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Long ago, Eve’s people lived in Africa. She lived in a cave that was situated on a little hilltop surrounded by the forest on one side and a plain, full of tall grass, on the other side.
When the rains were heavy and formed big puddles on the sides of the hill, she was tempted to play with water. Occasionally, in such times, she could recognise her image reflected on the water. She looked at the image and to make sure of her presence, she placed a hand in the water. Then she touched her face with the same hand. Under the African sun, she could feel the soothing caress of water on her face, scattered with some thin facial hair.
That was the face she knew. The first face of Eve! Let us call it the autobiographical Eve, or her autobiographical existence. Eve remembered things. But this is more than her memory about herself. In other words, the autobiographical existence is not just a pile of memories. Eve had habits that were not part of her memory. She closed her eyes long after the sunset and woke up with the birds. She walked with a limp since she had a bad fall off a tree when she was little. Her autobiographical existence views Eve as a whole, with all her habits and behaviours.
Eve’s family members remembered many things about Eve. Even though they kept silent about Eve’s habits, pranks, and things she used to do, they remembered a lot about Eve. They didn’t know who the males she had dalliances with or what her thoughts were at various events in her life. If they could write, they could have written her biography. That is Eve’s biographical existence.
Eve also lived it in other people’s memories. She had no idea what they knew about her. Of course, unless they told her in some form or fashion! Eve wasn’t likely to have the language as we know it today. Even though some language experts believe that Homo erectus had language, no one knows how proficient our early Homo sapiens ancestors were in communicating their ideas and thoughts using a language. Thus came Eve’s second face that resided in others.
Eve suddenly passed away in childbirth. For a while, everyone in her family felt her absence. They disliked the emptiness she left behind in their hearts. They looked at Eve’s collection of pebbles, still lying at the bottom of the hill. Likewise, they were very fond of the tree at the entrance to the cave that she used to climb. They raised the little baby, orphaned by her demise, who reminded them about Eve. Time passed and everyone who knew Eve faded away with time. But the pebbles and the tree were still there.
Unfortunately, people close to her could not pass on the story about Eve to the subsequent generations. They didn’t have the means to do so. But a few decades ago, our geneticists through us, her modern relatives, could trace the genes Eve’s lineage possessed. Thus, we know at least a precious little about her now. This is Eve’s third face. Eve was no more and had become just a part of history. Yet unlike an immense number of people, she left something for us to reconstruct something about her life. Let us call it the third face of Eve, or her historical existence.
Autobiographical Memory and Existence
The above story about Eve is a figment of imagination. Scientist do not talk about Eve as a certain individual. Eve is about the initial appearance of certain matrilineal genes in modern humans. Thus, Eve’s story is about humanity. We used it to talk about the possible beginnings of our three existences.
Psychologists talk about autobiographical, episodic, semantic, and working memories. Our autobiographical memory is about the chain of episodic memories over the years that we hold about ourselves. Episodic memory can recall events from the past with all the associated emotions. Eve kept the pain she felt when she broke her leg in her episodic memory. Let us suppose she could keep many such events in her autobiographical memory. We keep all the facts such as the names of people and locations stored in our semantic memory. Eve as an early human might not have had a very good autobiographical memory if she could not place events of her life stored in episodic memories in the right order and at the proper locations. We call our working memory to help us in our daily life. When we need to find someone’s name in a list alphabetically ordered, we need to remember the last location of the list that we had already searched.
The existences that we discussed are different from our memories. Habits are not our long-term memories. People who cannot form short-term memories too can learn habits by simply repeating them. Habits are stored in a more primitive area in the brain. In other words, this part of the brain developed before more advanced parts of our brain. Thus, autobiographical existence is more than autobiographical memory.
Biographies That are Surrealistic
Frequently, people who write biographies vividly describe events in their subject’s life. Usually, nobody other than the subject, himself or herself, would know the circumstances and causes leading to certain events in life. Using imagination to fill in the gaps may seem fictionalising a biographical sketch. We read many biographies of the same person due to various interpretations put forward by biographers. But none of us can ever know the dark secrets of people’s autobiographical existence. In the case of our fictional Eve, we can only assume why she collected all the pebbles, but would not know why for sure. She did not tell anyone. She was the only one who knew every crease and all the wrinkles on her face.
Similarly, Eve could not know her second face that had been embedded in the memories of her kith and her kin. It wasn’t visible to her. Her people could hold a multitude of faces of Eve in their memories. But they all merged into a single face that simply said how the world saw Eve.
Eve’s third face was about what we leave behind. Whatever remains after we leave our familiar surroundings, the third face would emerge. That is our historical existence that resides in people’s memories, photos, home movies, etc. If her biographers only source information about the last two existences, we can see Eve in the way the world knew her.
What You See, What You Get
We as the descendants of Primordial Eve inherited her three faces. Our faces that meet the eye are unique. We can arguably say each one of us got three faces that are unique, too. Using a rather philosophical and, perhaps, more appropriate term, we can call these faces our existences.
Once born, each one of us, at some point in time, occupies three different lives; the person who lives, the person who live in others’ memories and the person who will live in mementos and stories left behind.
It would be nice if we can manage, perhaps, by being true to ourselves, to make sure that those three existences tell a consistent story about us.
This essay is based on a book review by the author: Kali’s Child — A Search for An Autobiographical Ramakrishna