Thursday, September 22, 2011

pause to remember = pause to reflect?

On September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Yahoo posted a button on the left side of their home page which said the following: PAUSE TO REFLECT

I was curious so I clicked on the button. The entire page slowly faded away and, in its place, a picture of the Twin Towers peeking out of a sea of clouds appeared. In the middle of the image was another statement: WE PAUSE TO REMEMBER. A black bar slowly glided horizontally beneath those words, measuring the time a viewer was meant to be quiet and remember/reflect.

I liked the simplicity of the sentiment and the uncluttered image and the perspective of the towers and nothing else from high above... a place of perspective that we don't get to have in our lives. Yet, I found myself unable to sit and calmly remember, because I was struck by the difference in language -- the call to reflect and then the announcement of remembering. Which was it? Was I just to remember the events of 9/11 or was I to reflect upon them? And which was more important?

Remembering is pure. That is not to suggest that our memories do not cloud and distort the past, that we do not shape what happened to fit particular images of ourselves or others... but that there is an attempt to recreate something just as it was. For some reason when I first thought of remembering, I did not think of myself or other people, but of birds. It would be reasonable to assume that birds must do a lot of remembering, considering their need to migrate incredibly long distances within very specific windows of time. However, this notion is mistaken. As it turns out, migration has nothing to do with remembering or learning. There is nothing to "remember," as birds are never taught the migratory pathways. "It is a comfortable myth that experienced elders lead the flocks of migrating birds south -- for curlews, as for most species, the novices are on their own," (14) writes Scott Weidensaul in Living On the Wind. But even Charles Darwin made the mistake of believing that birds migrated through the use of memory. While studying pigeons in order to understand natural selection, Darwin "wondered if crated birds, hauled far from their lofts and released, somehow memorized the twists and turns in the road as they felt them, replaying and reversing this memory to find their way home." (Weidensaul, 60) But, Darwin turned out to be wrong... and yet the birds' abilities weren't entirely instinctive either.
The truth is far more wonderful than that, although after half a century of research we have glimpsed only a piece of the puzzle. We do know that they can track the sun, the moon, and the stars, compensating for their apparent movement to use them as compasses. But birds can also apparently perceive a host of sensations that are beyond our unaided senses -- weak magnetic fields, faint odors, polarized light, barometric pressure, even extraordinary low-frequency sound waves that echo halfway around the world. Combined with the genetically programmed urge to head in a certain direction at a certain time of year, these clues allow birds to cross continents, oceans, hemispheres. (Weindensaul, 58)

So it turns out that birds are half robots, half miniature scientists, but that they save their memory for other things rather than their migratory routes. I wonder what those things might be.

Remembering seems to involve description, rather then analysis. If I say that I remember the day that my father came to visit me in nursery school, that suggests that I can describe to you what happened, what things looked like, perhaps even what I was wearing. That means, too, that I can describe the emotional experience... how after we drew a picture together of the double rainbow we had seen in Puerto Rico on a recent vacation, it came time for my father (and all the visiting fathers) to leave while I had to remain in school for the rest of the day. And I would be able to tell you that I felt a deep and uncharacteristic sense of abandonment, surprising my highly independent four-year old self. In my memory, I stand outside watching my father walk away. My hand is still open, still feeling his large, strong hand which had moments before held mine. I stand there for a long time and I am outside completely alone. The world feels silent. There is no sound in my memory, not even the sound of a goodbye. This is where the memory ends.

But is this what really happened? It doesn't seem possible or logical that the nursery school would have allowed one little four-year old to go outside and then stay there by herself unmonitored. Can I trust what I remember? Is memory accurate and, if not, then what is happening?

Phenomenology deals with this problem all the time. Phenomenologists attempt to assign a certain objectivity to subjective events -- those events of conscious experience involving phenomena. Gaston Bachelard addressed such philosophical questions, especially as related to the lifeworld, in his book The Poetics of Space. The lifeworld is the one's own personal horizon of experience, the world in which you and only you live, and thereby in which objects, space, and time take on particular and specific meanings according to your individual perception (a perception which is formed by past experience, among other things.) According to Bachelard, memory is not really about description at all:
For the real houses of memory, the houses to which we return in our dreams, the houses that are rich in unalterable oneirism, do not readily lend themselves to description. To describe them would be like showing them to visitors. We can perhaps tell everything about the present, but about the past! The first, the oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows. For it belongs to the literature of depth, that is, to poetry, and not to the fluent type of literature that, in order to analyze intimacy, needs other people's stories. All I ought to say about my childhood home is just barely enough to place me, myself, in an oneiric situation, to set me on the threshold of a day-dream in which I shall find repose in the past. Then I may hope that my page will possess a sonority that will ring true -- a voice so remote within me, that it will be the voice we all hear when we listen as far back as memory reaches, on the very limits of memory, beyond memory perhaps, in the field of the immemorial. All we communicate to others is an orientation towards what is secret without ever being able to tell the secret objectively. (Bachelard, 13)
Thus, I orient you towards the secret of my past, the secret of that moment when my father had to go back to work and leave me to my nursery school happenings... but I don't take you into my own daydream or into the depths of why this particular memory strikes me and strikes me as so oddly painful rather than comforting.

Memory, however inaccurate or secretive, seems selective. Why does my memory of the nursery school visit stop with me outside the school? Most likely because all that followed is not as significant, somehow, not as fundamental a part of my lifeworld. If I were to tell you of my memory of 9/11, I would tell you of going to my first class (I was a graduate student at the time), then hearing murmurs in the hallway, and finally being released, and then sitting and staring at the event replay itself on television over and over again. I don't remember how I got home that day. I don't remember going to sleep. Or eating. Or doing anything but those two things... going to class and watching TV.

Bachelard cites the Journals of Henry David Thoreau to bring home the way in which we 'nest' in memories by comparing the return home of a family to the homesteading of a woodpecker turning a tree into his own:
It is as when a family, your neighbors, return to an empty house after a long absence, and you hear the cheerful hum of voices and the laughter of children, and see the smoke from the kitchen fire. The doors are thrown open, and children go screaming through the hall. So the flicker dashes through the aisles of the grove, throws up a window here and cackles out it, and then there, airing the house. It makes its voice ring up-stairs and down-stairs, and so, as it were, fits it for its habitation and ours, and takes possession. (Thoreau, March 17, 1858)
An interesting parallel, but the 'possession' by the human family involves reincarnating memories through sound and action. Coming home or recreating home involves memory because it is a space only known by remembering. Try to remember the place where you grew up without thinking about a single thing that happened there. Pretty hard, right?

Remembering is indeed a sort of day-dream. Sometimes the 'secret' of our oneiric world is its connection to a kind of infinite expansiveness that always lies outside of us. Bachelard suggests that even we we are not at the sea or in the forest,
merely through memory, we can recapture, by means of meditation, the resonances of this contemplation of grandeur. But is this really memory? [Through this process of magnifying our own being, we find that] ...immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. (Bachelard, 183-184)
For example, one only needs to enter a forest once and not very far to sense its grandeur... and to sense the immensity of all forests... and then to recall it in memory as something intense and expansive, rather than objective or capable of being objectively expressed. So, the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve writes of the forest:
Pious forest, shattered forest, where the dead are left lying
Infinitely closed, dense with pinkish straight old stems
Infinitely serried, older and grayed
On the vast, deep, mossy bed, a velvet cry.
This is not description, but an expression of how the forest is both in and outside of ourselves. And a memory of it involves other layers of memory of the human condition. In the reverse, a memory of a relationship winds up referencing the immensity and infinite light of the stars in the sky.
When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And he loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

W. B. Yeats
What about history, the remembering that societies do collectively? Once we thought it involved tracing a line objectively through the past, or, as Foucault put it, 'memorizing the monuments of the past and transforming them into documents,' but now we realize that history has been shaped, corrupted, manipulated, and is itself full of ruptures and discontinuities. And history is always being read and rewritten. For instance, if one historian thinks that important political leaders are the most influential force in our world, he may sketch out the past through such a lens. But another historian may look at marginality -- the history of illness, the experience of those under colonial rule, the lives of women in a patriarchal society. Each approach will reveal a different thread about us as people. But no thread alone will be honest or true.

History is a cross between remembering and reflecting because it involves both 'hard' facts about the past and the analytical consideration that marks reflection. Reflection, as opposed to the idea of remembering, is more about the present than the past. Or rather it is about how to incorporate the past into the present. Was the moment when Christo wrapped the Reichstag a moment of remembering... or reflection?

What happens when we begin to reflect? The mistakes of the past become more evident. If you were a woman giving birth between 1950 and 1970, you would have experienced the delivery without much control over decisions being made and probably going through things while being isolated from your partner and family. During this time, "American doctors turned birth into a standardized form of industrial production in which women were, as one patient wrote, 'herded like sheep through an obstetrical assembly line...'" (Leslie Kanes Weisman, Discrimination by Design, 1994, p. 55) Upon reflection, this approach began to seem relatively barbaric and quite impersonal. Those who didn't believe that women should be treated so procedurally began to imagine and then establish birth centers in which childbirth is returned to its place as part of joyous celebration and essential to the human life-cycle. These centers house prenatal classrooms and exercise rooms, rest spaces, and libraries, so that by the time a woman comes to give birth there, the place is already like a second home.

I used to ask my students to reflect upon their own work and learning. They always groaned at first, but then again, 9th graders groan at anything. I often felt, though, that the discussions that evolved out of a reflective writing exercise were more valuable than whatever we had done in the first place. For example, after reading Black Boy, my students last year created 'Injustice Projects.' As a model, we used the Falling Whistles campaign, more specifically the little booklet of words and images that comes when you order one of the whistles. The projects the students created blew me away, but it was the reflective piece that ultimately moved me quite profoundly. After thinking about how the project affected them, what they learned, what they saw from others, etc., the students gave more than just stereotypical responses such as 'My eyes were opened.' Rather than saying what they thought they were supposed to say, they turned inward and thought about what they wanted to say... about what actually held meaning for them. Reflection is a turning inward and then projecting this inwardness outward, much like Bachelard's notion of memory and immensity. It is a chance to connect your own experience to something greater or to recognize meaning that may have evolved and changed from the time that the initial experience took place.

What is it called when we remember something traumatic? Are we inherently reflecting, or do we need to be called to reflection? Is it possible for you or me to recall 9/11 without reflecting? At the end of Beatrice and Virgil, a novel that indirectly addresses the Holocaust and directly addresses how to integrate that which we should 'never forget' into our lives, the main character, Henry, writes a short text that cannot be categorized as fiction, memoir, or short story. It is a book of games, but the 'games' presented on each page quite disturb as they are the actual situations that people in the Holocaust had to face. For example, Game Number Five:

The order comes at gunpoint:
you and your family and all the people around you
must strip naked.
You are with your seventy-eight-year-old father,
your sixty-eight-year-old mother,
your spouse, your sister, a cousin,
and your three children,
aged fifteen, twelve and eight.
After you have finished undressing,
where do you look?

A lot of readers of this novel were disgusted by the particular ending. One reviewer said he felt "manipulated and conned." Another: "Ending a book with graphic scenes of violence doesn't really work because you would need to invent a whole new language to properly describe the Holocaust." A third: "After I finished the book, I was so angry and hated the ending so much..." Finally: "The 'short story' at the end cheapened the story and the two main characters."

Martel has spoken about how he feels very strongly that art must express the past or that past is doomed not to take an important place in human memory. But how does one express the inexpressible? Perhaps more by replicating the horror, the anger, the cheapening of lives, the violence, the manipulation, the injustice of the event itself. To me, it seems that Martel was highly successful in that aim. The 'games' that end the novel are, indeed, highly upsetting. And they feel disgustingly inappropriate and to deal absurdly with human suffering. But isn't that, in fact, a highly effective form of reflection? The Holocaust was, in a tragic way, completely absurd and incessantly shocking. Doesn't Martel's ending, in some way, echo this aspect? Would he have done better to give us different accounts of personal Holocaust experiences? Would this have helped us to reflect? Would our emotions have been so charged... when indeed, they should be?

I'm not sure any of us knows how to 'properly' reflect upon the Holocaust... or 9/11. I am not sure we even know how to remember it in the most meaningful or the most accurate way. Remembering and reflection are, in my opinion, fundamentally different acts, which in some ways begin to overlap. One thought that I had through the writing of this entry was that perhaps reflection is a more individual activity, and remembrance a more communal one. Thus, the call to reflect, but the statement that "We" pause to remember. If that is true, then each of us has the responsibility to reflect because it will contribute to a joint remembrance. Furthermore, that brings the individual, the personal, and the intimate into the immensity and overwhelming nature of large-scale tragedy. Perhaps it was not a mistake of Yahoo to ask us to do both. Perhaps both are always necessary.

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