NOSTALGIA HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH AESTHETICS (ARCHAEOLOGY AND ABSCESS)

Water has its own archaeology, not a layering but a leveling, and thus is truer to our sense of the past, because what is memory but near and far events spread and smoothed beneath the present’s surface.

– Ron Rash, “The Woman at the Pond”

I spent fifteen minutes strolling under the arcades with their metal beams, slightly surprised by my own nostalgia and aware, at the same time, that the place really was extremely ugly. Those hideous buildings had been constructed during the worst period of modernism, but nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics, it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.

– Michel Houellebecq, Submission

AKRON-CANTON TO CHICAGO O’HARE

The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable . . . Dogs again had it right. They didn’t trouble themselves with mysteries that could never be solved anyway.

– Jonathan Franzen, Purity

TO PRODUCE THE NEW

Anamnesis means remembrance or reminiscence, the collection and recollection of what has been lost, forgotten, or effaced. It is therefore a matter of the very old, of what has made us who we are. But anamnesis is also a work that transforms its subject, always producing something new. To recollect the old, to produce the new: that is the task of Anamnesis.

– from The Speculative Turn (re.press)

NOTES ON EXILE

Exile accepted as a destiny, in the way we accept an incurable illness, should help us see through our self-delusions.

– Czesław Miłosz

1.

Leave, explore [expatriate] the grey grown
In another country, research the peasant
Rump genealogy of your particular
Surname mutation, cut through the din
To read aloud how we are surrounded with
This message: for some time you will
Survive, in some kind of horror perhaps,
But who hasn’t been destroyed before
And made a media-worthy comeback?

2.

Bisected in movement, even if that
Movement is repetition, repetition fate,
Listen: there are those who drink international coffee
And think they are somewhere, even in the city
Which is named after the airport. Then
There are those upon whom a veil falls
While dialing the opposite city operator, who
Tells you: seekers of happiness are in danger
Of deluding themselves [exiles] that
At the proton level there is authority
In memory and at the neutron
It is in forgetting. And he continues: these
Are not levels but patterns of boredom. Fear
Of boredom is the first pattern, and there’s
A second pattern and it looks like this:
A field in Idaho, pink yellow grass
And behind are some rock bluffs, a few
Horses looking straight at you. Snap
A photo and they will look away.

3.

We should read the diary of the splintering
Cross propped up against a beige Polonez:
It turns out those who voted in favor
Will not be excommunicated. We should
All read the diary of the huge respectable
Face: basically, they want the cigarettes.
Next up’s the diary of the imperialist ass: teach
The master language, try to find a way back
To the birth country. This series of diaries
Is called Sightseer, because he’s hers
And she deserves the best. Only then
Will you note how the people respected
Him [expatriate], because America
And cause he kept nothing for himself.

4.

It was out by the Gaffney Day School he
[Immigrant] developed a taste for pecan pie
On cloudy afternoons: the Reverend drove
A white El Camino and did the Detroit Lean
While the kudzu crept over the billboard
Of a crying baby mumbling this speech
Bubble: “Pay attention to whom your energy
Increases or decreases around.” And yet
Another dream of the railway trestle
In a Tennessee marshland: the alarm
Wakes you to rain and a Central European
Heat wave. If you were home you’d be driving
Round Ridgewood dreaming of Highgate,
Middling in 1986: and that night yet
Another dream of a horse cart escaping you,
Of the co-worker’s gaunt prairie dog looks,
Of bashing your teeth out on the sidewalk.

5.

Was it because you were pulled or pushed
Yourself into the woods of the foreign
That few started looking for you [refugee],
That you know not about having any of your own?
As the Incan rope bridge is rebuilt every year
From the community of grass, you are
Again branded fugitive beneath those
Coptering drum patterns of Meguro and Ebisu.
From the Carolina Piedmont to Lake Cable
To the Vistula, cross the Appalachians,
The Carpathians, battling the vapors
Of unbelonging: this has meant planning
Forays into other tongues while remaining
Unable to escape the American orbit.
Some say wrong paths right us: others say
Stay here till you can stand it no longer.

6.

On the pleasure of wearing a wristwatch,
This separation of ebony statuettes: how many
Times this week were you almost hit by a bus?
The clear, hard light shone either on
The garden of delete or of peace. So much
You [migrant] don’t know: atomic or molecular,
The furloughs between Norway and Sweden, Civil
War border states, classical Indian literature,
Death drive, Baltic dolphins, Antifa, gold trains
Hidden in the mountains of Silesia. You [exile]
Wait out the latter days with forests, fields,
Rocks and weeds: your true companions
At the start of this fading frontier.

7.

To start considering the cabins, mountains
More: to see a donkey in the Pyrenees
And wonder at her red sweater. These
Indulgences of summer have forced
You to wonder how to get there, how
To stay financed, keep it together: this
Is the story of that memory of a memory.
Where is the eighth continent? What [expatriate]
Is it to belong to this country?

Source: SEVENTY HETERONYMS

A CONVERSATION WITH SVETLANA BOYM

LT: “How does exile or migration affect the use of memory?”

SB: “Exile is both about suffering in banishment and springing into a new life. The leap is also a gap, often an unbridgeable one; it reveals an incommensurability of what is lost and what is found.”

“Does this gap at all parallel the one between hope and desolation, homeland and new land, memory and forgetting, fiction and non-fiction?”

“Only a few manage to turn exile into an enabling fiction.”

“And how different is that enabling fiction from the one it takes to get up in the morning, to try and do anything at all? I guess I am speaking of a collective memory of inherent exile, the metaphoric exile.”

“The main feature of exile is a double conscience, a double exposure of different times and spaces, a constant bifurcation. Exiles and bilinguals were always treated with suspicion and described as people with a ‘double destiny’ or half a destiny, as well as adulterers, traitors, traders in lost souls, ghosts.”

“A double-conscience, sure. One remembers what one wishes to forget, and vice versa. Memories as specters, forgetting as beyond spectral. It is as if the exile must narrate the other half of that conscience into the future, must write out that bifurcation, that betrayal, those ghosts.”

“For a writer banished from his or her homeland, exile is never merely a theme or a metaphor; usually physical uprooting and displacement into a different cultural context challenges the conceptions of art itself as well as the forms of authorship. In other words, the experience of actual exile offers an ultimate test to the writer’s metaphors; instead of the poetics of exile, one should speak of the art of survival.”

“Does this art of survival drive exilic narration and writing, or is it the other way around?”

“All immigrants know that exile is much more attractive as a poetic image than it is as a lived experience. It looks better on paper than it does in life.”

“Of course it is easier to record migrant memory than migrant forgetting, even though forgetting may be less painful and, at a certain level, more desirable and even necessary. The danger is when memory automatically imposes an alienated status on the migrant. What role does forgetting play in this exilic art of survival?”

“Instead of curing alienation – which is what the imagined community of the nation proposes – exiled artists use alienation as a personal antibiotic against homesickness.”

“So, the migrant must potentially forget the national origin, the home country, shift around memories of nationalism in favor of a different imagined community that may more easily embrace and utilize forgetting? What about the language?”

“Bilingual consciousness is not a sum of two languages, but a different state of mind altogether; often the bilingual writers reflect on the foreignness of all language and harbor a strange belief in a ‘pure language,’ free from exilic permutations.”

“But isn’t language innately riddled with ambiguity, possibility, and progress through misuse and mutation, no matter if exilic bifurcation is involved or not? Language continuously wedges itself into the dialectic of memory and forgetting. So isn’t it that a pure language could only be one that can express memory and forgetting simultaneously?”

ANCILLA OBLIVIONIS

Pierre Bertrand has written a book on forgetting in which he discusses in detail Freud’s art of forgetting. He asks what actually happens, according to Freud, after the moment of the cure. Must the cured patient (if he is cured) permanently retain in his consciousness the forgotten event that has been revived? Or does such an activation of consciousness, if continued for a long time, ultimately produce other kinds of psychic damage that can be healed only if the cured patient is also able to definitively forget what he has, with the help of the therapist, so happily dealt with? Hence Pierre Bertrand distinguishes a negative or bad kind of forgetting from a positive or good one. Adhering somewhat more closely to Freud’s judicial metaphorics, I should prefer to call these “unpacified” forgetting and “pacified” forgetting. The former is forgetting before psycholnalytic treatment; the latter is forgetting after it. If this conception is correct, and it seems to me to be implicit in Freudian theory, then Freud’s art of forgetting is essentially based on this distinction between an unpacified forgetting and a pacified forgetting as well as on the far-reaching recognition that there is no direct path, involving for instance mere weakening of the imagines agentes, that leads from unpacified forgetting to pacified forgetting. The detour by way of consciousness cannot be avoided, whence a certain paradox in the Freudian art of forgetting: if this detour is to be successfully gotten through, the art of memory must be relied on, so that the latter turns out to be an auxiliary to the art of forgetting (ancilla oblivionis).

– Harald Weinrich, Lethe: the Art and Critique of Forgetting

TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS IV: DESPAIR

Despair, inseparable from the first stage of exile, can be analyzed, and then it would probably appear as resulting more from one’s personal shortcomings than from external circumstances.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

To maintain a conception of the past in “a sharply delineated, precise form” was a kind of privilege for Miłosz. As he describes in “The Nobel Lecture,” as memory became a “force” in the creative and social struggles of writers in post-war Central and Eastern Europe, it served to protect “us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find a support on a tree or a wall.” It follows that the more a regime attempted to repress the writer who then proceeds to forcefully connect literature, memory, and reality lived in exile, the more the writer, as Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” “blurts out his dammed-up feelings of anger, his observations and reflections, considering this as his duty and mission.”

Of course, the writer also enters a host of new problems in exile, not least of which is a consequence of destierro and destiempo (i.e., Józef  Wittlin’s concepts of temporal and spatial displacement, as explored in the second part of this essay series) in that “knowledge of everyday life in the country of his origin changes from the tangible to theoretical.” The tangible may remain in memory, but it is pinned to a certain stasis, almost fossilized. Through acts of memory-work, a dynamic element can be injected into the spatial determinants of the memory, and social frameworks can be pursued towards deeper and more oblique references. Theoretical abstraction may result due to the unavoidable distance of real exile, but this result conflicts with the atmosphere of Miłosz’s adopted country of the United States, in which, as he explains in “On Censorship”: “Bluntness, brevity, and brutality of expression, as well as simplified ideas, are prized because they can be conveyed by the most obvious and tangible ‘facts’ without involving any complicated reasoning.”

Accordingly, the other half of the “Paradigm” Miłosz constructs in “Notes on Exile” involves the understanding that, “Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.” Coming up against the many obstacles of exile, which ultimately force energy inwards towards the theoretical, the exiled writer must not only battle the threat of his own forgetting, but also the willed (even violent) forgetting born of the disinterest and disinheritance that Miłosz saw plaguing the United States and the West. For in the exile’s experience, “that which in his country is regarded with seriousness as a matter of life or death is of nobody’s concern abroad or provokes interest for incidental reasons.”

These experiences lead the exiled writer to several modes of despair, all of which are based in relations with the writer’s native land and the collective, and of which there are three main causes: “loss of name, fear of failure, and moral torment.” Loss of name again reflects a perspective Wittlin outlines in “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile”: “The fact that not only our ambition but our creativity itself has in exile no wide field of radiation and must give up the aura in the past surrounding our names may be favorable for our work, but more often it hampers us.”

As Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” this despair over loss of name is only one of many results of displacement from a specific community, where a “writer acquires a name through a complex interchange with his readers, whether he appeals to a large audience or to a narrow circle of sympathizers.” The soft borders that delineate his professional and institutional relationships have now shifted into a painful anonymity. For according to Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, such writers in exile “carry the memory of oppression but also of their social significance that they could hardly match in the more ‘developed’ West.” Alleviation of the weight of such memories is achieved partially for the exile through the view that such fresh humiliations are “proportionate to his pride, and that is perhaps a just punishment,” thus reflecting again Miłosz’s mandate that exile accepted as a destiny necessitates the debasement of self-delusions. Indeed, engaging in personal memory-work along social and religious frameworks, there is quite a bit of exploration of pride in Miłosz’s essays. In “Saligia,” for example, he examines writerly pride and literary background in parallel to a concern over moral torment as regards name, and states, “I had enough superbia in me for it to carry me beyond nay mere authorship.” Further exploration of this concern for loss of name will be featured in the next essay in this series.

Previous essays in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:

TWO ANTAGONISTS

He has two antagonists: The first pushes him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks his road ahead. He struggles with both. Actually the first supports him in his struggle with the second, for the first wants to push him forward; and in the same way the second supports him in his struggle with the first; for the second of course forces him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two protagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? However that may be, he has a dream that sometime in an unguarded moment – it would require, though, a night as dark as no night has ever been – he will spring out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience of such warfare, as judge over his struggling antagonists.

– Kafka, “He”

TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS III: THE PARADIGMS

He was aware of his task and people were waiting for his words, but he was forbidden to speak. Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

In The History of Polish Literature, Miłosz qualifies the persistence of motifs of suffering and martyrdom after the war by pointing out that, “Polish writers . . . had come a long way from Romantic concepts of ‘holy martyrdom’; they resented those patterns, the strength of which they felt themselves, and reacted with devastating self-ridicule.” This “self-ridicule” can be seen in the sections of “Notes on Exile” examined in the first and second parts of this essay series. In “Paradigm,” Miłosz utilizes a similarly ironic perspective by explaining that in his homeland, the willed exchange between the writer who understands his “task” and an eager audience was blocked by the state; and now, in the new country, the freedom the exiled writer can utilize is offset by a lack of audience and a forgetting that exerts a stronger influence than memory.

The professional symbolism, responsibility, and status of the writer in exile can be considered within these two different situations. Because the first situation (in the homeland) fostered the writer’s responsibility while prohibiting free expression, a reciprocal process of identification was at work between the writer and the state that imbued the writer’s position with responsibility, worth, and threat in the eyes of both his audience and the state itself. This occurred regardless of whether the state was sponsoring the writer or instead considered him a necessary part of the system but still weakened his social importance through censorship and other modes of manipulation and discourse.

Yet that which in his country is regarded with seriousness as a matter of life or death is of nobody’s concern abroad or provokes interest for incidental reasons.

As Miłosz continues his sparse explication of being “forbidden to speak” in the section entitled “Commentary on the Above,” questions arise as to what can be defined as “reality” within the bounds of literature written under regime pressure. Certainly an attention to the present that somehow delves beneath ideology and propaganda is necessary (if not already ambitious enough). But what about attention to the past, to an exploration of memory, however tenuous and problematic the truth value thereof may be? If a certain mode of memory can constitute a common level of “reality,” when considering the bounds of censorship at work that chased Miłosz even in exile, it is necessary to cite some of the Communist regime’s abuses of memory, beginning with a point from another of Miłosz’s essays called “Speaking of a Mammal”: “The successes of Communism among the intellectuals were due mainly to their desire to have Value guaranteed, if not by God, at least by history.” This resulted in a situation in which writers, “With resistance, but at the same time with relief . . . subjected themselves to a discipline which liberated them from themselves.”

Part of this “liberation” was from the realm of collective memory and social frameworks of memory that had been infused with centuries of literary texts. However restrictive this realm might have been – indeed exemplified by Miłosz’s criticism of a persistent Polish Romanticism – this collective memory entailed a freedom to explore the past that was manipulated by the regime through its maintenance of official historical discourse and its ideological insistence on Socialist Realism.

An oppressive political regime’s awareness of the social power of memory and its accompanying abuse spurs from an understanding that memory, according to Misztal in Theories of Social Remembering, “functioning as organized practices designed to ensure the reproduction of social and political order, is a source of ‘factual’ material for propaganda.” In the Polish case under Communism, it also spurred from an awareness of the depth of Polish memory culture that necessitated manipulation. For as Ricoeur formulates in Memory, History, Forgetting, “too much memory, in a certain region of the world, hence an abuse of memory; not enough memory elsewhere, hence an abuse of forgetting.” And thus certain layers of collective memory were abused and manipulated, the end result being that, for instance, according to Miłosz in The History of Polish Literature, “critics had to avoid the too intricate problems raised by [the Romantic authors’] thought and their art.”

There may have been a certain amount of relief in not having to confront such problems, but that in turn affected the opportunity (and obligation) of authors to deal with then-recent Polish history, as the newly crystallized narratives of collective memory were in turn obviously affected by this ideological manipulation. As the Communist regime set up its own official historical and contemporaneous narratives – about the Warsaw Uprising and the Home Army, for instance, or the glory of the state’s workers – it sought to legitimize itself and dominate the national and collective modes of memory. As Ricoeur makes clear, “it is on the level where ideology operates a discourse justifying power, domination, that the resources of manipulation provided by narrative are mobilized.” In such attempts at legitimization, narratives are manifested through what Ricoeur identifies as “enforced memory” and take the form of “stories of founding events, of glory and humiliation, [while they] feed the discourse of flattery or of fear.”

Such ideologization of memory, narrative, and identity compromises both literature and the purpose of the text itself, but in exile the writer is able to search for other means of freely exploring collective memory. This can be seen in Miłosz’s ABC’s, which utilizes the traditional Polish genre form of alphabetical order as a framework for short prose pieces on various details and memories. This exploration can especially be seen in “Notes on Exile,” which both feeds off and contributes to a paradigm of exile while serving as a model for the author’s covert memory work (as well as for further contemplation by a reader “in exile”). The fragmentary semi-narratives of “Notes on Exile” thus become the centerpiece of a negotiation of memory in the exile paradigm, which challenges the regime and the groups from which the author has been exiled as well as the mnemonic communities encountered in the new land with whom the exile must interact.

Previous essays in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:

TRUE AGENCY

Although history should not become a straitjacket, which overwhelms and binds, neither should it be forgotten. One must critique it, test it, confront it, and understand it in order to achieve a freedom that is more than license, to achieve true, adult agency. If you penetrate the seduction…then it becomes possible to confront your own history — to forget what ought to be forgotten and use what is useful — such true agency is made possible.

– Toni Morrison, “The Art of Fiction No. 134” in The Paris Review