Remembering and Forgetting
From The Savage and Beautiful Country
By Alan McGlashan
Perhaps the two most moving chords that can be struck from the human heart are contained in these four words: I remember, I forget. For the unheard anthem of our whole existence is created out of the antiphonal movements of remembering and forgetting; not only the remembering and forgetting of individuals, but of races and cultures. Perfect balance between this pair of opposites is the mark of maturity.
Memory, the psychologists briskly tell us, has two main aspects. The first is Reproduction "not necessarily exact", as they concede with the naiveté which is the birthright of academic psychologists. The second is Recognition - that rainbow bridge flung in a magical instant between the present and the past. Recognition is the core of memory and of the mental life. Without it nothing could be experienced, neither love nor hate, hope nor fear, beauty nor ugliness; and a merely vegetative existence would remain. Hardly even this perhaps; for as the physical world is held in being by all-pervasive, unobtrusive force of friction, so without the act of remembering, the entire architecture of the psychic world might at once disintegrate.
Memory has other and more equivocal uses. It is, for instance, the guardian of self-love, the busy spider in the brain, interposing between past and present its invisible web, through which can only pass only selected and fondly edited items into the specious records of the conscious mind. Memory has its graces, too, storing sharp images of happiness and grief, laying a soft patina on the past, giving to the unripe act of living what autumn's gold gives to the mellowing peach.
But if remembering is a vital function, so also is forgetting. To forget is essential to sanity. Like a clumsy mother the huge inchoate body of past events, recalled in their entirety, would overlay the infant mental life and suffocate it. Even if this were not so, the loss would be immeasurable if all things were clearly remembered. History's canvas would have the maddening facial iteration of a mammoth end-of-term school photograph.
Since man must remember if he is not to become meaningless, and must forget if he is not to go mad, what shall he do? The dilemma, not logically resolvable, has been subtly resolved. Within man the past is perfectly contained - but he is allowed to live as if it were lost. He is tolerantly permitted to taste a naïve pride of discovery, a childish delight in new toys; as when William Harvey staggered the seventeenth century world by his discovery of the circulation of the blood - in which he had been anticipated by Hwang Ti, Emperor of China in 2650 BC, who quietly noted that "all the blood in the body is under the control of the heart . . . The blood current flows continuously in a circle and never stops". Or, to come nearer to our own time, when the recent discovery that the inner structure of the atom mirrors the structure of the universe is found to be one more illustration of the fact long known to mystical thought, that the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm, "as above, so below".
Mixed always with the joy of new discovery is a shadow of disquiet, a teasing half-recollection of things long past the secret penetration of the archaic into the present, of the timeless into the temporal. To the percepts of the conscious mind are added intimations from an unimaginable distant and forgotten past, still alive in the depths of the psyche. Nowhere is this more clear than in the magical quality of the enjoyment we derive from myth and parable and fairy tale. Good stories are rare, and these are the three forms in which they are most often contained. The best of them have indeed been told countless times through history and prehistory. This would be intolerable were it not for the grace of half - forgetting, as children do, which allows us to receive with an ever fresh delight tales first heard, perhaps, in some lake village of the Neolithic age.
The tragedy is that it is fatally easy to lose the precarious balance of these opposing and compensating functions of remembering and forgetting, whereby the imaginations of men are group and regrouped in endless intricate patterns of wisdom and folly, kindness and cruelty, insight and illusion. It is so hard to grasp the essence of this reciprocal movement.
In his book CUMAEAN GATES Jackson Knight has suggested that the essence of genius "consists in the power to find contacts further back in time beyond the reach of others, and to evoke latent stores of feeling and of meaning in the collective mind of the present". Silent, patient waiting for the truth, as Simone Weil has said, is an activity more intense than any searching.
What is needed is an extension of contemporary consciousness to include what can be defined as the translucent quality in all things; the quality by which an object or an event is seen not only as a thing in itself, but also as a membrane through which can dimly be discerned the foetal stirring of a different order of experience. The quality of translucence is the key; a golden key that is the careless playing of children, and the conscious instrument of geniuses.
To become aware of this translucent quality in all things is no vague romantic goal. It is a sharply defined, delicately poised effort of vision, a state of harmonious balance of forces in the Pythagorean sense, born of the union of many opposites: of remembering with forgetting, of thinking with feeling, of the temporal with the eternal, of the personal conscious perceptions with faint echoes from the remotest regions of the archaic psyche. It is the basis of all true science, the essence of ritual, the constant attribute of wisdom. It may be the nearest that human minds can reach to the meaning of meaning.