20 November 2018

Memory and History

I’ve been thinking that memory embodies an essential sadness. In (and by) memory one remembers a happiness now passed and that is now recalled by its contrast or even similarity to the sense of the present. Or in (and by) memory one remembers the unhappiness that occurred in the past but that is now recalled in the present by an event similarly or differently experienced. In the midst of happiness it might seem that there would be no call to remember a past unhappiness, but perhaps it is exactly then that one remembers such circumstances exactly for the contrast that the memory offers to the meaning of the present. Memory changes the present even as it structures the past. Memory is a narrative construction and what it constructs is a life with continuity even when what is remembered is the experience of trauma—a breaking of the continuity of existence. At the core of memory rests a sadness—a sorrow that derives from an acknowledgement of a discrepancy between present and past and past and present.
     Memory is not history. History is facts, and facts are happenings with the life taken out of them. Historian Bernard Bailyn writes, “I am concerned with one of the central problems in the everyday practice of history that contemporary historians actually face none of whom, as far as I know, believe naively that historians can attain perfect objectivity; none of whom dream that a historian can contemplate the past from some immaculate perch, free from the prejudices, assumptions, and biases of one’s own time place, and personality; none of whom deny that facts are inert and meaningless until mobilized by an inquiring mind, and hence that all knowledge of the past is interpretive knowledge . . .”  History “sometimes an art,” attempts to offer a more accurate depiction of what might have occurred knowing well that such portrayal is always limited and incomplete. “We cannot experience what they experienced in the way they experienced it,” Bailyn writes. Ironically, in the absence of that aspect of life the facts lack meaning.  Facts are cold and sterile, but memory is hot and fertile. This contrast accounts for the vitality of psychotherapy. In psychotherapy one creates the story that works from the facts available; psychotherapy offers energy to the facts, but then it must be acknowledged that those facts are changed by their placement into the story and are no longer ‘facts’ but elements of the constructed narrative. Yes, the Holocaust happened, and we have the facts--dates, names and numbers that confirm it. But the holocaust possesses existential meaning in the stories that are its essence and that arise out of it: in the diary of Anne Frank, the memoirs of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi and in the memories and stories of others who survived it and left records of their struggles. History as memory is sad; facts in the absence of story are not history.  “But we must all still be story tellers, narrators—though of events lodged deep in their natural contexts.” Those contexts may be named but remain for the most part interpretable but resistant to any semblance of truth. History, like memory, embodies an essential sadness.

08 November 2018

Late and Soon

In a far away place held in by tall trees and still-thick brush in this late autumnal season. It is quiet here—I came for the quiet—and a chance to begin a reset and refocus in my life in retirement. I like the silence: except for the click of the computer keys under my fingers (and the inevitable back space as I make too many missteps) there is only the sound of my breathing and the gulp of my coffee. Coffee is another good reason to arise in the morning. I love my coffee in my mug: I feel grounded in the grounds.
            But the noise of the world assaults me here anyway. On theair plane into here and from 32,000 feet I hear that Trump has fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Not that I really care about the fate of Sessions, but I despair that Trump is carefully surrounding himself only with those who can be loyal to him. He is behaving like a dictator, like a King. I can hear him screaming odf his most recent enemy in the early has been revoked because he is critical of Trump and asks piercing questions to which neither Trump nor Sanders can adequately (or even honestly) reply. This morning early I read that Ruth Bader Ginsburg (one of the citadels protecting the democracy from the obsessive, narcissistic rule of Trump and his Republican lackeys). And I read of another mass shooting in California where now at least eleven have been murdered because our gun laws are protected by the paranoid NRA and its money-needy congress members.
     Why do I read the papers? But more, why even if I didn’t actively look too readily at the papers or their internet facsimile,  the bulletins and notifications would flash across the top of my screen while I was engaged in some more productive, even interesting project. I wonder why it is that I don’t just turn off the intrusions of the banners and notifications. Ah, but even if I did so, I know that I would still check regularly not just the political terrain but all other terrains as well: who won the Nobel Prize; where is Bob Dylan playing next; what did the reviewers think of this movie or play or performance; what does Paul Krugman today think of this or that. The news, etc. represents for me a distraction from the dreams of any night and the useful struggles of every day. So too does my email that I check too often (making by that statement a judgment, I know) to wonder if anyone is calling me out of the present situation.
            There is in these times too much to call me away from myself. I justify the escapes by insisting that these awarenesses are essential to my stances in the world. I use them to justify me. Unlike my friend I do not beat on doors nor lick envelopes or join organizing committees. I speak and I espouse belief, and I seek from the outside defense for what I feel on the inside. Perhaps it is this realization of my quietism that rationalizes my obsessions with the internet and news media. Or do I seek justifications for my current political positions with some outside supports, as if I am not sufficient in belief. I am reminded of Thomas More’s statement in the play A Man for All Seasons. He says, “It is not that I believe it but that believe it.” Perhaps it is that I am not so secure.
     The times offer me too many escapes from myself. I take too many available escapes from myself. Emerson reminds me that a man thinking is always alone, but thinking is often too hard. And it may be that I cannot bear so much aloneness and so I allow the world to avoid the sense of being alone. But isn’t what is wrong with the world that people would not be alone and enter thought. Here what I mean by thinking (by entrance into thought) is the active building of connections: the capacity to follow one statement with the next—with some presence of logical reasoning, a willingness to construct an argument linking one statement to a next  one. (It might be that most statements are arguments in some form? I recall a statement by Gregory Bateson who wondered if most conversations were not an attempt to avoid a fight?).
     I have some private business in which to engage, and I should instead direct my gazes there. 

01 November 2018

Novels with Fiction

Javier Cercas, in his book, The Impostor, writes “Fiction saves, reality kills.” D.W. Winnicott earlier had stated that the reality principle is always an insult! I read the news today. Oh boy!! I need some defenses. Yesterday I roamed about in a local bookstore searching for something to save me. The news is so horrific that I desperately sought some relief. I couldn’t bear the history or the political sections: they would keep me immersed in the horror. And for the present I had no interest in reading about someone else’s (usually tormented, miserable or glorious) life in either the memoir or biography genre category. The cookbooks were out: I stand with Barbra Streisand who moaned that every time Trump says something she feels compelled to eat pancakes. She complains she is putting on weight.
     Actually, of late I have been reading mostly novels, or as Javier Cercas says, “Novels with fiction.” All books, Cercas suggests, are novels: in ‘novels with fiction’ lies mixed with truth become truth, whereas in ‘novels without fiction’ there ought to be no lies and the narrative purports to be a mirror of reality. I have been considering what truth the novel with fiction arrives at by intertwining truth with lies. Obviously that truth must not inhere to any single statement, event, or character in the novel but must pertain to the fact of the novel as a whole. The books I have now read by Cercas, The Impostor, a novel without fiction, Outlaws and Soldiers of Salamis, each a novel with fiction, concern exactly the nature of truth. In postmodern fashion Cercas casts doubt on the possibility of ever realizing it, and maybe that idea represents the truth offered within the novel with fiction. Searching for truth, his protagonists/narrators are frustrated at every turn by the impossibility of realizing it: in the novels everything is contained within multiple narratives, and truth appears within the lies and deceptions and indeterminacies contained in each of the stories. There is always something that remains untold and hidden from view. Someone with a limited perspective and vocabulary: someone has to tell the story. Truth does not figure as some destination/goal in the novel with fiction since truth seems in these novels indeterminable. Acting as his own narrator in The Impostor, Cercas frustrates himself searching for the truth of Enric Marco. Cercas says he cannot write a novel about Enric Marco because Marco has already told so many lies that his story was already fiction. Any further lying would be merely a redundancy. In fact, the impostor Marco creates himself as would a novelist create a character. Novels with fiction suggest at least that truth does not exist. In this way fiction saves because it denies that Truth exists and that we are not privy to it.
     Cercas says that the result of mixing a truth with a lie is always a lie except in novels where it is a truth. Cercas does not say ‘leads’ to truth; rather that this mixture of truth and lie in a novel with fiction is a truth; that the amalgam of truth and lie becomes truth, Truth is an accurate report of what happened.  The identity of the lie in novels with fiction exists in the attribution of motive and meaning to the truth. But these are unknowable as psychoanalysis reminds us even to the one who acts. Cercas recounts the myth of Narcissus which then serves as his metaphor. Tiresias tells Narcissus’ mother, Liriope, that her son will live to see old age “if he does not know himself.” But one day Narcissus becomes captivated by his image reflected in the water and seeinghimself he knowshimself and he dies. Cercas suggests here that ‘seeing’ is ‘knowing’. I’m not sure. It is only a mirror image that Narcissus sees. But here we might argue that fiction saves because its lies mixed with truth protects us from knowing oneself. The truth of any novel with fiction is that we cannot know truth, and we require novels to remind us of this fact. We are saved by the fiction from Narcissus’ fate. Facts, I think are reality with the life taken out of them. Facts are meaningless outside of the context from which they arise. Neils Bohr said that science was about the result of experiment and not ultimate reality. The latter is always beyond us.