Wednesday, April 23, 2008

To Never Forget

In one of the seven parts of Milan Kundera's 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting , Tamina,a woman who is in mourning over her late husband is at once filled with a sudden urgent need to retrieve a collection of notebooks she has left in Prague. These notebooks contain intimate details of her time with her husband , details that she has, in spite of herself, already begun to forget.

The journey, from the outlands where she lives in a Czechoslovakia as Soviet vassal is not an easy one. A couple who say they plan on making the trip and are willing to take her along, later abandon the plans after a domestic squabble. Stranded, Tamina accepts the offer of an unappealing acquaintance, a man who says he will take her. He is enamored of her. She in turn has no interest in him but as her desperation mounts she feels she has no other option but to give in to his advances, and she gives him her body. In the middle of the act it becomes clear to him that she finds him repellant. Rejected and impotent he leaves in a rage. As Tamina is left alone Kundera lingers over her feelings of disgust and helplessness as she she tries to take solace in the physical memories of her husband only to find instead all those precious thoughts overwhelmed by what has just happened. Tamina in the end is compromised, and unable to make her journey.

Kundera intended more than a tale of memory and disillusionment. Tamina's story serves as part of his motif of life in a police state, where the idealism of the public policy is derailed at every point by the ugly reality of its daily operations. The antagonism of Idealism and objective reality not just a philosopher's stone when it must contend with lost love, grief, and the smell and feel of violation.

It's a story that has stayed with me even if I have never agreed with Kundera's premise that memory, no matter how meaningful must fade and be replaced by more recent experience. The memories that have meaning to me I can still summon up in finely etched detail, then walk through them like rooms in much the same way the Doris Lessing character does in her seminal work the The Golden Notebook. Someday those rooms might be all that I inhabit as my physical space will become more and more circumscribed, for all I know.

Memory is at the heart of everything and yet it does appear a fine balance. Those cursed or alternatively blessed with synaesthesia have been known to complain of never being able to forget. And it's true that people who display this remarkable ability are found to be limited in a number of other respects. It's as if we were meant to forget. But most us would like not to forget the information of our choosing.The arc of remembering and forgetting is a familiar and frustrating one for most of us. If you could remember everything you wanted to think how simple your life would be. Academics, career, material advance are all predicated to a large degree on the reliability of memory.

It's why I find this article in Wired magazine so fascinating. It's author is Gary Wolf a writer for whom I have a strong admiration. He writes in a nuanced way about subjects that seem to bring together the modern world and those big philosophical questions that have been on our minds for as long as we have dared to think, religion, fear, immortality, among others; this month it's memory.

In his feature on Piotr Wozniak he reveals a man who has found a way to master memory in an algorithim that requires some surprisingly old fashioned commitment in order for it to work.

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