Tag Archives: Svetlana Boym

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?”

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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:

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PUTIN AND NOSTALGIA

The year 1968, when Soviet tanks marched into Prague, was a watershed. By the 1970s the revolutionary cosmic mission was forgotten by the Soviet leaders themselves. As the thaw was followed by stagnation, nostalgia returned. Brezhnev’s and Andropov’s era of the cold war remains a contested ground: for some it’s the time of stability and better living standards, for others, the time of official corruption, widespread cynicism, degradation of ideology and development of elite networks and clans. In 1968 high school student Vladimir Putin, inspired by a popular TV series “The Sword and the Sheild,” about Soviet agents working in Nazi Germany, went to the KGB office in Leningrad and offered his services. Thirty years later the president of Russia would remember this story with great affection, remaining faithful to the dreams of his youth. It is in this late Soviet era that one could find clues for the future development of Russian leadership. It seems that 1990s nostalgia for the Brezhnev era was partially based on the old Soviet movies that reappeared on Russian TV at that time. Many Russian viewers, tired of upheavals and lost illusions of the post-Soviet decade, tuned in and suddenly began to believe that Soviet life resembled those movies, forgetting their own experiences as well as their ways of watching those films twenty years earlier – with much more skepticism and double entendre.

– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

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RETRACED ROUTES I – 53 RUA MÁRIO RUAS ALVES, SÃO PAULO

“…a certain ‘diaspora of memory,’ to use writer and critic André Aciman’s expression, the memory that no longer has a single anchor in the native city but unfolds through superimposition of native and foreign lands.”

– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Awaking before five and flipping your blanket to try and cool down, in hope of getting back to sleep you start tracing routes on another continent – to school, friends’ houses, parks, restaurants, record stores, skate spots, Morumbi, Ikebukuro. Despite the blank spots in your memory’s topography, a few random recall clips appear as your route digresses towards faces, books, views out of certain windows, candy, roasted chicken. These are the traces, and they lead you back to sleep.

Later that same day you retrace the routes along Google Street View and reassess the memory-city. Streets have become longer and wind further to the left, traffic is heavier and there are far more apartment buildings, but the same greens and greys paint the city and much the same advertising signage is at play. Mnemonic seams are reinforced as new ones are ripped open by your inability to find that one friend’s house where you spent so much time or at the sight of shadowy corners now brightly lit.

You cross the city easily in Street View but can only venture as far as the walls and gates, of course. You are cut off from entire internal worlds that appear only faintly in your recollections, and thus your forgetting ebbs and flows against a privately dissolving memory. But you will always remember São Paulo as a city of huge walls and steel gates. There was a continuous sense of being fenced-in there, guarded against the city’s violence and stark inequality. Your inhabiting of the city was delineated by privilege, you know this now even if you did not fully realize it then. So as you move freely along in Street View, you wonder sheepishly, what would it have been like to walk these streets more thoroughly?

But you can pursue this hypothetical only so far against the barrage of details that are culled as you negotiate this forced externalization with offerings of mnemonic internalization. You now recall that your best friend wore Old Spice, the bus driver had one of those wooden-beaded seat covers and might have even smoked cigarettes while driving, the black-and-white stone mosaic sidewalks undulated when seen from the street, how many churrascarias and pizzerias you would pass daily, the white wall on the sloping street where the car radio was stolen had been freshly painted, the side-street where you parked for the flea-market at Praça da República always seemed sinister. These superimpositions of internal and external, native and foreign – these are the retraces.

You move through three mnemonic levels on Street View. The first is your current set of memories of what you did and saw along the routes. The next is a recognition of memories formed and utilized while living there and actually proceeding along these routes (i.e., your then-current knowledge and understanding of the city, the locales you would pass on these routes, neighborhoods where you spent time, places where people you knew lived, various emotional responses to certain urban spaces) – a kind of memory of these memories. The third level is the memories you perhaps formed and at least accessed between living there and now of these routes and surroundings (i.e., a mnemonic gradation between then and now, memories that were altered through social frameworks [especially in conversations with others] about São Paulo after having lived there, even potential false memories you created). And finally there is the forgetting that slices through, mutates, closes in on, and opens back up all of the above mnemonic levels.

São Paulo, city of over 20 million, the 100-mile traffic jam, fern-covered walls topped with broken glass, subtropical concrete covered with pichação graffiti, apartment complex gates guarded with machine guns, purple-flowering jacaranda trees, and smog-choked palms. As you retrace the routes, it is the forgetting you become more conscious of, and you have no idea why you didn’t think of these city routes for so long. You wonder how much this megapixelated clarity can assuage your disbelief at spending so many years in that South American megalopolis so long ago.

busStart here, on Rua Mário Ruas Alves, and get on the bus, one of those diesel-guzzling Mercedes beasts from the 70s with the angled sliding windows and São João Batista or something painted along the sides in a flamboyant script, the driver with tanned, grizzled face, slicked-back hair, and a few buttons undone down his shirt, you say “bon dia” to Nelson’s mother the school librarian who always sat right up front, go back about eight or ten seats on the right, the weathered tan vinyl perfect for dozing off in, your head resting against the stiff, blue curtains bleached by the sun and billowing in the exhaust of millions of Volkswagen Kombis and Fuscas, the bus roaring past graffitied walls with the occasional strand of barbed wire, pulling up next to the bakery with the great pãozinhos and the newsstand where you peep some racy magazine covers through the window, to the left across the street is the small futebol field where you were devastated after losing a game with the Argentines José and his brother Fernando (who was such a dramatic and whiny player), the bus turns right down the hill and then a sharp left past the video store where you always wanted to rent Cyborg or My Own Private Idaho, then to pick up Mariana, who spends the entire ride in the seat behind you looking for split ends in her dark wavy hair, then another left at a corner well-known as a site of forced child begging, down past the Swiss school and out towards Chacara Flora where you’d wander around with Devin and Brendan imagining you had stepped straight out of a Dragonlance novel and where Brendan once put an injured bird “out of its misery” on the side of a red dirt road after you had covertly climbed up a water tower for fun, then down to pick up Daniela and her loud-mouth brother who were from Buenos Aires and whose psychiatrist mother had supposedly treated some of the Alive survivors, you once went over her house for a birthday party but only reluctantly because you thought you were invited as a joke, you were in a strange mood after having watched Henry V with Kenneth Branagh but you wound up having a great time doing cannonballs into the pool, and further into that neighborhood to pick up Brian with the big purple mohawk who made you a tape of the Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc. and Plastic Surgery Disasters, which you still have and still admire how neatly all the song titles are written out in blue ink, he once told you he hung out in cemeteries with Brazilian Goth girls so one day you walked shyly to the very back of the bus where he sat to ask if he liked The Cure and to tell him about the tape you had recently got, then turn left somewhere to pick up Giovanni who was into Agnostic Front, he once lent you one of their tapes which you didn’t like, and his sister who may have had a crush on you, they were Chilean or something, and soon thereafter beautiful Carolina who had a pool in her front yard and spoke German, all the while you’re slouched down with your knees on the seat in front of you reading Allen Ginsberg or Nat Hentoff or Franny and Zooey, the second half of which you always envisioned set in your grandparents’ house on West 94th (who’s that beat guy having a smoke on the stoop next to your grandmother’s hydrangea?), and wearing your photographer’s vest and the Spanish army beret you got at a gun show in Cleveland with your grandfather, and eventually there’s the bridge over the Marginal Pinheiros, that nightmarish black river, virtually an open sewer through the city, never forget once seeing a guy slide into the water from a dinghy, you knew the stories of the alligators and chemicals and disease and how that former-family friend told his wife to just shoot him if he ever fell in there, the smell would lift as high as the nineteenth floor by noon and one time you even got sick from it on the bus alongside the river, you puked up scrambled eggs which ran under the seats as the bus went over hills, then further up there’s that skatepark where you went with Dan and Steve and Zach, it was drizzling and the concrete bowl was slick and you all kept wiping out and laughing, and there’s where you played paintball and the Jardim Sul mall, which had a go-cart track next to it, and straight up the hill which a certain stretch of Cedar Avenue in Cleveland for some reason always reminds you of, Jon’s apartment is there on the right, his parents were Mormon missionaries and you went over there once to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail, past Escola Graduada now where, at the end of your first year and on the very last day before summer, a car full of bandits armed with shotguns got in through the front gate somehow to rob the school, you were herded into classrooms by wild-eyed teachers clutching scissors, then swing down the hill towards Preston‘s apartment where you’d read MAD Magazine and do medieval battles in the emptied pool, Preston, who wore his black Jack Daniel’s t-shirt on every Brazilian independence day and had a mullet, there’s the McDonald’s where you and Steve skateboarded in the parking lot and you once ate two Big Macs after basketball practice, curve around past the Banca Aguia where you’d buy ice cream and peep more racy magazine covers, past that surfer Carlos’s apartment where you once wound up with Steve after school listening to Jimi Hendrix (at first you thought you had hung out with Renato, whose father supposedly took him to a brothel when he was 12, but that never would have happened), and then up towards Steve’s place where you’d listen to the Pixies, watch surf videos, play Nerf basketball with his brothers, eat quesadillas, and skate in his parking garage, Roxette and Ace of Base and Debbie Gibson or the classic Só Pra Contrariar on the bus radio the whole time, and finally you pull into the parking lot and look to the right to the top of the stairs near the field where you sat for lunch eating a sandwich and drinking a nice, cool can of Guaraná Antarctica before you played basketball or went to the library.

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TRANSCENDENTAL TOPOGRAPHY

Lukacs coined the term of “modern transcendental homelessness” and defined it through the development of art as well as social life. Lukacs’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) opens with an elegy of epic proportions: “Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths – ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.” This is no longer nostalgia for one’s local home but for being at home in the world, yearning for a “transcendental topography of the mind” that characterized presumably “integrated” ancient civilization. The object of nostalgia in Lukacs is a totality of existence hopelessly fragmented in the modern age.

– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

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DIASPORIC INTIMATIONS (A FRIENDLY CONVERSATION)

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.”

DP, BS, JW, JT, SM, AG, AP, AR, CF, SG, GW, CL, ER

“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.”

“How’s that?”

“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?”

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THE DEFEAT IN THE FUTURE OF NOSTALGIA

Some interesting views on nostalgia in this post on Robert Hughes. And the two passages from Hughes are wonderful, the first haunting, the second begging the question, how quickly does valuing solitude lead one into (too) actively engaging nostalgia, to the point that that opportunity for nostalgic reverie and active recollection becomes the main value of one’s solitude in the first place?

To move away from engaging nostalgia is an important part of the ars oblivionis, of course, but the threat of a double-loss must be considered. For in such a move not only is one cutting ties with those indeterminate objects of loss envisioned and mourned sweetly, but one is disavowing a certain level of reverie and melancholic perspective as sources of creativity. Overcoming that potential double-loss is one of the challenges, then, in turning difficultly to forgetting rather than so easily to nostalgia and memory.

I cannot help but think there are degrees of defeat at work, however: forgetting as the defeat of the writer’s expected turn to memory as well as the defeat of the nostalgic’s desire for mythic return, and at the same time, the defeat of one’s belief in and capability of worthwhile recollection. Nostalgia can be self-defeatist, without a doubt, but does not the forgetting involved in embracing the fact that there really is no possibility of return – not even artistically – signify a far more serious kind of defeat? And in that case, how can the art of forgetting overcome its own contradiction in terms?

I must revisit Svetlana Boym’s fantastic book, The Future of Nostalgia.

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