Remembering to forget

Fuseli-night_hag

Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

‘Towards morning I was possessed by a kind of nightmare; I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck and could not free myself from it; groans and cries rang in my ears. My father, who was watching over me, perceiving my restlessness, awoke me; the dashing waves were around, the cloudy sky above, the fiend was not here: a sense of security, a feeling that a truce was established between the present hour and the irresistible, disastrous future imparted to me a kind of calm forgetfulness of which the human mind is by its structure peculiarly susceptible.’[1]

A ‘calm forgetfulness’ (I lightly pass over that ‘irresistible, disastrous future’, on the fish-in-a-barrel principle) – in 1938-39, Henry Green was clear about the dangers of forgetting, of ageing and acceptance: ‘As I write now a war, or the threat of war, while still threatening seems more remote; a change of wind and the boat is blown in, there is nothing to do but tie up and call it a day. That is the pity of sobering down to middle age, there must be a threat to one’s skin to wake what is left of things remembered into things to die with. The crime is to forget.’[2]

Still, we know well enough the dangers, if not the crimes and misdemeanours, of selective remembering too. We’ve just passed the centenary of the end of the Great War Armistice and, as John Greening remarked recently in the TLS, ‘After four years of remembering the First World War, remembrance itself is being commemorated.’[3] There has been a lot of attention rightly paid to personal stories, men surviving only in blurry photographs or in fragmentary family histories. Meanwhile, the arguments about what actually brought the war about, the competence of various military leaders, the emergence and maintenance of myths that drive nations into further wars or into disastrous political decisions, continue and will continue.

In John Le Carré’s novel, A Most Wanted Man, Dr Abdullah remarks: ‘“That’s one of the great problems of the modern world, you know. Forgetting. The victim never forgets. Ask an Irishman what the English did to him in 1920 and he’ll tell you the day of the month and the time and the name of every man they killed. Ask an Iranian what the English did to him in 1953 and he’ll tell you. His child will tell you. His grandchild will tell you. And when he has one, his great-grandchild will tell you too. But ask an Englishman—?” He flung up his hands in mock ignorance. “If he ever knew, he has forgotten.”’[4]

‘The victim never forgets.’ Indeed. But who is the victim? In earlier catastrophes, from the Armenian genocide through Soviet purges to the Holocaust, the identity of the victims was not in doubt. But now? Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Kashmir, Ukraine. Everyone claims victimhood. In some countries, angry white men claim that the only real victims are angry white men. The only inevitability is that innocent civilians, particularly women and children, will continue to bear the brunt of murderous violence and aggression.

opium-eater_quincey

And sometimes, the need to forget, at least for a while, is more urgent, more desperate, than the need to remember. ‘Life’, Balzac wrote, ‘cannot go on without a great a deal of forgetting.’[5] Julia Blackburn remarks that, ‘sometimes we need to remember things because only then can we forget’,[6] while, in a similar vein, the critic Frank Kermode observed that, ‘in the ordinary course of his written narrative, as of the interminable day-to-day account he gives himself of himself, the autobiographer will remember only in order to forget what he cannot bear to remember.’[7]

How easy is it to forget? Is it subject to the usual vagaries of the human mind and will – we unfailingly remember what we seek to forget while what we urgently need to remember falls immediately away? ‘Of this, at least, I feel assured’, Thomas De Quincey firmly asserted, ‘that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil — and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.’[8]

Yes: you may think you’ve forgotten – but it’s in there somewhere. . .

 
References

[1] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, in Three Gothic Novels, edited by Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 455.

[2] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 50.

[3] John Greening, ‘Pity War Distilled: Poetry and the act of remembering’ (review of three recent books), Times Literary Supplement No. 6032 (9 November 2018), 9.

[4] John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), 341.

[5] Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Marion Ayton Crawford (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 442.

[6] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 193.

[7] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 156.

[8] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, edited by Alethea Hayter (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 104.

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