Saturday, September 7, 2013

Meditation: On Honors 491: Memory & Forgetting

We're reading Daniel Schacter's The Seven Sins of Memory in my honors class. Many of memory's sins have to do with its lack, others with its false, or incomplete fulness. One of my students said he finds the book "disturbing." "It's like we're just a mechanism," he said, adding that "the NSA already knows what we're thinking and now people know why we're thinking it!" Another student fears her tendency toward "cryptomnesia," a word I could not remember in class, which means "unintentional plagiarism." Cryptomnesiacs are visual thinkers. They set up their days according to images of it. At day's end, they believe these images true, whether or not they acted on them.

Because of this course, I seem to have become a mother confessor of memory loss. In the elevator a colleague with whom I don't usually talk much asks me about the course (some of the index cards I used to advertise it ended up in the elevator for a while, mysteriously). The second time she sees me asks about being over 40, about why she can't remember names. I remember Schacter's diagram sketching out why we so easily forget names, that the the line in the diagram denoting a name sticks out by itself in the top left. Like the oddball in a family, this branch of the tree sits alone, lacking stories, lacking detail, without any way for us to remember its arbitrary beauty. I start to describe the diagram for her as I walk out of the elevator. I've gotten to the outer stick when the door starts to close. "There's a reason!" I call out, as she disappears behind the elevator's trap.

In class, we rehearse our forgetting: keys, cars, alarm clocks. It's like an Elizabeth Bishop poem, our litany of losses. We're spending a lot of time remembering our forgetting. I remember forgetting a student's M.A. thesis defense. I'd been on a trip to England; I'd had a hard time recovering from jet lag. I was sitting on the cream colored couch (before it was reupholstered in another version of the same color) when the phone rang. The committee was in a small room about to launch the defense and where was I? I was where I could not drive in quickly enough, so I appeared via speaker phone. I remember we talked about his unexpected use of a form John Ashbery used in April Galleons. The form was one of repetition with a difference; see the Kalevala. And then I made another mistake of forgetting with that same student. Remember all those directed readings I did for free? Remember the publications? I want to say, but of course those do not count in the face of my unprofessional forgetting.

Avishai Margalit writes about ways in which forgetting can be unethical. Something about an Israeli officer forgetting an atrocity. When I go to amazon to look for his book because I cannot find my own, I see he makes a distinction between "thick" memory and "thin" memory, the memory that binds us together and that which does not. That I had forgotten my student's important dates, twice, bordered on the unethical, was also due to a conflict between us in classes (and yet I was the boss, yes, and hence more ethically challenged). No atrocity that--the student is thankfully now a tenure-track professor in another department--the sense that the sins of absent-mindedness and transience could be interpreted--by him and me--as unethical is a lesson I cannot forget.

But if an army officer acts unethically when he forgets a war crime, what of nations, governments, that insist remembering theirs? The archives of Hitler's Germany and Pol Pot's Cambodia are full of faces. Almost all of us remember faces, even when we cannot bear to look at them. Children, parents, people with suitcases and those in pajamas without. Tourism develops around genocide. See Emma Willis's work on "dark tourists." (And there are tourisms that ignore others.) Genocide is not only destruction on an enormous scale; it is also the forced manufacture of memories. Bad ones, vivid ones. Their faces are like suns. We need to witness them obliquely. I cannot look directly at this small girl from the S-21 website because she is sad, because she resembles--at least racially--one of my family members. I cannot look at her because I know this to have been one of her last acts as a living being, that of staring into the camera at those of us who cannot save her.

Memories are like the humidity in Cambodia; they stick to everyone's skin. We traveled with Khmer Rouge survivors. Each one, at some unexpected moment, usually while we eating another large meal, opened up. There were stories about having no shoes, stories about lost family members, stories about walking to Thailand. There were the stories that were only hinted at (something happened in the camps). There were stories that filtered down to their children and to the rest of us. We held those stories as if they were mercury, not knowing how to embrace their poison without wounding ourselves. The wound, we knew, was a gift (in German the false friend for gift is "poison"). But it was a gift we wanted to accept and then to contain, to corral, to put into a box to cool.

Our semantic memory (for facts) is best when we repeat information over time, when we enact the way in which it first came into being. Episodic memories remain because we experienced an event. If you are under 80, try remembering Pearl Harbor, and then turn to your memories of 9/11.  The first set of memories will be textbook, the second set involve waking up in your own bed (in Hawai`i) to the news ("airplanes flew into the Twin Towers and they came down") that we all shared (thick memories) because of our televisions. But the repetition of something forgotten makes for odd memory, indeed. I remember my own episodes of forgetting; they are litanies of something that did not happen, all the more painful because it did not. An odd watered down inversion of PTSD, the persistent memory of something that did happen.

My mother never had an especially good memory. As a young woman, she recalled, she'd heard about mnemonics, had given it a try. She was introduced to a woman whose name also signified a cow, maybe a Jersey. The next time she saw this woman she called her "Mrs. Hereford," and that was the end of her memory experiment. As a child I suffered from loss. Loss of stuffed animal, loss of person, loss of whatever I had misplaced, even at a very young age. Loss triggers memory, but memory triggered what in me proved to be depression. I've read that depressives have over-active memories, and I believe it. Memories clustered when I was depressed, like sequins on fancy dress. They shone like pins. As an adult I experienced my mother's painful loss of her own memories. Whose pain was it? It's its own kind of loss, this loss not of a thing but of memory itself. When memory loss ends, for it is process-bound, emotions associated with loss drain away. For now, an emotion provokes my memory; in that future I cannot know because I cannot remember it, forgetfulness might drain emotion from me. It's part of the mechanism. "Meet Mason on Monday," said my student, when I asked them to write a memorable sentence.

"The Last Modernist," a prose piece I wrote about the ethics of forgetting can be heard here.  The poem originally appeared in Boston Review; Oct/Nov2004, Vol. 29 Issue 5, p 26.

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