Shared Joy, Collective Memory

I have been thinking about joy, memory, and the memory of joy after reading essays by Zadie Smith and Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books. In “Joy,” Zadie Smith talks about pleasure, and then joy — from a child, from love, from being on drugs. She has known joy six times:

Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs — of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed. . . . The uncertain item is the nightclub, and because it was essentially a communal experience I feel I can open the question out to the floor. . . .Was that joy?

She addresses her fellow Britons in particular, “those fortunate enough to take the first generation of the amphetamine ecstasy.” I’m not part of this specific set, nor am I British, but within my own world, I’ve been exactly there, and have posed the same question again and again — in conversations with old friends; in my graduate manuscript set in the warehouse raves in Oakland in the mid-nineties; in my head whenever I recall such experiences, which occurs more often than you’d think.

There is joy here, dammit, but I could not explain this, at least on my own.

It was once painful to unearth these memories, of me and my friends exploring and experimenting. Not because I didn’t enjoy these years. Quite the opposite, in fact. They are warm and pleasurable, but fuzzy; they live in the most inner, intimate parts of me and yet do not belong to me at all. These experiences are special in one way, and tainted in another. In the beginning, when I tried to write about them, they ate away at me. There is joy here, dammit, but I could not explain this, at least on my own. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages about these pleasurable and surreal and magical nights, yet probing through my lens alone never satisfied me. It has taken me some time to realize these memories — memories of us in a timeless dark, dancing together — are shared.

In times when I question the authenticity of this joy, when I suspect blacklights and smoke machines simply masked a harsh and ugly reality, I realize others remember this same darkness. They remember what I remember, but also things I don’t. They recall the same sensations and peculiarities that have been hard for me to describe, but at least I know I’m not alone in experiencing them. Sometimes, even now, we piece bits of these moments together — not in a way in which we’re actively trying to reconstruct a memory, but casually, in passing. We do this mostly to laugh and remember “old times.” But I think, as we get older and sense that memory is deceiving and strange, we also do this to remind ourselves it did happen. That despite the disconnect that time creates, and any negative residue collected within ourselves, there was joy.

But on that dance floor I was joy, or some small piece of joy, with all these other hundreds of people who were also a part of joy.

— Zadie Smith

* * *

Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

— Oliver Sacks

A few days after reading Smith’s lovely piece, I came upon Oliver Sacks’ “Speak, Memory.” I’ve always enjoyed Sacks’ writing on the brain and music and memory — much of the stuff he says freaks me out or blows me away, and yet calms me in the oddest way; he piques my curiosity while numbing me into thinking I could never know the depths of me.


“It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else,” he writes. I’m sure I have memories of childhood incidents that may not have happened — or perhaps did not happen as my brother or one of my many cousins remember them. I think back to the time when my extended family went camping, and I played with sand toys on the beach, watching two of my cousins panic in the lake, their arms flailing, their heads popping in and out of the water. I’m not sure how long I watched them until I saw my aunt run across the beach, screaming, “Oh my god, they’re drowning!” and jumping in the water to grab them.

But I think long and hard: Were their arms flailing? Were they both struggling, or just one of them? And if it was just one of them, which one?

I have many memories like this — from childhood incidents to nights of being under the influence — that I’ve reshaped as I’ve gotten older, not because I lie to myself or don’t respect what really happened, but because it seems natural to do so. And because, well, these memories also belong to others, and I prefer that we reconstruct them together.

Where were we?

Who was there?

Did it really sound like that?

There are always questions, often about moments friends and I have talked about before. Sometimes there are no definite answers. And yet, this shared uncertainty is comforting.

* * *

In his recent post called “From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance,” Michael describes Facebook as a massive archive of externalized memories, preserved as status messages and photo albums, and how digital photography and social media have brought us to an age of memory abundance. For example, long-lost classmates are no longer found because they’ve always been there. Now, since every moment of our day can be recorded, are there less questions now?

It’s interesting to live in a time when the act of remembering has become so public and social. Memories today are shared, certainly. But things feel different. Will we reminisce in the same way about an incident in our past that was live tweeted, or shared on Facebook, or Instagrammed?

And so I love what Michael says:

Give me a few precious photographs, a few minutes of grainy film and I will treasure them and hold them dear. Give me one terabyte of images and films and I will care not at all.

I’m reminded of my own process of remembering, of writing. Of reaching down into my gut to access my most slippery memories — the faceless and complex ones, and as time passes, the ones that remain the most dear to me.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including

21 thoughts on “Shared Joy, Collective Memory

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing that Sacks article too, a fascinating read. How wonderful that simply by experiencing a piece of culture, or even something so mundane and corporate as advertising, and reliving it in the future in the presence of someone else who also experienced it, two or more people can re-enter history together and be part of a past community.

  2. the core: “Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.” – Oliver Sacks

  3. Thanks for pointing me to ZS’s words about joy. Your writing is sharp and intense and brave: I like the way you think. Lately, I’ve been pondering the INEFFABLE, the things we can’t put into words, but how fun and important it is to try, and I think that’s partly what you’re touching on here. Thank you for this!

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog! I enjoyed what I’ve read on yours. And indeed, it is fun and important to try writing about those experiences and things we can’t quite put into words. I do love those kinds of musings.

  4. I encountered the same difficulty in trying to express the communal joy that was my own experience of the underground club scene – I made quite a name for myself during the first year of grad school with attempt after attempt to describe the same thing in a million different ways. I never did quite get it right, and reading your post is the first time I’ve understood why. Can an individual’s perspective on an experience that is by its very nature communal ever be truly accurate? You’ve come a lot closer here than I ever did, I love the way your memories have recalled my own!

    1. Anna — thanks for commenting here. I’d focused on this experience during my MFA and it was challenging. I fused memoir with literary reportage/cultural commentary of the(my) scene, and sprinkled in interviews from friends and others. Ultimately, it didn’t mesh well, or perhaps I didn’t have the skill to make the different narrative modes work, or both. But as I’ve (and you’ve) mentioned here, the experience was overall communal, and much of it so malleable over time — the music, and memories of the music certainly contribute to this, eh? — that capturing it in a way that’s “final” is just not possible. Or I suppose, I realize I don’t want to “record” it like that. The experience is ever-changing, even though I’m no longer “in” it.

      If you’re interested, I wrote about it last spring on another site, Cyborgology: We Danced to Become Machines.

  5. really interesting thoughts. some of it reminded me of poems by W. Wordsworth that I studied in college. the human mind is so complex in its workings…psychology really can’t explain our emotional highs/lows and their catalysts. I actually just started a video blog on the creative process/evolution of arts culture and started off exploring the idea of whether music works on our minds similarly to drugs—i noticed your references to music contributing to those fleeting moments of joy…cool thoughts! thank you!

    1. Your video blog/project sounds cool — indeed, I like exploring the intersection of music, memory, and the mind — Dan Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music introduced me to some ideas on music neuroscience. When I was writing about the electronic music listening experience on drugs, I’d actually contacted him 8 or so years ago for information on research about music and ecstasy, but that wasn’t a focus of his. Curious to see what’s out there now, actually, and definitely will once/(if?) I revisit this project.

      Thanks for saying hello here!

  6. Beautiful thoughts, as ever…I am struck, in Smith’s recollections of her experiences of joy, just how few she can remember (though, one wonders, if there were many more as a young child which were not recorded – like that terabyte of information – because there were so many of them that no one moment stood out in particular). I probably would have numbered that few before having kids. Believe me, it is not all sun-dappled bliss…but there are many snatches of joy, small daily ones, that I have snatched up out of their pool of joy that they create when they are playing, treasureful instants that seem so ordinary when you are living them so often (as they seem to do).

    It makes me think, apart from those horrifying cases of neglect orphanages and abusive parents, how many of us have a vast bank of joy memories, from babyhood, perhaps, which we are not used to sifting through so the memory threads have grown weak, the synapses have almost shut down. I loved Oliver Sacks’ The Woman Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat; in it he describes a woman who had a stroke in her eighties and began singing lullabies from her Irish (?) nanny, which she heard before she moved to the States when she was 2. There’s so much in there…what moves them to resurface?

    Thankyou for making my synapses jump!

    1. Cavemum — I’ll do anything to make the synapses jump and go wild 🙂 Glad this resonated with you and nice to hear of your own experiences with joy. I do think, more and more, that the “small daily snatches of joy” are the ones I like best.

  7. Fascinating and beautifully expressed, as always.

    I read (and loved) the Zadie Smith piece, but didn’t read the other two. A few thoughts:

    1. For me, joy is not a sharp and powerful emotion caused *by* something as such, but more a background radiation of heightened contentment. It can be ongoing. Perhaps I misunderstood Smith, or perhaps it’s semantics. I know words ostensibly have an objective meaning – we have dictionaries, after all – but I think we all develop our own subjective and contextual understandings of such terms.

    2. This is perhaps not unrelated to the idea of constructing our memories. That although there was an event of some sort that took place, each person involved experienced that event subjectively. In the same way as we experienced that event through the lens of our own being at the time, we reconstruct it as a memory through the murky and thick lens that stretches from then to now.

    3. [pop-psychology alert] — It’s interesting how the ‘eternal now’ afforded by digitally documenting our lives bring us closer to the idea of linear time as a construct.

    4. Logically, I view the joy (though I would class it as extreme pleasure) that Smith experienced on ecstasy as ‘real’. (Incidentally, I’m old enough that my early dabblings overlapped with the ‘proper’ shit.) It’s basic input->brain chemicals->output, isn’t it? And whether the input is a concoction of (other) chemicals plus music plus crowds plus anticipation plus plus plus, or the ‘purer’ experience of skiing a fat slope or holding your newborn baby for the first time (and the myriad plus plus pluses that these involve), it’s still the same basic process that results in a ‘feeling’ that we interpret as happiness or pleasure or joy or whatever. Now, here’s the rub: the way we remember (re-experience?) that feeling after the fact is not – and cannot be – the same as when we were actually experiencing it. The situation has passed; we are different; our brain state is different. [I realize that someone who knows what they are talking about from a neurological point of view might disagree with me here; I am merely putting forth my own opinion.] *That* is why the night before viewed from the morning after always seems so ‘fake’–our brains (our consciousness?) were so far from home base when we had the pill experience that of course it’s going to look funny now. (And that’s without even factoring in any come-down blues.) It’s simply a matter of degree. Remembering – and recognizing the ‘validity’ of – the pleasure we derived during yesterday’s thunderstorm is a lot easier today, because today’s brain state is a lot more similar to yesterday’s during the thunderstorm.

    5. Like I said, that’s how I view this when I have my logical hat on. I similarly struggle with the ‘reality’ of such experiences from my past, and I think – given the wonderful opacity of the relationship between ‘brain’ and ‘consciousness’ – that this is natural. But we oversimplify if we reduce it merely to drugs=fucked up=not real.

  8. Great post. I particularly like the thought that much of what we remember may have never actually happened. I debate this with my friend all of the time, that he remembers things the way he wants to. We have known each other all of our lives, much of what he remembers, I remember differently. Also the modern collection of memories on blogs and Facebook could change this, but I don’t think so, because our brains may not process events that are happening right now any better than those that happened 38 years ago.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post, it was fun to read.

    1. Also the modern collection of memories on blogs and Facebook could change this, but I don’t think so…

      It’s so interesting, isn’t it? We have these permanent digital archives of memories, and then we’ll have our memories swirling deep inside us. I don’t know how it’s going to be, but I sense there will be a disconnect between what we see on our screens and profiles and whatnot and what we recall — what bits and fragments we have in our minds. I love following the discussions about the technology now out there that helps us *forget* (like Snapchat, which I wrote about in my recent post on time, travel, and revisiting a place) — part of me thinks we freak out too much, that even bytes and bytes of digital files and trails of Internet data on us won’t affect how we remember and forget.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Nice post, and I definitely agree there will be a disconnect between what we see on our screens and what we recollect as nostalgia — smoothens out the edges and adds some gloss as well.

  9. love the post. I have found myself thinking a lot lately about memories. I wrote on my blog the other day about it. I feel similarly about the social media part, how it just doesn’t feel the same. I love the grainy photographs of life.

Leave a Reply