Memories of Rome

This is a somewhat edited version of an essay that was published in the official anthology of the 2016 Seoul International Writer’s Festival, held 25.9.-1.10. in Seoul, South Korea, under the theme The Forgotten and the Unforgettable. I cannot say that I am entirely happy with it, as most of the ideas sound to me now like marginal notes requiring elaboration and the injection of actual personal context — why were these thoughts important to me while I was writing the essay? Sadly, it’s impossible to delve into those issues here, as of now…

There is a parable Freud tells in Civilization and its Discontents, where he asks us to compare the mind with Rome — that is, to consider “a psychical entity (…) in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one”. This exercise in imagination, ironically enough, quickly leads to “things that are unimaginable and even absurd”, since “where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House”, and “on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of today (…) but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa”.

For Freud, this “phantasy” serves as an illustration of the complex nature of our minds, “that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish (…)” — but also, that this very truth is quite beyond our conscious conceptual capacities. Thus, it is in actuality a parable of the incomparability of the mind to the real world. Is it not strange, then, that he should have come up with it in the first place (as he himself notes, the city is “a priori unsuited for a comparison of this sort” because cities are constantly being destroyed and rebuilt)?

I suspect it happened because the metaphor of memory as a place is ubiquitous in the history of Western thought — and what a curious tradition it is! Its most developed form can be seen in the ancient arts of memory, the ars memoria, which directed centuries of pupils of rhetoric from the gymnasiums of Greece to the cathedral schools of Medieval Europe to build memory palaces in their mind, and to store there the various sententia, the wise words and arguments of the established auctores, to be used in the invention of future eloquence.

Through this schooling, literature came to be seen as a landscape of topoi, of “places” of argument, illustration, embellishment and admonition, but most of all a place to build in imitation and recognition of an ideal place, the harmonious world of true, beautiful and just ideas. Importantly, for the history of poetry, these places of memory are not words, but images: students were taught to encode teachings in the form of pictures.

My interest in the arts of memory stems from my own incapacity in the face of a very fundamental question: where do ideas come from? If I do not quite believe, with Dante, that the images of imagination land in our fantasy like a rain of self-guiding, spontaneous divine fire (as the poet describes in Canto 17 of the Purgatory) or subscribe to Plato’s theory that we somehow already know what to say — as in the dialogue Meno, where Socrates shows how an unschooled slave boy can be revealed to have knowledge of geometry — I do believe that the task of a poet is to be a kind of receptacle of anamnesis: to invent, often out of thin air, an originality that may be fictional but that is nevertheless necessary for human life.

If that sounds very lofty, let me assure you that I do not have in mind anything more spectacular than the observation which the philosopher Vilém Flusser once made, that the invention of writing was significant because it allowed for the emergence of historical consciousness, since in writing one can stop and review that which had been thought, what in oral discourse is always lost to time, and revise it.

For Flusser, it was this revisionary consciousness which facilitated the emergence of critical thought, which is another way of saying that writing something down becomes, at once, not just a matter of remembering, but of judging, and through the act of judgment, a matter of ethics, of values, of belief.

Such was, after all, the nature of anamnesis for Plato. To remember what each of us must already know — perfect knowledge — is to have access to the right kind of life and the right kind of action. From this point of view it is understandable that Plato criticized the poets. They were, after all, the guardians of the oral history of their people, the cultural knowledge that gave the Greeks of Athens of their values and identity. To put the matter more bluntly than is perhaps necessary, if these poets merely recited words that were dictated to them, copying the copies of copied words instead of intoning the truth about the real, what were they? Clearly, because they had not done the work of rational self-investigation, of having come to know oneself, they could not be trusted.

It is important to note that for Plato the Delphic dictum “to know oneself” meant, in one sense, that it was inconceivable for someone who had knowledge of ultimate virtue to act against such knowledge; this would merely show that he had not become aware of his true self. Crucially, for Plato, such knowledge can’t be or cannot have been forgotten, since each thing exists eternally and necessarily as its own idea. Therefore, the task of the true poet — the philosopher king — is to reveal what is eternal in the temporary, or infinite in the finite.

It is of course true that the history of Plato’s reception in the West (not to mention the notion that it is very hard to know what Plato “really” thought) is incredibly complex and my summary doesn’t really do any justice to it, but in the grand scheme of things it is perhaps at least somewhat safe to say that the legacy of Plato’s idealism in poetry is the story of romanticism: to see eternity in a flower, or feel the intimations of immortality in our earliest memories. In this tradition, the difference between forgetting and remembering appears to us as the difference between the mortal and the immortal, the transitory and the eternal, the accidental and the necessary, fancy and imagination. In a kind of vicious — or if you prefer, predestined — circle, the true romantic poet’s task is to always keep remembering who we are, since we, because we are mortal, always forget what is immortal within us.

But, if it is sometimes necessary to forget in order to remember, doesn’t that mean that the necessary must, for a time, appear accidental, the immortal mortal, the eternal ephemeral and fleeting — as if they could, somehow, occupy the same place at the same time, Nero’s Golden House where the Coliseum now stands? With this paradox, we come back not only to Freud’s Rome, but to my own question: is creation really a matter of producing, out of nothing, something?

To be quite honest, I don’t really know. Creation presents us with a problem which is, in essence, unsolvable, because both the matter of creation and the medium of its existence is time: the equally imaginary, though distinctly different substances of history and memory, the written and the spoken word.

For which one was first? Our memory of things or the facts themselves? The sign or the thing signified? The philosophers who tackle these problems have not helped us to live through them, nor have science or technology prepared us to face this question, which is at the root of our being, insofar as we, as human subjects, are first and foremost subjects of language, and come to be ourselves through the function of the sign which points in our direction. We are where we say “I am”, but by saying so do two completely different things: mean both ourselves and the sign we mean — history, the generality and totality of language as a system and a record of fact, and memory, the singular, particular experience of being the one to whom the facts are inflicted upon, but also the one who can, because he remembers, forget.

Indeed, if I am myself, if I recognize myself as the sum of my experiences, doesn’t that mean that I am myself only insofar as I remember myself? If that is so, how is the common experience of forgetting oneself possible? Each of us has felt it, the feeling of returning to what was most true, most original about us: “I remembered who I was”, we say. But we remember who we were only because we had been someone else first, as if the forgetting had been in some sense necessary.

The sinister aspect of this realisation is that although we have forgotten the truth, the truth does not forget about us. That is the reality of the speaking being: that we can forget the words, but the words do not forget about us; that the forgotten truth about ourselves is left operational as the compulsion to repeat the uncontrollable quirks and the inconceivable twitches, the implacable urges and the passionate gestures which govern our actions and inform our judgments as the unconscious which we do not remember, but which never forgets about us.

Now, if the unforgettable part of us is the unconscious, doesn’t that mean that the forgettable is the self, the ego, the perishable frontier of our existence? This would explain why the experience of modernity is often the painful nostalgia of a subject history or myth has failed to protect from this realization, or, as Giacomo Leopardi once noted, it is curious how nothing new can appear poetical to us, only the distant, the vague, the indefinite.

Leopardi’s nostalgia is not the longing for myth, but the nostalgia we feel toward our self — what William Wordsworth meant when he said that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity: that the art of memory and the art of invention are the same, that the self is both invented and remembered, and therefore poetics are not, for the poet, merely descriptive, but prescriptive, in the sense even of medicinal prescriptions, of dietetics, therapeutics, of a regimen for the exercising and developing of our self-creative abilities.

This task is not an easy one, as the poetry of Wordsworth, in spite of his theories, shows: his magnum opus, The Prelude, the autobiographical epic of his own growth into the poet he became, is not a masterpiece on account of the accuracy of its recollections but because of its many redactions, repressions, and revisions, the decades of difference between its versions, and the uses they had for the person we like to think was the same, but really wasn’t, just like Rome is not the Eternal City, but yet, and still: isn’t that the reason why we go there? Isn’t that the reason for our pilgrimage: to build, in the palace of our minds, out of memories which we have not made, but somehow find as given, an incomparable edifice for the restoration of the best version of ourselves? Isn’t that, in the end, why we read — to remember how to believe?

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