Sunday, April 22, 2012

(Sometimes) Forget

I've been talking to first-graders at my son's elementary school this month, about maps and the Titanic (we did a Titanic Reference Map in 1998), and what I do when I make maps. I learned back in preschool that getting too technical at this age just loses them, so I tried to use concrete examples instead of "the real words." This process can be really illuminating to me as well, opening up the true meaning of concepts I've learned to gloss over.

"Generalization" for example. The Titanic Reference Map includes deck plans of the ship, color coded by broad usage: 1st class cabins and common areas, same for 2nd class and 3rd class; crew quarters and utility...

I traced these shapes from deck plans published as part of the investigations into the disaster, plans that include placement of bathroom fixtures, dining room tables, etc. Part of my job, then, was simplification, a kind of generalization. A kind of selective forgetting.

I grew up with the idea that it was good to remember as much as possible, that it was sad that we had forgotten so much, that so much history had been lost. This idea is deeply embedded in my values. And I'm coming to realize that it's not entirely true.

What is the value in forgetting? Well, for one things, it means we have some real say in the stories we retell. If there had been strong documentary evidence (including video interviews and reams of contemporary commentary), about King Lir, would Shakespeare have been as free to construct his narrative around his own deep understanding of human relationships? And what about his "history plays," where there was more documentary evidence available to him... Shakespeare lived in a world where the fictionalization of even relatively contemporary stories was the norm, but he arrived on the cusp of an age—our age—where people paid more attention to the lines between fiction and non-fiction, where the rules around non-fiction became stricter, and where people took documentary non-fiction more seriously as a gauge of how to live in the "real world."

I've been intrigued, in my limited recent reading into North American Indian history (as it is has been reconstructed), how quickly the "historically accurate" truths of peoples' origins fade into legend: the Cahokia culture had collapsed less than two centuries before Columbus, but by the time of European contact with the Indians of the area in the 17th century, the mound-makers were people of myth. By contrast, we know the names of architects who built European monuments 2000 years old, let alone the kings who ordered them built.

Is there advantage in literate memory? Well, we certainly think so. For one thing, it's easier to prevent repeats of long-term disastrous behavior. As George Santayana famously wrote,
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (Age of Reason, 1905)
And yet, there is such a thing as too much retention. Consider the Incas, who maintained their dead kings and all their descendants as living royal households. By the time of Pizarro's appearance on the scene, there had been at least 11 Inca kings, and the weight of all those monarchs households being maintained was becoming a drag on the economy. This weight may have contributed to the Inca civil war that had just been won by Atahualpa at the time of Pizarro's appearance, which had generally weakened the empire, helping make Pizarro's conquest possible.

And what of our personal knowledge? I have every composition I ever wrote on a computer—every sketch, every half-baked idea, every email—somewhere on a disc or my hard-drive. Everything. I will never ever read all these things. In fact, I will probably read almost none of them again.

When I was in high school, I started a journal/notebook, which I kept up, off and on, for ten years. Will I ever profit from looking through all those pages of stuff? I mean, it might be fun, but perhaps a small selection of those 20-odd volumes might be of some interest. I think I was inspired by things like Coleridge's notebooks, which are treasures, scrupulously edited and notated. But Coleridge didn't write them thinking they were going to to be looked at and researched and (for God's sake) published in a scholarly edition 200 years on. They were a working tool, and if they had stopped being useful, if they had in fact become a drag upon his work, I suspect they would have been given the heave-ho.

We mourn the loss of the library of Alexandria. But have we gone too far the other direction? Do we remember too much? Are we headed towards a future where, like the angels in John Crowley's Great Work of Time, we long to be able to forget, to not have been made to remember?

Where is the balance? Is there a principle that can be invoked? What should we remember, and what should we allow to be forgotten?

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