I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with my family sometime between 1998 and 2002.
There was an exhibit on “Orientalist” art, mostly French paintings from the 19th century following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.
From very early on, I was a particularly male know-it-all. I read box scores every morning and had collected and absorbed lots of knowledge (for my age) about geography; I really enjoyed looking at maps and browsing the CIA World Factbook, one of the websites I would go to when when I had exhausted NFL.com and IMDB.
This gave me a superficial understanding of what the people around me (all older than me, I am the youngest of three boys ) talked about — sports, politics, movies — so that I could understand some of what they were saying and have something to say to them.
When I was 12, I was one of 50 students to participate in the California geography bee finals in Sacramento and finished 12th — like everyone who was eliminated from a bee I remember the question I got wrong and the question that won the whole thing. Just like how you never know DMV driving rules better than when you take your written permit test, for about a week I knew what a taiga was.
But the Museum of Fine Arts, I had no concept of “Orientalism” in art, all I knew was that the “Orient” was supposed in the East.
Some of the paintings depicted Morocco and I knew that much of Morocco is, in fact, west of France. The beginning of Casablanca helpfully shows this and so did the large map of the world I had in the bedroom and so did the globe I had in my bedroom. I pointed out this geographic incongruity to my parents and my brother; they said I was right and left it at that.
When I was 16 or 17, I grabbed Orientalism from one of my brothers’ bookshelves and read it and slowly realized precisely how dumb and annoying I was being. One of my brothers quizzed me about what the book was about.
He was right to — one of my first memories of reading is sitting at the table with my family during breakfast, picking up a newspaper and looking at it silently. My brother asked me what I was doing, and I said “reading to myself,” because that’s what everyone else did when they read to themselves, they picked up a newspaper and looked at it silently.
About ten years later, I told him that the thesis of the book I was reading to myself was that people in the non-Western world had not been able to represent themselves to Westerners and this lack of representation and subsequent misrepresentation had been part of on overall project of Western imperialism and oppression. He said that the leaders of these non-Western countries hadn’t exactly done great on the representation front.
After I started to write this, I browsed the MFA’s past exhibits and its collection of French painting and couldn’t find anything that plausibly fit my memory.
But I know I saw the paintings and I know roughly when I did, and I definitely went to the Museum of Fine Arts. But it wasn’t the only musuem I went to, there was a college art museum and we didn’t just visit schools. Between 1998 and 2007, I visited one of my brothers in college in New England at least once a year, and at least once, one of those trips involved a trip to New York City.
I searched a little more and found the Met has some educational material about Orientalism in 19th century painting. This must have been it. For almost 15 years, this memory has placed my discovery of the Orient in Boston, not New York; I had been as a precious kid, but instead I was probably a bratty teen.
But the memory of “Orientalism” won’t go away just because I’ve learned it’s likely false. We’re a collection of memories, records of experiences recalled in the light of other imperfectly recorded experiences. If you remembered something false, there’s not just a reason why you remembered it incorrectly, but a reason why you remember it at all.
A false memory is like a vivid dream that repeats itself and stays with you for years — and who would argue that a dream like that doesn’t say something important about you.
My “Orientalism” is a useful fiction that has become part of me because of its place in a story, not the world as it is.