Towards the beginning of the British author Gabriel Josipovici’s latest book, Forgetting, he quotes Samuel Beckett commenting on the work of Proust: “Only he who remembers forgets.” A typically pithy statement from a master of the laconic, but what does it mean? On one level, it appears to be literally true. One can’t remember something without first forgetting it, in the same way that an object must first be lost in order to be found. But Beckett also seems to be suggesting something more profound. There are two types of memory at work in Proust. There is our “memory of facts and figures,” writes Josipovici, which can be retrieved with more or less conscious effort, and then there is the involuntary memory “which [lies] dormant for long periods but which may be activated at any time by a sound, a taste, an unexpected movement.” It’s a memory mysteriously “lodged” in our bodies, seemingly forgotten by our conscious minds. Until, in an instant, it’s recovered without us having been quite aware of its loss in the first place. And so the past is suddenly resurrected within us, with more clarity and vigor than the original experience. The recollection of “facts and figures,” by contrast, tends to obscure such lucid awareness. Hence, “only he who remembers forgets.”
One problem, though: Beckett never actually wrote those words. As Josipovici clarifies in footnotes: “At least that’s how I remembered it. On checking, I have found only this: ‘The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.’” Gnomic, to be sure, but it doesn’t have quite the punch of Josipovici’s misquote. This innocent mistake typifies the entire book: a half-remembered quote about the nature of memory, which, by virtue of being half-forgotten, clarifies itself and moves toward the pith of the original. Forgetting is about this double movement of memory, of simultaneous recovery and loss, both social and personal.
Like all of Josipovici’s books, fiction or nonfiction, Forgetting runs along the mysterious seam where the ultra-personal binds itself to the universal. While the question of memory provides a set of conceptual or philosophical issues to work through—“how to lay the past to rest; what constitutes a person; whether it’s possible to know what one feels, and so on”—it is too intimate a human experience to remain simply a conceptual puzzle. Josipovici writes that, as he grows older, he has found himself “comforting friends whose spouses or parents [have] succumbed to Alzheimer’s or dementia, and watching the effects of this disease on families and individuals.” The ravages of this and other “memory” diseases Josipovici writes about provide a point of contact between seemingly abstract philosophical issues and the everyday suffering of our intimates. Alzheimer’s wrecks not just the body, but the identity. The loss of specific memories carries with it an almost dehumanizing aspect. Josipovici quotes Emerson as writing that, without memory, “all life and thought were an unrelated succession. . . . Memory holds together past and present . . . and gives continuity and dignity to human life. It holds us to our family, to our friends. Hereby a home is possible, hereby only a new fact has value.”
And while that certainly seems true, Josipovici also shows us the terrible aspect of being unable to forget, or of remembering what one doesn’t wish to. Examples abound, but his most moving anecdote is the description of Oliver Sacks’s now famous L-DOPA experiments and the temporary recovery of function and memory for patients who had been preserved in catatonia for decades. To wake up suddenly and remember that you’d lost nearly thirty years of your life is as terrifying a prospect, perhaps even more so, than permanent memory loss. So it proved for the patient “Rosie R.” Josipovici writes that “the fear of forgetting, then, and the fear of remembering are two sides of the same coin. After a certain age all of us in the West are terrified of forgetting who we are, forgetting the past that has made us who we are. But Rosie R. could not bear to remember because most of her life would then be revealed to be a blank, and she preferred to revert to this blankness for the remainder of her life.”
These two competing pulls of memory are also manifest in the public sphere. The title of the third chapter, “Remember Kosovo! Remember Auschwitz!,” indicates the different directions in which the cultivation of public memory can lead us. “Politics founded on myth and simplification, on a binary opposition between black and white, bad and good, perpetrators and victims is a dangerous game that nearly always ends badly,” Josipovici warns. But there’s an older tradition he describes, which instead of merely transforming terror and pity into political injunctions also seeks to ritualize both suffering and memory:
There are special days in which [the dead] are remembered by fresh rituals enacted at their tombs, by bringing flowers or a ritual meal on the anniversary of their death, and so on. Here too what we witness is the work of cultural memory. And the important thing is that it allows the living to find peace and release from the torments of remembering for the rest of the year. As Nietzsche would say, it allows the survivors to sleep in between the ceremonies, and allows the dead to become benign presences rather than vengeful ghosts. Only he who forgets remembers, and older cultures devised rituals of remembrance that allowed us to forget.
Friedrich Schlegel wrote that the works of the ancients have turned into fragments, while the works of the moderns are fragmented from the outset. The strength of Josipovici’s own writing is his sensitivity to the moral and aesthetic possibilities inherent in both forms of loss and recollection. In Forgetting, Josipovici brings his erudition and wise sympathies to bear on themes which he’s touched on in previous books—mourning in Hamlet, the embodiment of memory in Proust—but never so directly or in such condensed form. To call it a “success” would be praise too simple for such a rich work. It is a book to be remembered and re-remembered.