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?”
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:
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:
Exile accepted as a destiny, in the way we accept an incurable illness, should help us see through our self-delusions.
– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”
To home in on the kind of acceptance of exile Miłosz encourages in the “Usage” section of his essay/prose-poem “Notes on Exile,” consider Zygmunt Bauman’s statement in “Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi” that you can compare identity only to a jigsaw puzzle “in which quite a few bits (and one will never know exactly how many) are missing.” If a belief in destiny relies on a self-constructed narrative in which one is continually fulfilling that destiny, routes of individual and collective memory must be traced in order to investigate circumstance and causality while affirming the present course. This selective memory involved in narrating the puzzles of identity is the basis for the short, almost aphoristic form of “Notes on Exile.”
Recognizing exile as destiny also means that precedents have been sought and incorporated, as the very use of “destiny” requires the identification of temporal parameters while use of “exile” entails knowledge of examples outside one’s experience (i.e., historical, national/ethnic, literary, etc.). Accordingly, the Adam Mickiewicz epigraph for “Notes on Exile” casts a long shadow over the essay:
He did not find happiness, for there was no happiness in his country.
Mickiewicz’s lines serve as an anchor for the Romantic paradigm of exile and its foundational effect on Miłosz’s imaginative and mnemonic balance. In his essay “The Costs of Zealousness,” the author works out the memory of this weight:
My imagination did not serve up fictitious plots, nor did it seek an outlet in words, but it filled an ordered space, expressing itself in fantastic drawings and maps of nonexistent countries. I experienced my escapes as a necessity and a defect; I would probably have given everything I had to be like everyone else, an equal among equals. My discovery that in retreating to my own space I was behaving exactly like a Romantic poet was arrived at under the influence of Mickiewicz’s and Słowacki’s poetry, probably no earlier than my sixteenth year.
As the Romantic exilic paradigm exerted influence on Miłosz’s early spatial and geographical conceptions, these acts of escapism provided a glimpse of the “destiny” that would become enabled in his real exile. Of course, viewing exile as a certain destiny for all writers – not just those who passed through Polish Romanticism or lived under Eastern European postwar regimes – has been recognized as a common legacy of Modernism. In “Ethics, Consciousness, and the Potentialities of Literature: Teaching Narratives of Exile,” Johannes Evelein points out that, “The modernist writer…is the proverbial stranger in his own land whose strangeness is a precondition for and source of literary creation.” This literary exile, which entails a certain self-conscious posturing as well as linguistic modeling (i.e., at the root of all alienation and thus of exile itself is language), only heightens real exile in what Evelein describes as a “doubling.” The double-exile begins with “the forced banishment of the modernist writer, be it in Nazi Germany, Communist Poland, or dictatorial Chile, whose modernity had manifested itself already in a voluntary posture of exile,” and then “merges with forced expatriation, internal and external, metaphorical and physical, inner and outer flight coming together, weaving the writer’s fate, guiding his or her work.”
Experience of these layers of exile spur on Miłosz’s mandate in “Usage” that accepting exile “should help us to see through our self-delusions.” The pronoun “us” at once crystallizes exile around an inclusive center of which the author and text are part (and which can include other exilic precedents) while reaching out to the reader in an allusion to the concept of universal exile (i.e., inevitable alienation through birth and language). The reference may also be to the specific regime Miłosz was exiled from (or went into exile from, depending on how we understand the power dynamics at work in his biography), and thus be directed at readers who may have been under the delusion that a degree of exile, whether internal or external, was anything but unavoidable for so many writers in postwar Poland and Eastern Europe. The concept of internal exile is especially relevant in the mode of Polish collective memory reflected in the Mickiewicz epigraph. As Eva Hoffman points out in her essay “New Nomads,” “For a patriot of an occupied nation, it was possible to feel radically exiled within that country, as long as it did not possess the crucial aspect of national sovereignty.” Although Hoffman is referring to Poland under the Partitions, a similar equation can of course utilize the extenuating mechanisms of Socialist Realism and censorship in Poland during Communism.
Miłosz’s explicit desire to combat self-delusions also situates the exiled author’s use of memory as one of process and inconsistency, in turn necessitating a reevaluation of historical contingencies and literary legacies in order to reconcile the subject’s former delusions of a more static identity. Such memory-work focusing on specific circumstances (e.g., social background in Lithuania, the “Polish Complex,” political Romanticism) must confront the very facts of real exile in order to accomplish the difficult debasement of delusions through the recognition that, according to Bauman, “‘belonging’ and ‘identity’ are not cut in rock, that they are not secured by a lifelong guarantee, that they are eminently negotiable and revocable.” Miłosz refers back to this problematic seeing through of self- delusions later in “Notes on Exile” in the “Despair” section:
Exile is morally suspect because it break’s one’s solidarity a group, i.e., it sets apart an individual who ceases to share the experience of colleagues left behind. his moral torment reflects his attachment to a heroic image of himself and he must, step by step, come to the painful conclusion that to do morally valid work and to preserve an untarnished image of himself is rarely possible.
In light of this passage, we may cite Józef Wittlin’s ideas put forth in his essay “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile” as another precedent for Miłosz’s text: “Exile, where he is unknown, may offer him an excellent opportunity of confronting his own opinion of himself with what he really represents.”
A theme similar to “exile as destiny” can also be found in the section of Miłosz’s “Notes on Exile” entitled “Acclimatization:”
After many years in exile one tries to imagine what it is like not living in exile.
The past and the present are conflated in this desire and inability to imagine. Because even though remembering not living in exile may be an option, the present has exerted such weight that the memory no longer suffices, and the exiled author is in effect destiempo (Wittlin’s term for a “a man deprived of his time”) in regards to pre-exilic experience. Social frameworks of memory fail and, accordingly, the exiled author forgets how to locate himself effectively in the pre-exilic collective. Memory becomes too weighted with the act and distress of exile, reflected in Miłosz’s comment in his Nobel lecture that, in reference to Nietzsche, “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.” So although the emphasis in this section of “Notes on Exile” is on “imagining” and, by extension, on the present and future, total “acclimatization” is not possible. For the exiled writer cannot even locate himself in a contemporaneous collective through his imagination, and there can thus no longer be any delusion that exile is anything but an imperative component of his identity and an extension of his personal mnemonic tracking. Exile as destiny is thus affirmed.
Meanwhile, Miłosz is injecting a fair amount of irony into “Notes on Exile” here. After all, as Paul Friedrich points out in his essay “Binarism versus Synthesis: Eastern European and Generic Exile,“ “Exile discourse tends to be ironic: generically, what is meant differs markedly from what was intended…Exile also illustrates dramatic irony, ‘the irony of fate,’ and, for that matter, all other forms of this powerful trope.” This “irony of fate” calls to mind another “note,” this time from Miłosz’s “Notebook:”
Energy should encounter resistance; resistance keeps it in practice, rescues it. If, however, energy comes up against a gigantic smooth wall on which there is not a single rough place, not even a crack, this is more than resistance; it is too much. Energy then turns inward, consumes itself, and a person asks himself, “Could it be that there is no wall? Could this be my own delusion? Could it be that all this is my own fault and I should adjust to it?”
There is a confrontation with both destiny and delusion (not to mention a fair amount of absurdity) in these lines. For if the wall is exile, how can the exiled writer dissect that monumental and blockading experience while hoping to acclimatize to it but through a negotiation with the memory of everything that has led him to face such a destiny?
Previous essay in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:
For the exile, memory is constantly called upon to perform a daunting if not impossible task: that of replacing a certain live experience with images, signs, and symbols…Memory has to double its capacity, so to speak, for it has to perform the regular functions that memory does, and in addition, to hold and keep alive the information and experience of one’s most important and formative experiences from childhood to the time of the exile, without the incentive of the physical reality. The memory of the exile has to feed on itself to some extent, to keep creating and re-creating itself in order to replace that which has been lost in the physical realm. This double function of memory, however, is partly the source of creativity and of an enhanced grip on reality for the exile. It is part of the so-called gypsy nature of the exile in terms of the following paradigm: once uprooted always uprooted and once having left home, pretty much everywhere can be home.
– Domnica Radulescu, Realms of Exile: Nomadism, Diasporas, and Eastern European Voices
In the late twentieth century, millions of people find themselves displaced from their birthplace, living in voluntary or involuntary exile. Their intimate experiences occur against a foreign background. They are aware of the foreign stage set whether they like it or not…Inability to return home is both a personal tragedy and an enabling force. This doesn’t mean that there is no nostalgia for the homeland, only that this kind of nostalgia precludes restoration of the past…I will speak about something that might seem paradoxical – a “disapsoric intimacy” that is not opposed to uprootedness and defamiliarization but is constituted by it. Diasporic intimacy can be approached only through indirection and intimation, through stories and secrets. It is spoken in a foreign language that reveals the inadequacies of translation. Diasporic intimacy does not promise an unmediated emotional fusion, but only a precarious affection – no less deep, yet aware of its transience. In contrast to the utopian images of intimacy as transparency, authenticity and ultimate belonging, diasporic intimacy is dystopic by definition; it is rooted in the suspicion of a single home, in shared longing without belonging. It thrives on the hope of the possibilities of human understanding and survival, of unpredictable chance encounters, but this hope is not utopian. Diasporic intimacy is haunted by the images of home and homeland, yet it also discloses some of the furtive pleasures of exile.
– Svetlana Boyn, The Future of Nostalgia
“Any kind of intimacy requires a strong framework of memory, right? No matter how transient or precarious that relationship remains. So what happens to those relationships when you’re attempting to forget, as you claim you are?”
“Well frameworks of memory and intimacy are nothing but tentative abroad, that’s for sure. And I’ve lost plenty. You left your camera in that cab in Seoul and didn’t even try to get it back, that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as what can be lost. Sometimes these kinds of mnemonic frameworks, when you’re on a plane, they parachute casually down between the tectonic plates, you watch them go. Some are never anything but unnamable and can never be translated where you wind up. The rest are beaten into submission on that mediocrely-tuned brass snare of mine.”
“And who leaves whom?”
“Usually it seems that – sure, I’ve done a lot of exiting and losing – but more often those framework objects, they just up and leave the foreign one day, you know? It’s an annual theme, ‘so long, so long.’ And there’s rarely not a national border at play. They’re called by fear of regret, preordained familial guilt, moments when there’s little left to wait for. Another one just left this past Thursday, actually.”
“Well can these frameworks be grounded in something other than flesh and bone? In text, for instance? Text is easy, no matter the lack of comprehension, blatant ignoring or, on the other hand, undeserved attention. But whether it’s a fixed number of characters, initials flashing round your skull, or author names standing in for those who’ve left or not yet arrived – like that time you bought The Pleasure of the Text on a snowy Sunday in Pittsburgh in hope it’d offer some congeniality – can any of that be sufficient? Or is a written framework just too thin or digressive to begin with?”
“That’s been said plenty – the failure repeated, the poorest of imitations; the endless writing, endless reading, endless writing about reading; you read this, you post this quote, you take it all very seriously; there’s too much text, we need no more, etc. Ultimately, you know, the only text worth producing is the kind you’ll forget. And your friends’ names become only email addresses, rarely to be written out in full again.”
“Let’s leave all that for a second. This diasporic intimacy, can that guard against nostalgia? I would think it depends on the mix of remembering and forgetting that the intimacy is constructed with.”
“Well it’s not even memory that constitutes the power of those diasporic frameworks. It’s the tactics of forgetting – these lethatechnics you hear about but which are hard to get a grip on. Those have proven the strongest stops on nostalgic paralysis, on the doomed pursuit of restoration, day in day out.”
“Really? I know you don’t like ice cream as much as your typical Krakowian, but aren’t there other local pleasures to pursue?”
“Sure. Just saying that, even forgetting is a pleasure – furtive, as Boym points out, but always resonant. It just depends on how much and how well you can wield it. Out-of-sight-out-of-mind, for example – that’s forgetting as utilitarian pleasure. But you have to keep it balanced and choose your objects carefully, after a lot of mnemonic processing. You have to be really, really careful, in the end. Cause it’s distasteful and inevitable to an extent, and for sure it often describes the ones who stayed behind, how they communicate or, more often, do not. But unless you stay on the move every two years or so max, you become one who stayed behind, and that same tactic can be used with you – for sure it already has! The cycle never ends. And the supposed equilibrium that results from leaving and left? For that to be any use, it must be tipped a little more towards forgetting than memory.”
“The remembering cannot subsume you. It’s got to be filtered, monitored. And forgetting becomes the gauge that lets you do this. Forgetting used through practice, method, technique. Not the other way around – memory does not gauge the forgetting. Because it envelopes memory, there’s more power in forgetting – power to shape memory, dismantle it, reject or sublimate it.”
“Isn’t out-of-sight-out-of-mind more a rather pathetic excuse than some kind of tactic? Even if you are just forgetting what was once remembered, rather than ‘forgetting’ what was never fully registered or observed.”
“It’s only an example that can be dropped and adopted again at will, reformulated, whatever. Let’s not think it’s a static solution or anything. And, again, it very much toes the line with guilt and-or laziness. And guilt plays such a big role in memory – constructing responsibilities, contriving duties…”
“That’s what I keep thinking. What about duty here, about putting time into the communication? What about valuing the textual output – all those emails about the relationship of god and capital gains on volatility, Nietzsche and post-1989 lingerie?”
“The ones that sparked so little reply, you mean? Well, that’s not the point. They were efforts put forth. There were desired ends – more exchange, dialogue, in-jokes – more mnemonic material, I guess. But the real ends were accepted eventually, not resented – they were forgotten. At least partially. But it’s almost like there has to be some kind of serious border in place to encourage those exchanges, some transcontinental span to overcome. The border gets to be too much, though, too difficult to send messages across. But you have to keep seeing the potential for such exchanges. And you just have to try not to be a jerk about it.”
“Exactly. But at the same time you can’t help but think – a tactic of forgetting? Why would I want to forget? Forget what? And that’s supposed to be good for me, even pleasurable? Isn’t it a pleasure so unexpected, you’re super suspicious of it from the get-go?”
“Yeah, well, the foreign and the forgetting go hand in hand. Always. But the forgetting we’re speaking of, it’s not based on shame or shirking responsibility or something. It’s based on the same privacy you want to expand through remembering. You have your ends in mind – you want to sleep better, spend more time on music, check out the city, be less hostile or resentful, whatever. And you want some degree of pleasure in evading your memories, in moving forward and accepting other mnemonic frameworks or material. So with a letatechnic or whatever you want to call it for reaching these ends, there is a refusal at work that is even more private, a letting go that is usually unregistered by anyone anywhere. If that’s the way you want to play it, that is. You don’t have to be all nebulous or secretive about it, but not being secretive about it is another story.”
“Maybe instead of ‘shared longing without belonging,’ like Boym identifies, there can be something like shared forgetting with privacy? Cause memory is rarely wholly private, right? Recollection is supported by all of these frameworks, especially when there is some dynamic of intimacy involved, however diasporic it might be. We’ve established that. But forgetting can be an intensely private affair. And in a way, the privacy of forgetting can lead to another form of belonging – you forget one set of frameworks in order to adopt or be open to adopting another, like you point out.”
“Forgetting can be so private, I would think, that it could even become the object of intimacy itself. At some point abroad, you become as intimate with your forgetting as with your memory. And that becomes less a ‘furtive pleasure of exile’ than a joyful potentiality.”
“Exactly. Could these strains of forgetting even become objects of nostalgia, of restorative nostalgia? As if you want to get back to that place of earlier forgetting?”
“I don’t know, maybe. Although let’s not go too far. What you’re talking about could be just a parallel of forgetting – the kind obsession and total presence that is supposed to signify authenticity, but that’s not an automatic association. Considering an ‘authentic’ forgetting is hardly easy. But something that enables forgetting as a surprisingly useful by-product, something fun, more often than not, yes. Cause of course it’s easy to be nostalgic for pleasure, but you have to take it one step further to see the forgetting that was involved in that experience. What were you forgetting that day we sat drinking radlers, watching those mini-ramp skaters at Fabryka? Or when we saw Cleveland beat the Red Sox at Fenway? Cause obviously you can be nostalgic for that, but you can’t really be nostalgic for what you were not thinking about at the time, cause why would you want to be? You couldn’t even recall those mnemonic objects, what was forgotten, or any of those dynamics now if you tried – that’s the point. See, we’re really talking about a practice of forgetting – a lethatechnic that is specific enough to learn and repeat, the way to forget that you want to remember! So that more moments actually worth remembering can happen. That’s what you want to recall and be nostalgic for in some very personal though pragmatic way. Cause when you reach the specifics of your nostalgia – the context, who you were with, the weather, even – obviously that can’t be recreated. But the practice can – the mnemonic practice or the lethatechnic, you have to make that choice. And if you choose to concentrate on the forgetting, there actually is some degree of restoration involved. But it’s not a place that is being restored – it’s a method for challenging the need to belong to any place, for understanding that experience is not just a future bombardment of memory. So it’s not a memory palace you want to inhabit – it’s more like a mobile home in Nebraska and you don’t care if it’s in a tornado path or what, you’re just going to leave it behind for a while.”
“So you’d take the tornado-threatened trailer over a decked-out memory palace? Seems to me you would agree with this suspicion of a single home, then, like Boym mentions?”
“For sure. When you first feel that suspicion it seems unnatural, disrespectful even, to question that ground, allegiance, that need of comfort or whatever. But then you see it more and more in the shadowy discourse you share with other foreigners. There’s empathy, commiseration. Plenty of exasperation and complaining. There’s also excitement at the distance from where you grew up, etc. But one day that suspicion becomes the norm – you have done enough thinking on it, reading about it, even. You have come to see the fluid lines between emigration, expatriation, real and metaphysical exile. You think about alterity, destierro and destiempo, the connection of home and love. Cosmopolitanism utilizes strong threads of forgetting, and there’s the Slavic paradigm of exile, Janus, those essays by Miłosz and Wittlin. All the while the idea of a single home increasingly becomes an anomaly.”
“Or if you’re really feeling arrogant-slash-insecure, even something quaint.”
“Sure, sure. But once that suspicion of the single home becomes natural, it’s even sometimes like you have no interest in talking to others who speak your language. Even if they speak with a Rust Belt accent, maybe especially then! Cause, you know, you’re out, you hear them on the street, their vocal fry singeing the Old Town, ‘oh my god you guys,’ you know. You see their shoes and shorts and sizes and haircuts and Purell bottles. You can spot ‘em and hear ‘em from a mile away. Doesn’t matter if they’re tourists or how long they’ve been here, who wants to talk about travel or living abroad anymore? You become tired of relaying your stories yet again, that spiel of where you’ve been and how you wound up here.”
“Especially when they have that glint in their eye, which can seem way more tragic than an enabling force, yeah? Cause they have no idea how they’ll cope with that fading, after they’re all jaded and fed up, tired of the foreign altogether or of this particular foreign. After they’re tired of being asked for drobne by those horrid Kefirek cashiers, tired of all the broken vods bottles all over the place, people running into you on the sidewalks, that pedestrian ‘Slavic swerve.’ So how are they going to eventually cope with their mnemonic frameworks running weak? They’ll encounter a novice need to forget – forget any notion of home, forget everything irritating here, who’s in Malaysia and who’s in Chile and all those in New York. They have no idea they’ll have to deal with that when the glint in their eye’s still strong. But that becomes the only thing worth talking about at some point, you know? That’s the real enabling force. The diasporic intimacy Boym is positing, the real core of that? It’s forgetting. What can you share in forgetting.”
“Thus the lethatechnics.”
“So ok, what is it today?”
“What is what, today?”
“What are you trying to forget today? What do you want to use those for?”
“Oh, well, today it’s…the idea that you have to ‘catch up’ on yard work. The emptiness of hearing country music on a rainy day. Drinking beer in plastic cups. The horror of opłatki and Wigilia in general. Steel wool. Watching golf on tv. Those beat departure lounges at CAK. Being envious of an eighteen year-old kid’s university prospects. The Dostoevsky I haven’t read. That email from J about how I didn’t seem to like his girlfriend. That whole situation with, ‘why don’t I put this cigarette out on your eye,’ what a mess that was. That J might never read the Kapuściński book I gave him – he didn’t even put it on his Goodreads! How T smacks his lips while eating. Some $2,000 chair J lets his dogs sleep on. How M shot a deer through the heart somewhere outside Philly and then ate the heart with his new wife and a little balsamic and ended up biting down on the slug, that was a wild email to get. That I missed my cousin’s wedding.”
“Wait wait wait, he ate the heart of a deer he shot? Raw or something?”
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.
– Hugo of St. Victor
This aphorism has both sustained and haunted me since I first came across it several years ago in Edward Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile.” It invokes a promise of forgetting in a dire, beautiful way, and will forever remain a complicated statement on an ethics of forgetting in relation to aging and movement (i.e., migration, exile). Begging an ambitious attempt at resolution in the most personal, potentially fortuitous, potentially devastating ways, it serves as a kind of incantation for me while contemplating my many years of living abroad.
No bookkeeper is as false and fraudulent as collective memory. It’s best to be forgotten.
Kosiński’s view here is far from an anomaly and is probably more popular than we suspect. Whether it is collective memory considered as concept, tool of power, field of discourse, or social frameworks of memory competing against each other (e.g., right after Margaret Thatcher’s death), such conflicts in the name of Truth are encountered from the get-go. But even though seeming falsity and fraud can have imperative functions in mnemonic processes as junctures, pivots, and schisms between any supposed narrative totality, collective response, and individual variant, it’s difficult to equate what is false and fraudulent with forgetting. That is, except where forgetting may signify some kind of relief from and alleviation of falsity and fraudulence, which might very well have been implicit in the author’s declaration here.
For Kosiński’s statement determines forgetting as a positive, an alternative, a silencing of the logorrhea of memory, something truer and more honest – not to mention less controversial – than attempts to recount, critique, and take stock in anything nearing a tidy, united, “collective” sense. To be forgotten, to be the object of substantive acts of forgetting, is the best thing that can happen when the individual is confronted with a collective appraisal. Does this qualification, then, lend itself to an ethics of forgetting? If being forgotten is best, what are the benefits, and can these be identified not only for individual desire but collective acknowledgement? And do these benefits exist only before the inevitability of all total forgetting, or can they somehow exist successfully beyond it – as in, does the acceleration of forgetting through will, desire, or other means (e.g., technological) come to better grips with (or even fool or evade) ultimate oblivion somehow? (This last point could be approached in terms of emptiness, cosmic jokes, eternal recurrence, a “stupid metaphysical question” – there are a million spin-off points here.)
Kosiński’s personal history should be considered in light of his statement. The author had Jewish-Polish roots, and thus had two heavy, interweaving collective mnemonic traditions behind him. His pursuit of emigration (i.e., self-imposed exile), his eventual scandals – his use of forgeries to immigrate from communist Poland, his skirting the line between autobiography and fiction in The Painted Bird before that blur was quite popular in literary debate, his being accused of plagiarism and of having certain books ghost-written – and his suicide all locate him on the side of certain active dynamics – meaning, conscious and/or manipulative acts – of forgetting.
If Kosiński was indeed pro-forgetting in certain respects, did he qualify it as an ethical stance? It is obviously impossible to say, and I do not know enough about the author and man to even attempt a vague assessment. This may shed some light, however – and it is a sad light, to be sure – from D.G. Myers’ review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan:
This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. “There was a hollow space at the center of Kosinski that had resulted from denying his past,” Sloan writes, “and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star.” On this theory, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against… all-out psychosis.
The more general question must be asked, how difficult is it to consider a pro-forgetting stance ethical? And would such a stance place one opposite or parallel to an ethics of memory? For while memory and forgetting are indeed dialectical, it is also possible to envision them as kinds of clouds or ether, and to see forgetting as larger than memory – forgetting as encompassing memory, not the other way around, due to its sheer inevitability as it envelops physical decay and conscious oblivion. Could that mean that somehow an ethics of memory can only stem from an ethics of forgetting?
What do you think, do you agree with Kosiński, is it best to be forgotten? Or is this an inane question, when knowledge of inevitable forgetting and forgottenness strike a balance we continually negotiate with a life-long search for presence?