"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, November 1, 2019

Creative Forgetting and its Gifts to (and from) Memory and History

I have spent no little time on here over the past four years exploring questions of memory and forgetting and their possible uses and abuses among Christians divided in part by different recollections of past events such as the Fourth Crusade. There is still a great deal of work to be done here and I continue to plug away at parts of it.

Along comes a new book much more interested in philosophy--especially Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, Adorno, Arendt (and through her, reluctantly, Augustine of Hippo)--than theology, but containing, amidst at times laborious discussions of their thought, some moderately useful insights: Stéphane Symons, The Work of Forgetting Or: How Can We Make the Future Possible? (Rowman and Littelfield, 2019), viii+207pp.

The insights come chiefly in the introduction, which is an extended essay on the problems of memory studies, a boom "industry" of the last quarter-century which has sometimes created unhelpful binaries between memory-history, memory-forgetting, and forgetting-remembering. Symons' introduction is useful in showing us a number of paradoxes, including the fact "transience as a process is not merely destructive." The act of moving forward in time, of having no choice but to move forward, does not necessarily condemn us to forget everything. We can remember new things or old things differently. In this he calls to mind a fascinating and dense book of history and forgetting in Irish historiography that I discussed here in August.

Symons, drawing on Freud, further notes that "forgetting can enable a specific type of memory" (25) and thus in some ways can prove to be salutary but in others destructive. For Freud, of course, the unconscious never forgets, especially memories of trauma, and thus forgetting is in some ways impossible. As Symons notes, "while living in our unconscious, memories gain an extraordinary capacity of endurance" (94).

Repression of memories in the unconscious is not a one-time act, either, killing the memories as it were. No, as Freud showed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, those memories not only live on, but are actively engaged in destructive cycles of repetition, revealing a resistance to change and an inability to be transformed. Why might that be so? Symons says that such memories are powerful because they fulfill the vital function of "protecting the ego's identity" (100). One could, I dare say, expand that out and come to understand why certain exaggerated, embroidered, or otherwise suspect if not bogus "memories" have such staying power in politics, culture, and even the Church today. They allow the "ego" of institutions to remain intact also.

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