Confabulation

Posted on September 17, 2010 by

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* Time for a guest post by Craig Swain. I’ve been looking forward to this one since Craig tossed the idea at me. He offers some good points about problems with historical memory, and especially Lost Cause as remembered today by folks who don’t have “memory” of then. As I’ve mentioned a few times… too often, when someone today finds a Confederate ancestor in the family tree, or begins to become aware of him, there seems to be a certain drive that kicks in, one that is really some sort of unexplained need to fill a void. More or less, it boils down to… find the Confederate ancestor, gather limited facts about that ancestor specifically (and in most cases, there isn’t a great deal there), and, unsatisfied with the limited story that provides, fill-in the gaps and build a history that seems to fit… the descendant’s needs, that is… and make the descendant feel good. It’s almost the opposite of the “teflon effect”… well, sort of. Instead of tossing parallel historical details about others (who have left documentation as to their feelings and so on) at the ancestor and watching them slide off (which is generally more accurate because we just don’t know that things that we read in other sources can and would really apply to the specific story of an ancestor), information and stories from other people from the same time – well, those stories that seem to work – are given a good coating of super glue and stuck to their ancestor. In the end, they can look back and say, “There, that’s better… now I KNOW what my ancestor felt and WHY he fought.” Enjoy Craig’s post! – Robert

Applied to a person’s recollections confabulation is the replacement or enhancement of actual events by a false memory.  This is not to say the individual is fabricating, or lying, to create an alternate version of events.  And confabulation is not fanciful in reach like delusions.  I’m not a psychologist and of course stand subject to professional interpretations of the term.  In my layman’s words, I would describe a confabulation as a false recollection, or amendment of, of actual events which might seem plausible when related to other individuals.

Some forms of confabulation are linked to injuries or exposure to certain external stimuli – certainly serious illnesses which require proper, professional care.  But beyond that clinical behavioral disorder, other forms of confabulation are linked to the way our minds operate.  Often when confronted with irrational or incomplete information, our minds will “rebuild” memory in order to make sense of things.  Or due to associations, we link into the recollection things that did not happen.

From a sociological standpoint, some have offered entire communities have “confabulated” portions of their collective identities based on assumed traditions, customs, and heritage.  In order to fill in the gaps between presented facts, the community may assume connections where none actually exist.  In The Invention of Tradition (1983), sociologist Eric Hobsbawm classified this, as his edited work would imply, “invented traditions.”  In the same work, Hugh Trevor-Roper considered the traditions of the Scottish highlander clans – bagpipes, kilts, and tartan.  He found these were not those handed down from ancient times, but rather identifiers adopted in the more recent past.

Such confabulations are commonplace in all societies, and even from our recent past.  Last year in August, we were all treated to documentaries and magazine articles looking back at the Woodstock concerts from 1969.  What struck me were the number of disparities between what *we* collectively recall and what actually happened (see here and here or here).  And specific to our study of the Civil War, we have many confabulations to support invented traditions.

I, for one, would argue the “Lost Cause” is wrapped in more confabulations and steeped in more invented traditions than just about any other theme in American history.  Consider the manifestations, or traditions, cited in regard to the Confederate cause today.  In some cases, reality and the tradition even contradict.  Confederfabulations, I’ve taken to calling them – with tongue in cheek of course.

Much like the myths surrounding Woodstock, there are certainly kernels of fact behind the traditions.  Yet, when examined up close we often find the truth is a bit more complicated than the tradition would have us believe.  For example consider Tom Clemens discussion of Vexillology and the Confederate flag.

Yet over and over I run into someone speaking or writing with these confabulations of the “Lost Cause” held as the underpinnings of their premise.   As we look back at the Civil War, soon with the perspective of 150 years, perhaps it is time to shed the traditions which have inhibited a full appreciation of the events.  Perhaps it is time to “lose the Lost Cause” in order to fully appreciate the results of the war.

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