Literature, Memory, Forgetting

Literature, Memory, Forgetting

Omid Shams

Writing is always about the past. Even if it is written about future, the future is experienced as past. Since it is primarily imagined in mind and it will be written “afterward”. Therefore, to write is to remember because it is always one step after thinking. We think then we write. Here thinking does not necessarily means planning. It is just thinking as recalling. We think of things and through that act we recall them to our mind and then we recall them into words. Thus, the essence of writing is remembering. Moreover, the aim of writing is reminding; keeping alive the memory of something. Writing is recording; holding the past in an infinite presence of a text; but at the same time, confirming its death.

Literature as the purest kind of writing is not only the remembrance of memories but also the remembrance of the absolute principle of forgetting through imminent inevitable evaporation of all being. Being forgotten as being evaporated is the essence of mortality and mortality itself is the essence of all beings. Literature remembers the memory and also reminds the forgetting. Through these remembering and reminding, literature frees mortals from the burden of fundamental memory of being mortal. A memory which has apparently been forgotten but its spirit is always with us to that very last moment of our death.

This fundamental memory of being mortal is much similar to the memory of catastrophe which has disappeared in our unconsciousness but it is reborn and becomes a mental torment. The memory of catastrophe will be exiled to the realm of forgetting but it resists. Just like a walking dead, a wanderer spirit, a zombie it comes back from the valley of the shadow of death and it will follow us. Such memories are not forgotten they are only ignored. Thus, to forget them we have to remember them first. We have to look at them in the eyes and let them tell their story. Literature lets those memories of fear to tell their story and at the same time lets them to be forgotten (or die in peace). Literature testifies the death of the things through remembering their memory. It is only the literature that dares to remember and speak of the fact that everything is evaporating or will evaporate one day. Literature is therefore remembering and speaking of the immemorial and unspeakable memory.

In this essay I try to explore the relationship between literature, memory and forgetting using the Anne Micheals’ novel, Fugitive Pieces, as an exemplary background. I specifically focus on the main character of the first part of novel, Jakob Beer, (as survivor of the Holocaust and an immigrant poet searching for a memory of a catastrophe to complete the puzzle of his identity), to illustrate the connection between his crisis of identity, contradictory desire for remembering/forgetting and his will to write. My essay creates a dialog with the theories of French philosopher and literary theorist, Maurice Blanchot, about the concepts of “forgetful memory”, the essence of forgetting, and “being Jewish”.

Literature as remembrance of the Vanished

Milan Koundera in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting has a short real story which can perfectly describe the quiddity of literature.

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square.

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.” (3-4)

Literature is the Clementis’ hat. It tells the story of the vanished voices and forgotten faces. That is why literature is always referring to something else. As well as Clementis’ hat, literature is much more than itself. It is the narrator of what no longer exists. Literature is the people’s last hope against forgetting. The main goal in suppression, execution and genocide is forgetting, to send the concepts, persons and nations to the realm of forgetting and evaporation. Literature functions as resurrection of the forgotten. Literature collects those pieces that survived from forgetting and by doing so it recalls the vanished into the memorial. What is dead as a whole can yet live in its pieces. Even one piece can recall the whole to which that piece once belonged. Remembrance happens through those pieces. Fighting against forgetting is searching for those pieces.

In Ann Michaels’ novel, two main characters persistently struggle against forgetting: Jakob Beer is a poet who lost his parents and his sister in Nazi attack when he was a child and then he moved to Canada with Athos his savior. And Ben is a young Jewish professor who was born in Canada and his parents are Holocaust survivors. The few pieces of that catastrophic event, Holocaust, are still alive inside these characters that, in spite of physical surviving, make them still living with and within this catastrophe: “A man’s experience of war never ends with war. A man’s work, like his life, is never completed.” (Michaels 1)

For Jakob, the horror of Holocaust’s historical truth and vanished memory of his family and even their death within this historical truth is an unbearable trauma from which he tries to escape almost throughout his all life. He is trapped in the cruelty of history and he has not enough solace of memory. But “shortly before his death” he decides to put an end to this trauma by remembering the vanished memory and freeing himself from its burden through writing his memoires. Wisely, Michaels distinguishes between the history and memory as the amoral and moral concepts.

Jakob puts it in the novel:

History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers. History is the Totenbuch, The Book of the Dead, kept by the administrators of the camps. Memory is the Memorbucher, the names of those to be mourned, read aloud in the synagogue. (138)

Memory nourishes from reality but it is not limited to it. Memory is not only remembering the events but remaking them and living them again and again. Memory selects the events and arranges them in an emotional and moral order. It is based on details which are not important for the history but for the person who remembers: “spray of buttons, little white teeth” these details are what history forgets and memory remembers. This is exactly the same function of literature. Literature is always about the details as well. Details which are not important as subject of the event. But they are the witnesses of the event. They are narrators of the event that also narrate the emotional aspects of it. The event is not inscribed on such details but they can recall it and only by such recalling we can feel the flesh and blood of the reality. Literature is memory because it deals with the details and rejects the incompleteness of historical generalized chronology. Memory is moral since it reveals the standpoint toward the reality. Whatever is omitted and vanished in history, as a senseless narrative of generalized reality, will be revived in memory and literature. Hence, the memory’s narrative is much more real than history. Real event never happens as it is narrated in history. It happens in and through the details.

This is what Jakob suffers from. He has not a clear memory of his family’s last moments but some noises and finally the dead bodies of his parents. He also has no clear memories of his family before the catastrophe but few memories of his parents and little more of her sister, Bella.

Then everything he sees and experiences in his life after his loss recalls and reflects the vague image of the past. He lives in his personal Holocaust of his present life because there is no difference between the past and present for one who escaped from a nightmare but left and lost everything he had in that nightmare. The only image that remains clear is the nightmare and the solidity of its historical reality. As result of inaccessibility to the clear image of the past, thus, everything in present recalls the memories of the past in order to complete the missing pieces of a puzzle:

Alex’s hairbrush propped on the sink: Bella’s brush….Bella writing on my back: Alex’s touch during the night…I have nothing that belonged to my parents, barely any knowledge of their lives. Of Bella’s belongings, I have…piano works that suddenly recover me; Bella’s music from a phonograph overheard in a shop, from an open window on a summer day, or from a car radio…. (140-41)

Memory is moral and more real than history but it is an incomplete narrative as well as history. It is limited to the point of view and the range of vision and hearing. From his hiding place “behind the wallpaper in the cupboard” Jakob cannot see anything when soldiers raid on the house. He has only his ears to record the event. “The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth. Then silence […] I heard the rime of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray buttons, little white teeth.”

There is no image of the event. The Image must be made out of hearings. The memory is blind and where the memory cannot see imagination comes to be helpful. Imagination even creates the memory out of nothing, out of absolute darkness and silence:

“I couldn’t remember hearing Bella at all. Filled with her silence, I had no choice but to imagine her face” (10).

The most horrific trauma for Jakob is not solely that the Holocaust took the physical presence of his family from him. But that Holocaust took the memory of them and replaced itself as nightmare.

“In nightmares the real picture wouldn’t hold still long enough for me too look, everything is melting.”(25)
He is not even able to keep the memory of his vanished family. This is the horrific truth of genocide. The genocide tries to eliminate any kind of presence whether in reality or in memory. Kundra says “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Jakob tries to save his family from absolute death through recalling them into his memory. He tries to keep parts of them alive in spite of the nightmare. He let them live in his head. He divided his mind and body in two: one for himself and one for them.

“I paused when I ate, singing a silent incantation: a bite for me, a bite for you, an extra bite for Bella.” (31)

Such division of personality led Jakob to Schizophrenia. There are two solutions in front of him. One suggested by his first wife, Alex, is to foget the past and leaving it all behind as it never happened. This forgetting before remembrance is repressing or killing those vanished faces. It means leaving the remains of his parents unburied. This is exactly what causes Jakob’s trauma: Actually the impossibility of burying the remains of his dead parents made Jakob carries their remains as images of nightmare inside him. Such forgetting puts Jakob in position of those who made the Holocaust, those who killed his family and left them forgotten.

The second solution is what Michaela suggests: burying the remains and mourning for them through telling the story of losing them and the story of suffer caused by holding the melting image of them for a lifetime. It is possible only through writing as literature. Literature is remembrance of the vanished addressing the reader as one who can confirm the existence of the vanished. By reading the story of the vanished, the reader unveils the memory which was veiled under forgetfulness and brings it into the realm of reality.

Literature makes the vanished voices heard. By hearing them, firstly, they will be confirmed as voices that once existed. Secondly, they will be resurrected and live inside the one that hears those voices. What Michaela did was to let Jakob share his experience of the Holocaust with her. Jakob’s writings of his fears were not enough to make him free of that nightmare. It must be shared with a reader. “She has heard everything—her heart an ear, her skin an ear. Michaela is crying for Bella. The joy of being recognized and the stabbing loss: recognized for the first time.When I finally fall asleep, the first sleep of my life.” (182)

Michaela became an ear and just like Jakob hid behind the wallpaper. Through this emphasis on hearing Michaels implies the sharing of the experience between Jakob and Michaela. Jakob had no life before. He was identical with those dead bodies living inside him. Now he was free of them. He told his story and somebody heard it. So he could let them go and he could live as himself.

Remembering the immemorial memory:

In former section we discussed on Jakob’s attempt to get rid of the nightmare of his past and at the same time remember the vanished memory of his family. Finally and shortly before his death he decides to do that through writing his memoire. But his memoir is not about memory of his family. It is about his unsuccessful searching for such memory. On the other hand his desire of forgetting his memory of the catastrophe is about forgetting the absence of his memory of that very moment when the catastrophic event happened. He writes “I didn’t witness the most important event of my life” (17).

His separation with the event is the same as our separation with the history. Michaels implies the point that reading the history or story of a catastrophe doesn’t make us to feel the experience of that catastrophe. Our position as reader related to the Holocaust is similar to the position of Jakob related to the death of his parents. We are both behind the curtain that separates us from the catastrophe. All we have are the small pieces of a vanished and broken memory. Nobody has a memory of such catastrophe unless he was inside it and therefore he wouldn’t be able to talk about it. Any speakable memory of that catastrophe is a memory of one who wasn’t there, of one who didn’t completely experience the catastrophe. Because that complete experience is death and one who has such experience cannot talk anymore.

At the beginning of his novel Michaels mentions the impossibility of remembering what happened in Holocaust.
“During the Second World War, countless manuscripts – diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts – were lost or destroyed. Some of these narratives were deliberately hidden – buried in back gardens, tucked into walls and under floors – by those who did not live to retrieve them.

Other stories are concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken. Still others are recovered, by circumstance alone” (1)”

By this preface Michaels means that the pure memory of such deadly experience dies with its victims. Then any other memories are “recovered” through imagination. Even in Holocaust’s survivors there is always a missing piece: the most important moment of that memory is missing or recovered through imagination. That missing piece is death. Therefore the memory of Holocaust is immemorial. Whatever we say about Holocaust has not the strength of the real event. Because experiencing of Holocaust is experiencing of death and nobody can say anything about the experience of death unless he imagines it.

Jakob is a survivor of Holocaust but even he did not witness the event. Through posing this problem Michaels symbolically explains her own problem of writing about Holocaust. She stands in an eternal distance with the event. She also symbolizes this problem in Jakob’s comments on quiddity of translation.

“Reading a poem in translation,” wrote Bialek, “is like kissing a woman through a veil”; […] Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another. You can choose

your philosophy of translation just as you choose how to live: the free adaptation that sacrifices detail to meaning, the strict crib that sacrifices meaning to exactitude” (108-109).

Jakob’s memory of his parent’s death is like kissing a woman through a veil. His experience of that moment was a translation of the event into noises. Also Michaels’ writing of Holocaust happens through a translation. She is not able to read the catastrophe in its original language. Nobody can do that but those who vanished within it. All she has is translation. Language of catastrophe (death) translated to the language of post-catastrophe (life). Such translation is an absolute transubstantiation. She also stands between two kinds of such transubstantiation: history and memory. She emphasizes the insufficiency of both to illustrate the all dimensions of the event.

However Michaels informs us about the impossibility of such illustration and therefore she gives us an idea, even if not clear, about the depth of catastrophic event such as Holocaust. Then she goes beyond the history and memory through the literature. Because literature is able to tell a certain story and, at the same time, tell the story about telling that story. She illustrates the event through details and she confesses the impossibility of grasping the whole meaning of the event. She lets us get as close as possible to the nature of remembering such immemorial memory.

Being Jewish: the Poetics of Exodus

The “most important event” of Jakob’s life happens in an eternal distance to him. This event makes his identity: being Jewish. He loses his family and he runs for his life because he is a Jew. But what does being Jewish mean? Why there is such a thing as being Jewish? Why being Jewish causes such tragic experiences? These are questions that Michaels never answers directly in her novel. But she writes the whole life of her main character as an answer to these questions specifically the first question. She writes her Jewish character, Jakob, as a constant immigrant.

Blanchot describes being Jewish as:

“It exists, through exile and through the initiative that is exodus, so that the experience of strangeness may affirm itself close at hand as an irreducible relation;” (124)

Michaels answers to the question of being Jewish through a poetics of exodus and exile. Jakob’s strangeness to that “most important event” of his life symbolically implies being Jewish.

Also Jakob’s journey to Greece and then to Canada symbolizes the most characteristic aspect of being Jewish. She defines the identity of her character through the concept of movement. Through this movement she is able to define him as dependent to the portrait of being Jewish drawn up by anti-Semitism. Because such a portrait reveals nothing about being Jewish but reveals everything about anti-Semitism, its brutality, its meaninglessness and its anti-humanism. It will define being Jewish as a reaction to or as an object of anti-Semitism. But she characterizes being Jewish actively in contrast with concepts of arrogance and paganism.

“At whatever time, one must be ready to set out […] in this Judaism stands in contrast to paganism (all paganism). To be pagan is to be fixed, to plant oneself in the earth, as it were, […]

Nomadism answers to a relation that possession cannot satisfy. Each time Jewish man makes a sign to us across history it is by the summons of a movement” (Blanchot 125.)

Exodus in this concept is the result of resistance against power that claims lands and kills for it. Also the exile makes one able to discover his identity because it is in exile that he can think of his origins. He can dig inside himself to find something that belongs to him to find something that defines him. In fact, the moment that one feels being stranger or exiled, more than any moment else, he focuses on his own identity and those aspects that make his identity.

“in xenetia – in exile[…] in a foreign landscape, a man discovers the old songs. He calls out for water from his own well, for apples from his own orchard, for the Muscat grapes from his own vine” (Michaels 86)

Jakob’s immigration to Canada is crucial for Michaels’s plan to create such identity. Canada is a country where no one claims the land. Canada lets Jakob to be Jewish. He describes Toronto as a city of “forsaken worlds” in which “everyone has come from elsewhere” (89).

Poetics of exodus and constant movement is also the characteristic of Jakob’s narrative and his state of mind. He is always moving between past and present, reality and illusion, history and memory. In fact the identity of Jakob and Ben as Jewish makes the form of the narrative as constant shifting among times and spaces.

Writing after Auschwitz

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

This famous quotation by Theodore Adorno tries to emphasis on the intensity of the catastrophic event. For Adorno, writing poetry after Auschwitz represents the belief that in the world in which such horrible event happened, beauty does not exist. From this point of view and as far as we accept the definition of poetry as writing to make beauty, what Adorno says is understandable. But what if we disagree with such definition of poetry? What if there is another goal for writing poetry?

Nazis themselves prevented Jewish people in Ghettos from writing poetry. They tried to stop their victims from escaping, escaping from the fate of being vanished, evaporate and forgotten. Writing poetry is tasting freedom and power. They could imagine themselves out of their real situation. They could write about the end of their suffering. They could create their own world in which Nazis had no authority. Writing poetry, after all, is going back to the origin of language to its essence where language emerges as absolute power: the power of naming. As

Hegel pointed out “the first act of Adam that made him the master of animals was to give them names”. Writing poetry is the power of renaming thing. Therefore, it still has that absolute power of language. By writing poetry they could claim that they have something for their own.

Paul Celan says:

“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure through all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.” (34)

From this point of view, writing poetry is resistance. Writing poetry is rejecting the cruelty of reality; it builds a place to live beyond the reality. After all poetry is memory. And through memory, one lives in spite of his death. He lives in spite of its disappearance in reality. Through writing poetry genocide will be defeated. Writing poetry rejects the absoluteness of the catastrophe.

“Poetry is memory; this is the classical assertion. Memory is the muse. The singer sings from memory, and grants the power to remember. The song itself is me-moire, the space where the justice of memory holds sway” (314)

Writing poetry after Auschwitz is not, as Adorono believes, rejecting the existence of Auschwitz. It is rejecting its successfulness in eliminating the memory. Nazis banned poetry. Therefore poetry itself was the victim of Auschwitz. Anne Michaels’ intentional poetic style and also characterizing Jakob as a poet is not only to show the possibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz but to emphasis on the necessity of writing poetry in order to defeat the Auschwitz. As we discussed before, there is no way to remember the memory of such catastrophe without the help of imagination. Therefore, she uses poetry as the most imaginative form of language, firstly, to recall those vanished faces into the realm of imagination and, secondly, to emphasis on surviving of poetry as a symbol of Auschwitz’s defeat.

We can assert that literature, specifically through narrating the story of forgetting, revives the memory of vanished faces and by reviving such memory it saves those vanished faces form being forgotten. Also, literature through its power of imagination brings the immemorial memory as closest as possible to the realm of remembrance. The identity of survivors of a catastrophe is dependent to this aspect of literature. Literature lives on behalf of all vanished and forgotten faces in history, shouting their suppressed voices aloud.

Works Cited:

Blanchot, Maurice, The Infinite Conversation. Trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993

Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1986

Michaels, Ann, Fugitive Pieces. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1996.

Kundera, Milan, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Trans. Aaron Asher. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1996.


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