching—until, towards the end of the movie, Jet Li is standing, still peacefully, halfway up a ziggurat. That one scene flashes back before my mental eyes, and, a few seconds later, the movie shows it to my physical eyes. (At which time, I began to piece things together.)

Similarly, I recently began to read the comic strip “Rose is Rose”. Nothing in the strip rang any kind of bell, not even on the “look and feel” level or in any recollection of a character. (Due to the sheer number of individual story-lines, jokes, whatnot, in a long-running comic strip, it is very possible to have a strong acquaintance without having previously encountered any given story-line/whatnot—unlike a movie, but similar to a TV series.) Then, out of nowhere, Pasquale’s cute little guardian angel turns into an extremely impressing, outright towering, version of himself, with a gigantic sword and a face as if he was set to battle Lucifer. I immediately recognized this transformation as something that I seen repeatedly in one of my old comic books (see excursion) in the 1990s, implying that I had definitely encountered “Rose is Rose” before. (How much material I had encountered is another question. Had it been a greater amount, I would likely have remembered without that single strong impulse.)

In both cases, we had something that truly stood out from the rest of what I had encountered and which had created a stronger or much stronger memory than the rest of the film resp. strip. In real life, humans are similarly more likely to remember something that was out of the ordinary (e.g. something unusually beautiful, painful, dangerous, or just “off”). For instance, I remember next to nothing of most of the time that I have spent waiting in train stations over the years, but even something as trivial as someone asking for the time of day increases the chance of a memory enormously—and I certainly remember the time, some thirty years ago, when I banged my “funny bone” in the worst way that I have ever experienced. (My lower arm was simultaneous numb, burning, ice cold, and in pain.)

However, I have also experienced some memory-related events that could be signs of an extraordinary strength of the human memory and/or ability to associate. (Or could just be amazing coincidences.) For instance, I had no deeper exposure to “The Wizard of Oz” as a child (see excursion), and had made no connection between the word/name “Munchkin” and “The Wizard of Oz”. (In as far as I was aware of “Munchkin” at all.) In the early 2000s, I went through the TV series “Angel” several times, including an episode where one of the characters refers to some children as “Munchkins”. Later, I bought a DVD version of “The Wizard of Oz” and watched the movie on a number of occasions. After a gap of, maybe, ten years, I revisited “Angel”, found my mind drifting to Oz and the similarity in name between Billie Burke (“Glinda”) and (Winni-)Fred Burkle (a newly introduced character on Angel), both in the similarity of their last names and that their given names were male sounding, and, while I was pondering, heard that “Munchkins” spoken. Unlike on previous watchings, I had a very clear association, immediately placed the Munchkins in Oz, and instead began to ponder human memory.


However, great care must be taken with interpretation, beginning with the possibility that this was all just one amazing coincidence. (Coincidence happen. For instance, it is sheer coincidence that this text contains two angels.)

Another possibility is that something else brought about the trigger: Going by an online description, this was likely in the episode Belonginge. Of the three following episodes, two (“Over the Rainbow”, “There is no place like Plrtz Glrb”) are obvious and deliberate references to “The Wizard of Oz” and there are similarities in the respective story, including travel to a strange world.

(The episodes are separated by “Through the Looking Glass”, an equally obvious reference to the story by Lewis Caroll.)

It might then be that my original drifting mind was not affected by the upcoming use of “Munchkins” but by similar associations to the upcoming story-line and/or episode names. The effect would be something similar, viz. something unconsciously known to be upcoming that now had a new meaning and triggered an unexpected association. (When I say “obvious [...] references” above, this presupposes a sufficient familiarity with the referent, which I have today but did not at the time of my original encounters, just like I know what a Munchkin is today but did not back then.) However, the “Munchkins” version is more pleasing/impressive/whatnot—and it was the “Munchkins” part that set me thinking on memory, not what came later.

A secondary point is whether the use of “Munchkins” and/or “Fred Burkle” was deliberate or coincidental. (I suspect that the former was deliberate, the latter coincidental, but can only speculate.)

That something in the now can cause an association with something yet-to-happen is comparatively common, if a repetition is present. For instance, when I listen to music, I often have a particular feeling of “we are close to the end” when hearing the last piece on a CD (in a directory, whatnot) based on previous hearings—and this even when I am not consciously paying attention. More interestingly, when I hear the same piece in some other context (e.g. when playing the music from several directories in random order) I can still have the same feeling (but now misleadingly, as the end, barring coincidence, is not close).

A particularly interesting variation: I once had a music file that ended prematurely. As this was one file among many, I did not bother to correct the error and grew used to the abrupt end at a particular point. After I finally had a complete version, I could still feel myself tensing up a little and expecting the end in the few seconds leading up to where the end used to be.

Excursion on repressed memories

An interesting possibility with “repressed memories” (of which I am highly sceptical) is that they are not actually repressed in any real sense, but merely happen to be forgotten-but-retrievable in the same manner as I had forgotten Jet Li playing “king of the hill”, but still could retrieve the memory given the right prompt.

If, then, an explanation of “this was so horrible an event that the memory was repressed as a protection mechanism” (or similar) is imposed, we might land somewhere very far from the truth. On the contrary, chances are that the memory was forgotten because it was not bad (or otherwise important or effectful) enough to be remembered without the right set of prompts. The opposite seems more likely—that we remember the very bad events very strongly. Apart from my own experience, I have, for instance, seen claims that pain was often used as a memory aid in the past, e.g. in that a child was shown how to do something and then given an undeserved hiding in order to really drive the memory home; for instance, various animal experiments with “conditioning” have shown stronger effects the stronger the pain (or other stimulus).

(An “advantage” of the idea of repressed memories is that it might give a plausible way to plant certain memories in others or to feign them in oneself, e.g. to justify a false accusation against someone else despite never having mentioned the alleged event to anyone over the two decades since it supposedly took place.)

Excursion on Proust

Parts of the above remind me of the famous Madeleine-incident described by Proust. Unfortunately, I have never read his “À la recherche du temps perdu”, and cannot speak for how well it might otherwise fit. Associations and memories triggered by e.g. a taste or a smell are well established and have likely been experienced by most of us, however, including memories that were otherwise inaccessible.

Excursion on U.S. media in Sweden

While U.S. movies, comic strips, etc. have reasonably great penetration in Sweden, and the more so over time, it is still a different country, with partially different traditions, partially different children’s (and adult’s) classics, etc. During my childhood, it might also have been that the U.K., not the U.S., was the largest source of “imports”.

Notably, “The Wizard of Oz” was nowhere near the cultural phenomenon that it is in the U.S. Combined with screen entertainment that was mostly limited to all of two TV channels, I only had one opportunity to watch the movie as a child. and did this while relying on subtitles. The experience was enjoyable, but it might have been even more extraordinary, had I managed to remember the word “Munchkin” based on that one viewing.

I also read the book at least once, but chances are that the term was translated into something more Swedish sounding and I was even younger than when I saw the movie. In an example of a very odd coincidence, a third source of exposure coincided with my reading: During the time frame when I was reading the book at home, our teacher began to play a recorded version in school. (Whether this was a dramatization or a straight “book on tape”, I do not remember. It did give me incentives to read faster, however, as I did not want the tape to spoil the book.)

Looking at comic strips:

In addition to or instead of newspaper syndication, comic strips in Sweden are/were commonly printed in joint monthly comic books. For instance, my favorite in the 1990s was “Larson”, which began with a slew of “The Far Side” pages as the fix point. (“The Far Side” was written by Gary Larson; and, for some reason or other, “Larson” was preferred by the Swedish publisher.) Then followed various pages with other strips, some popular and recurring, some on a we-give-it-shot-and-see-whether-the-readers-like-it basis. My previous encounter with “Rose in Rose” was in one such comic book.

A complication, as with that “Larson”, is that names are often replaced in a manner that leaves them unrecognisable. Consider the oddity of “Lisa och Sluggo”: not only is poor Nancy renamed, she also has to share credit. Who might guess that “Knasen” is “Beetle Bailey”? Etc. (I have no recollection as to what “Rose is Rose” might have been called.)

Excursion on “Easter Parade”

Speaking of “The Wizard of Oz” and memories, I am reminded of “Easter Parade”, which also (a) had just one early watching, (b) became a later adult favorite, and (c) is a significant musical and color movie.

I remembered next to nothing from that childhood watching, but one line from one song, with a piece of melody, remained with me over the years: “I’m just a fellow with a yellow umbrella”. (With reservations for “-ow” vs. “-a”.)

During my first adult watching, I was greatly surprised to find a fella with an umbrella—with no mention of yellow. Yes, the singer (Peter Lawford) was holding a yellow umbrella (or, rather, what a yellow umbrella might aspire to become), but the actual line does not contain the word. I would speculate that the mixture of the prominent image of the yellow umbrella and how well “yellow” fits in the line somehow made me interpolate the word. The tweak of melody needed is small and the result could even be argued as a minor improvement.

(How old I was, I do not remember, but I must already have learnt some amount of English.)