Despite the efforts of historians, scribes, and all sorts of archivists, the quantity of what is irretrievably lost in the history of society and in the history of individuals is infinitely greater than what can be stored in the archives of memory. In every instant, the measure of forgetting and ruin, the ontological squandering that we bear within ourselves far exceeds the piety of the memories and consciences. But the shapeless chaos of the forgotten is neither inert nor ineffective. To the contrary, it is at work within us with a force equal to that of the mass of conscious memories, but in a different way. Forgetting has a force and a way of operating that cannot be measured in the same terms as those of conscious memory, nor can it be accumulated like knowledge. Its persistence determines the status of all knowledge and understanding. The exigency of the lost does not entail being remembered and commemorated; rather, it entails remaining in us and with us as forgotten, and in this way and only in this way, remaining unforgettable.
– Giorgio Agamben, “The Unforgettable” in The Time That Remains
Passage found on The Great Leap Sideways
Throughout My Dinner with Andre you doze on and off, providing rest to an upper-back muscle strained and inflamed from cycling and stupidity.
You awaken to various memories.
Andre relays many of his recollections of doing experimental theater with Jerzy Grotowski in Poland. Immediately you recall how you do not like theater, do not believe an interest in theater is at all something you need. That understanding is always accompanied by the memory of falling asleep during the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet in 2001. Then, for whatever reason, you recall your cycling route past the Teatr Groteska in Kraków – which has nothing to do with Grotowski, in fact, as it is a puppet theater for children – on your way to class to study Czechoslovakian architecture (e.g., Zlín) and Tadeusz Kantor’s stage sets.
And you fall asleep for a little while.
When you wake up, Andre relates a memory of being in the Polish forest and sobbing in a woman’s arms during an acting exercise with Grotowski’s group. You remember all the walks and bike rides with M in the woods around Borek Wielki: cutting through the small village cemetery and into the birches; the new highway to Rzeszów that runs right through the further woods and fields; the church nearby tolling its bleak bells and that time you stumbled into a funeral procession upon exiting the woods; the small, random, disturbing piles of garbage next to some of the paths; passing village residents leading horses to the fields or pushing 40 year-old bicycles down the dirt road, how you would say good day and they would just stare blankly, unreplying. You think: this is what the Polish forests do to people.
Return to the doze.
You wake up and as Andre says “we’re all bored now,” you hear Frank O’Hara’s words: “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.” You remember reading Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara when you were around 13 years-old, which you had chosen randomly as you developed an interest in poetry. You remember reading that sitting next to Preston in his mother’s car as she drove you all to the Ubatuba beach.
Andre discusses how people talk about leaving New York and never do. A recent memory is accessed of hearing Andre’s spiel, in which living in New York is compared to feeling like you have built your own prison, on a Beats in Space radio set (you forget which one) and emailing A about it. Virtually every friend you have ever had in New York has talked to you about leaving, but they never do. You recall that friends who live in Ohio never talk about leaving.
Andre goes on to cite various theories based around “islands of safety where history can be remembered and the human being can continue to function in order to maintain the species through a dark age.”At this no memories at all come to the fore, and at best your reaction is ambivalent.
Andre speaks again of his memories of the Polish forests and of trying to communicate without words. And this is what Poland does to you: makes you want to communicate without and outside language, inhabit sullen Slavic silences in order to hear the forgottenness wafting through the eastern woods, to pay attention to the memories that cannot be voiced, cannot even be said good day to.
You drift off again.
When you wake up, Andre’s talk has turned to oblivion: “We’re afraid to stay in that place of forgetting, because that again is close to death – like people who are afraid to go to sleep.” You think of your sleep problems, of your parents’ sleep problems, everyone’s sleep problems. Can you remember when your sleep problems developed?
Andre talks of parents, children, aging: “Where is that son?” A wave of what feels like memory comes on, but it is nothing determinate: instead, it is some emotion, it is forgetting as an emotion.
The outro music starts: Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1.” Of course you recall first hearing this in The Royal Tenenbaums and how taken aback you were by that scene in Eli Cash’s apartment. Eli Cash was played by Owen Wilson, brother of Luke Wilson, who is also in the scene soundtracked by Satie and who several people have said you resemble. You bought a CD of Satie’s music soon after this first encounter: at Paul’s CDs in Pittsburgh, that’s what you want to say, but no, it may have been at Quonset Hut in Canton or even Borders. A shared recollection is that Satie’s work has become rather trite and overused by now, but his music still moves you, breaks down your defenses. You actually prefer the “Gnossiennes,” especially the first one as it always reminds you of Henry and June, though it was actually the third “Gnossienne” that was used in that film. You remember listening to the “Gymnopédies”and “Gnossiennes” on a bus from the Kraków airport, staring out the window, how you realized the interminable compositional power at work, that those pieces sound best while moving through a familiar landscape made strange by acts of memory.
Wallace finds space and time to enter his own memories as he takes a taxi home: “There wasn’t a street, there wasn’t a building, that wasn’t connected to some memory in my mind.” Can you say that about everywhere you have lived? Or perhaps the better question is: have you lived somewhere about which you cannot say that?
As Wallace looks out the cab windows, eager then stunned, he closes by mentioning his conversation with his girlfriend: “And I told her everything about my dinner with Andre.” You wonder what he told her, how carried off into his own realms of memory he would have been as the dinner conversation flickered through his mind. What more can we say about such experiences and recollections, especially when the ultimate conversation is with one’s forgetting?
The city passes, Satie plays in the background, and you suddenly realize that, in your experience – besides Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó – this is one of the best films to doze off and on to ever. After Andre ventures “where is that son?” and Wallace calls upon his memory, the dark city, the graceful shots, and the “Gymnopédie” all push you gently through a hypnapompic state out of forgetting and into memory, towards the desire to remember these ending scenes and think about them tomorrow, and finally towards the desire for more forgetting and more sleep.
The importance of insomnia is so colossal that I am tempted to define man as the animal who cannot sleep. Why call him a rational animal when other animals are equally reasonable? But there is not another animal in the entire creation that wants to sleep yet cannot.
– Cioran, On the Heights of Despair
Insomnia is in itself no mnemonic impairment: it is your capability to forget that is damaged and damaging. As your eyes though closed grow more beady and dry at 4:30 AM: so the river Lethe stops thin and almost disappears. Sunday was working on music for six hours straight, skipping a nap and reading session: would it have been The Uses of Adversity, The Fun Parts, or perhaps some of Cioran’s A Short History of Decay in anticipation of the night’s battles? Sunday was strong coffee carrying you into that familiar lack of breath around 11 AM over the day already slipping away: eventually there was the onset of an inevitable Niedzela panic. Must consume: the newest Momus Tumblr posts, articles on Russia and Ukraine, another Podsiadło poem, another piece of carrot cake, the newest Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a YouTube video on the Hutterites, and some chicken soup (it is Sunday, after all)! Must produce: more synth lines, emails, Tai Chi practice, and text! Must take: a walk to Massolit, a bike ride to the woods below Kopiec Kościuszki, this Skype date, and a nap (after all, it is Sunday)! Look ahead to five more days of listening to cough-into-hand and clear-throat-in-C# at work: heartbeat quickened, breath shortened, eyes beginning to burn.
After the typical blank nervousness of a Sunday evening, you go to bed later than usual: after 11:30 (or was it 10:30: when did the time change come into effect again?). Check the clock at 4:32 after having been awake for at least 20 minutes: ultimately rise from bed at 5:44. Cycle to work as the dawn approaches with its always troubled-looking sky: clouds like smoke from peat fires. Plenty of Krakowians already moving: but slowly, even barely so in furs and with bulk. A burly Jacek on the corner in a dirty coat with a wild Carpathian mustache: you see the green beer bottle of a Lech or Perła in his hands and a cigarette as you fly past. That is no apparition, just a requisite Kraków scene: get to work at 6:58, sweating, turn on the computer at 7:03.
Insomnia humbles you with a sweet spot of energy maintenance devoid of aggression and even assertiveness: there is at least that level of forgetting engaged to keep you relatively tranquil through the day, during which any ambition that arrives is registered as a virtual shock. Jestem w szoku: you converse with your insomnia minute by minute while struggling to keep your eyes open in front of the screens. Meanwhile you drag along the same mnemonic weights that pulled you awake so early: this and that task-question-deadline-rating-document-meeting. No doubt you lost some of the weekend’s memories that were not consolidated in your fitful Sunday night sleep: isn’t that what the neurologists say happens? But it is the forgetting with which you are most concerned: you drag yourself back towards oblivion, towards the lethatechniques that induce a healthy dose of sleep.
All of the waiting is remembered: for the Sunday to be over, for reluctance to spill over into regret. Waiting for supper, for the salsa and guac: for the cooking smells to vacate the kitchen. Waiting for the hour to determine if it is alright to have a highball: remembering that you are trying to not drink on Sundays and then having one anyway. Waiting to watch a movie: then deciding whether to squeeze in a season 3 Seinfeld episode before bed. Waiting to fall asleep: waiting to decide whether to check the blasted blue time once awake. Earlier to work, earlier home: a seemingly clever equation you can never quite beat. Waiting for the Monday to initiate the stiff ride, heavy trod, and pathetic parade into the office: after which is initiated another period of waiting for compensated time to be over and free time to bring its sweet illusion of relief. Waiting for the memories to dissipate: waiting for restoration of a mode of oblivion on Monday night.
Let another week of forgetting commence.
Who is going to reproach me for lack of precision, who would recognize the places or the people? My power is absolute, everything there belongs to one man now, who once, a student from Wilno, arrived there in a dogcart.
– Czesław Miłosz, “The Wormwood Star”
Your memory is only as actual – aktualnie – as your forgetting can dot the courtyard with empties. And you remember him from last year, Rafał, quiet with his putrid Pall Malls, paying tribute to Chronos in the secret aluminum commerce of Kraków’s alleyways, cloisters, and parking lots.
Rafał abandons cans of Tatra Mocne six to seven times every warm day, sometimes while sitting in the sun, sometimes after talking to Krzysiek on an ancient Nokia. Friday evenings Marian and Boguśka abandon bottles of Strzelec after spitting kurwa every third word for a couple hours. And Saturday afternoons Janek and Staśek abandon cans of Dębowe Mocne, casting their eyes downward after debating deals on bicycles brought from Germany. Romek collects the cans and bottles every other day, quick with his cart full of old water heater parts after making his rounds by the Lewiatan down the street.
Having remembered the collector’s use of what is daily at hand and throat, the abandoners draw as much from their recollections as can be poured out of a bottle of jabol, are as oblivious to the surveilling apartments as can be pissed out under someone’s window, and declaim as much of a 1,300 year-old understanding of Kraków as can be recalled between each slug and empty gifted to the dust.
Rafał soon passes out, mouth agape, and Eugeniusz grumbles at him to move on, he does not want to walk with his granddaughter and have her see such a sight. Another five minutes and the Straż Miejska tower over him in their blue rubber gloves, they call his mother with whom he lives and who does not want to let him in the apartment for fear. He is back the next day, cans of Żubr this time standing by his side as totems – rodnidze – setting straight what is to be disremembered.
When you go to the courtyard and tell Rafałek he cannot piss in the corner, you see he has a black eye, and he obliges with an aggressive charm from then on. When you go to the courtyard and tell him you have no problem with him sitting there but he needs to take his cans away with him, he obliges for one and a half days exact. And the next morning he is back, ready to abandon more of his Tatra Mocne, ready to return the next day with all he has forgotten.
For more on Kraków’s courtyards, see here.
Your memory moves from I to we and back again less than, in the end, making the I a we. These are the pronouns at work, non-oppositional, non-collective, as forgetting remains an individual pursuit to the end, but only individual as such pursuit, dissolving as it does into a collective forgetting far, far beyond the frameworks and bounds of collective memory. You see the cat creeping in the sun, you remember it a minute later wondering if it is still there or who else saw it or if anyone saw you watching it, and you forget it all, returning the remembrance to its right space between no one and everyone.
Using your memory for exformation admits your memory is exformation, superfluous, especially as discarded points and floating context, all taken for granted, exformation rests before forgetting, less powerful than forgetting while possibly superior to it as memory forgotten and remembered again though not recognized, never spoken or fully exhumed, never less than idealized and thus, in communication, often nothing more than mistaken.
Your memory writes when it is able to tear away from reading other people, a break that can be a few seconds or minutes even, until it complains against the deep breath of your forgetting, and moves back to the shallows of others’ language.
Then your memory is the tragedy, and your forgetting lines the inverse of that tragedy which is not quite a joke but a device of relief touched off by mouthing tragedia, a word so common in a language so Slavic spurred from a historicism so solemn, monumentalistic, and internalized that when let loose in antiquarian catalogs of pedestrian exclamations here and there, a few mornings a week, it comes to describe the interminable traffic jam, cold chicken soup on Sundays, daily queue cuts and shoulder knocking, and that courtyard entrance with florescent lit concrete so migraine-heavy that the Żołądkowa bottles punctuating its Saturday morning rank seem entirely natural as empty ciphers, tragedia – or even better, masakra – in a language flinging far its own forgetting.
Your forgetting is a valence that exists in double, one side limping with split shins down to the reservoir, cold and clear on a day you think must be for mourning but should in fact just be for a long span of silence, and the other side lurking in the hills where it reserves its own absence in advance around a fire encircled by a small, stout wall built of all your letters, emails, diaries, journals, phones, laptops, essays, book reports, birthday cards, tablets, notebooks, inscriptions, every document you have ever signed, all the margins you have ever annotated, one by one encased in thick layers of pink wax, balanced behind a gigantic pile of apples you have just picked that are, indeed, ready to be burned.