Impressions of the past
by Chetan Parikh
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In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.


“One of the reasons given to explain the reactions of the crowd - which are out of all proportion to the objective facts - and its lack of reason, is the persistence of thoughts and feelings from the past which, when they return, obscure men’s minds. What the dead have thought weighs oppressively on the concerns of the living. This is the age-old truth that Valery described so well when he said that the past, which is more or less fantastic, acts on the future with the same sort of power as does the present itself.


Perhaps nothing is lost in psychic life, and anything can come back at any time. We often say that the people have a short memory, quickly forgetting heroes and events. The exact opposite is in fact the case. They have a long memory and are constantly looking into the mirror of the past. Le Bon and Tarde were convinced of this and made no bones about saying so. So was Freud, but he found it very difficult to explain. The difficulty was twofold, for it was connected with both the survival of memories and traditions and the way in which they are transmitted.


It is a fact that everything that happens in an individual’s life leaves a memory trace and is inscribed in his brain. But how can we talk of the memory traces of the masses? The problem becomes insoluble when we consider the transmission of memories from one generation to another. It matters little whether we are thinking of individuals or masses, for if there is no inheritance of acquired characteristics, there can be none of the memory of the group or the species. Here, since Darwin, we are up against the veto of genetics when we try to speculate on the problem. This means that there can be no valid analogy between individual and mass psychology or any transfer of ideas from one to the other. Freud thought that:


The second difference about this transference to group psychology is far more important, because it poses a fresh problem of a fundamental nature. It raises the question in what form the operative tradition in the life of peoples is present - a question which does not occur with individuals, since there it is solved by the existence in the unconscious of memory-traces of the past. (Freud: XXIII, 93)


But certain obvious facts mean that we can get round the obstacle and escape the dilemma. Language seems to be an excellent vehicle for transmitting memory traces between generations. From earliest childhood we immediately recognise and understand the symbols it carries. In addition, anterior to language we have myths, religions that gather and preserve very ancient ideas and rituals for millennia. Posterior to it, we also have the monumental group milieu that includes all causes for celebration (Christ’s birth, the Revolution, victory over our enemies etc.) and commemoration of the group itself, keeping the same load of emotions from one generation to the next. Our living records, which we call Earth, are an imaginary geography and biography. They create an illusion of continuity and a link uniting all those inhabiting our planet since time out of mind. What is based on such obvious facts can only be postulated and not proved.


The postulate is that impressions of the past are conserved in the mental life of the masses as well as in that of individuals in the form of memory traces. In certain favourable circumstances, they can be reconstituted and reanimated. In addition, the more ancient they are, the better they are conserved.


Scientifically, the postulate is obviously preposterous. It means that everything that happens in our lives now is determined by memories of the past and that the psychic and interior causes of our actions are more important than the physical and social ones. But however outrageous it may be, we have to accept it, for ‘if this is not so, we shall not advance a step further along the path we entered on, either in analysis or group psychology. The audacity cannot be avoided’ (Freud: XXIII, 100).”