Forsake, forswear, furlough

Gabriel Josipovici, Forgetting

Carcanet Press / Little Island Press, 160pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781784108908

reviewed by Jack Solloway

Who was the third man on the moon? Google it. Where’s the nearest cashpoint? Google it. Our reliance on the internet has turned the search engine into a verb for artificial recall. Whenever memory fails us, we turn to our keyboards and smartphones for answers. One might go so far as to say, with less exaggeration than is comfortable, that we have forgotten what it means to forget.

In a new collection of essays, Gabriel Josipovici excels in navigating the murky, Lethe-like waters of personal and cultural memory. As its title, Forgetting, suggests – or For-getting as it appears on the cover – the book explores the fickle business of retrieving the past (literally as something ‘for want of being got’), and in particular how we choose to relive and retell it. This is not a book of misplaced glasses, attic junk and odd socks. Josipovici is less interested in casual absent-mindedness than he is in forgetting as an implied politics of storytelling, of Homer’s Odyssey, Passover and the 9/11 Freedom Tower.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a novelist and literary critic, Josipovici is anti-total recall and relatively pro-forgetting. ‘Today, we are terrified of forgetting,’ he writes, not without admonishment. ‘Suddenly, it seems, Alzheimer’s is all around us.’ While some paranoia is probably justified (dementia cases are predicted to double in the next 20 years), Josipovici writes redeemingly of forgetting’s more moderate qualities as well as the dextrousness it can sometimes afford. If we believe, as Emerson did, that ‘all life and thought were unrelated succession without memory’, Forgetting reminds us that there’s value in being selective about what we remember when.

Imagine being unable to forget anything at all, says Josipovici. The hypothetical question is a useful one. How would we manage the sensory overload? It’s the mental equivalent of whataboutism: every detail chronically important as the last, making context impossible. We would become like Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’, unable to recognise a face from its ever-changing, constituent parts: ‘His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them [. . .] It was very difficult for him to sleep.’ There are fascinating, real-life examples of this restless condition, too, which demonstrate the importance of having a sieve-shaped brain, like the case of the Moscow journalist from AR Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist, who has seemingly the exact same condition as Funes from Borges’s short story.

A healthy memory, then, is a selective one. Even in lapses of memory – during dementia, as unlikely as it sounds – we stumble upon creativity. Ravel’s Boléro, with its repetitive, lulling refrain, is said to be inspired by the musician’s living with Alzheimer’s. Josipovici is unwaveringly attentive to lived experience and its priorities. He rarely escapes into the niche of either literary criticism, neurology, memoir or philosophy, but rallies all four under the urgency of his theme. In service of his argument – that writing is an injunction to remember – he invokes the breadth of the Western canon; this comprehensive excavation, from Beowulf to The Waste Land, is a pleasure to read.

And its themes are especially urgent. ‘Every poem an epitaph,’ Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’ in 1942. To which Josipovici responds: every epitaph a call to action. In Forgetting, he warns us against the demagogic imperative ‘Never Forget’ often weaponised by strongmen who fashion a shiv from the broken images of war, crisis and genocide. Atrocity begets atrocity: ‘Remember Bloody Sunday!’ begat the Troubles; ‘Remember Kosovo!’ begat Serbian nationalism. The list goes on:

‘Anyone with an interest in the Middle East and in the fate of Israel among its Arab neighbours will recall the way in which Begin and the Israeli right have used the injunction not to forget the Holocaust as a way of justifying aggression and warding off the moral indignation of the world at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.’

Neither is the call to ‘Remember X!’ a far cry from the injunction to Make America Great Again, which has always provoked the question: ‘great again’ for whom? This is not to say that shared remembrance on even a national scale should be abandoned. Only that we should be attentive to the kinds of memory-work that we’re being asked to do and why we’re being asked to do it.

Cultural memory remains a fraught topic and has supplied ample munition for many a Good Morning Britain-style shit-flinging contest between conservatives and progressives in the media. That we now see rubber bullets and riot shields on our screens should come as no surprise. Disagreements over how we invoke the past, whether on television or social media, touch on tribally guarded issues such as national identity, colonialism, patriotism, trade unions, and monuments in public spaces. Thankfully, Forgetting is a welcome reprieve from partisan hooliganism and the so-called culture war, quietly damning of the likes of Piers Morgan and his goading over the relative sainthood (or villainy) of Winston Churchill.

The writer-critic Josipovici – born to Egyptian-Jewish parents in Nazi-occupied France – is at his best when interrogating how memory behaves collectively in moments of shift in the cultural landscape. His writing in praise of reticence and the survivor’s right to forget is particularly excellent, ever sensitive to the spectrum that exists between ostensibly binary extremes (remembering/forgetting, sleep/wakefulness, repression/ liberty). In an essay titled ‘Nietzsche and the Need to Sleep’, he uses sleep as a metaphor for how he believes we should attend personal and cultural memory: ‘In the end we have to be awake to the demands of the present as of the past and to be prepared to change our minds, always.’ Though he stops short of the term, Josipovici advocates ‘wokeness’ all but in name, suggesting that ‘staying woke’ might involve laying the past to rest so that we can be more attentive to the present.

This is already happening in America. Confederate statues are being taken down as sites of racial tension. The Governor of Virginia recently ordered the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue from Richmond’s Monument Avenue. It’s not entirely clear how this differs from the reparatory demands of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, in the UK and elsewhere, which urges the removal of statues commemorating the British imperialist and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes. His statue remains part of the architecture at Oriel College, Oxford, despite widespread but comparatively short-lived protest at the (majority white) university. But the tide is turning here too. As I write this review, a statue of the slaver Edward Colston has been toppled by protesters and thrown into the water in Bristol Harbour. By Josipovici’s standard, if we are truly awake to the demands of the present, we must ask what purpose such a statue serves as an active symbol of an institution, rather than, say, as an exhibit in a museum.

Josipovici is far more practical about the problems of history than the Telegraph ever thought possible. ‘The past should be plundered for our needs,’ he writes (a deliberately caustic metaphor perhaps), ‘not worshipped as a monument.’ He condemns lifeless historicism, preferring instead what he calls the ‘living past’, which takes many different forms but essentially refers to the way we carry history with us, publicly and privately, through shared ritual. The Jewish tradition of Passover is a particularly good example of this, says Josipovici, because the family seder meal is a ‘playful re-enactment rather than a simple injunction to remember’. Within it, there is room for paraphrase, flexibility and accommodation of changing attitudes. A monument, on the other hand, is set in stone. At worst, it tells us what to think. So, ‘if it causes offence to some and is worthless as art, why not do away with it?’

Apparently, the point is moot. For fear of inciting a new age of iconoclasm – another Reformation of ransacking and cultural vandalism – Josipovici stops short of calling for any such thing. Like Horatio of Hamlet’s ghost, he is cautious of hauntings and past violence as a harbinger of tragedy. If Josipovici had his way, one feels the statues may never have existed in the first place. He advocates instead for commemorating the past without recourse to symbols, and points to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a model. The memorial’s concrete columns rise out of sunken ground to form a maze around the visitor. The effect is bewildering and creates a permeable installation between its contemplative interior and the surrounding public space. Unfortunately, this permeable grey area has given rise to a trend of Instagrammers taking ‘tasteful’ photos at the memorial, posing against the edgy, unmarked Brutalist-looking blocks, some of which have ended up as backdrops to Tinder profiles.

Given the state of the world, one wonders whether Forgetting has come to reasonable conclusions at an unreasonable time, that concessions are now too late. Josipovici is not afraid of making political statements. He rightly does so on the inappropriateness of the 9/11 Memorial’s inscription: instead of honouring the dead without pushing a singular narrative, it aligns itself with the divisive rhetoric of Bush’s freedom crusade. Josipovici’s Rhodes essay, however, contains what feels like an oversight: that the survivor’s right to forget, so well argued in the collection, is not given the same consideration in public spaces. Unlike Freud, Josipovici does not believe that psychic repression is necessarily a bad thing, that there may be many reasons for it, dignity among them. It’s well overdue to say that the same dignity should be afforded to the Black Lives Matter movement and that our colonial past should undergo a proportionate repression to redress the disproportionate and violent kind inflicted on black bodies here and in the US.

The irony of writing a book about forgetting is not lost on Josipovici. (Books, like museums, are promises to remember the past rather than leave it behind.) So of course we raise an eyebrow at a gnomic quote, attributed to Beckett, that espouses its importance. ‘Only he who forgets remembers’: so the paradox goes. Best read in the voice of a Hollywood sensei, this sage-sounding aphorism hardly seems out of place alongside more suspect inspo-quotes like ‘Not all those who wander are lost’ or ‘Success is failure turned inside out’. It would be easy to dismiss what feels like a truism as yet another example of this sort of sleight of hand. (Isn’t truth just deception turned inside out, and vice versa? And deception truth with a little hat on?).

As it happens, Josipovici’s Beckett quote is misremembered. He footnotes the original, which, ironically, says just as much but turns out to be far less memorable in comparison. Its new author comes off well for exposing his own gaffe (‘This must be the only occasion,’ says Josipovici, ‘when I find myself writing more pithily than the master of pith’). Elsewhere, his fascination between memory, story and storyteller is explored in his polyphonic novel of three voices, plots and timescales, The Cemetery in Barnes, which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction in 2018 and made the Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist last year.

There are other instances, too, where we feel that the Forgetting author is wary of becoming the forgetting author. Two biographical ‘Interludes’ highlight the essayist’s tango with his own inadvertence. The first is plagued by an annoying tic (‘I recall, or I think I recall’) which hedges its point home in an otherwise moving account from Josipovici’s adolescence, about his experience immigrating and the lengths we sometimes go to rewrite our personal history. The second, a reprint from his Heart’s Wings and Other Stories collection, describes the narrator’s shock at misreading a photograph. The shock is ours, too, as the twist brilliantly demonstrates the haphazardness of memory, its illusiveness as the parent of assumption, and its often involuntary, accidental nature.

Forbear, forbid, foreclose. Forgive, forgo, forlorn. Forsake, forswear, furlough. Etymology is just another way of describing a word’s forgotten meaning, and a quick search for words that share the same root as forgetting tells a similar story of promise, want and bereavement that we see in the news cycle. There’s no doubt that Forgetting is second to none on the demands of the present when it comes to our cultural memory. Josipovici writes generously, with deep consideration and empathy, on the subject and has written an enlightening collection that serves as both consolation and a warning during this time of crisis. His final essay is on ‘Letting Go’ – though for many, it is increasingly difficult to do so, as consolation gives way to something more vehement.

Jack Solloway is a writer and critic from the West Midlands living in London. He is Online Editor at The London Magazine and former Assistant Editor of Voice Magazine. His writing has appeared in the TLS and The Times, among others.