Amnesia Ninotchka Rosca
The world of healing pays scant attention to a different type of amnesia—that which comes from a surfeit of memory, in contrast to the common medical definition of the disorder as a loss of what should be remembered. In the amnesia of a surfeit of memory, thought processes are truncated, warped, aborted, so that one plus one never becomes two but rather, diverted from the path of completion by counterpropositions, arguments, labels, myths, artifice, and polemics, one plus one remains forever one plus one …
Thus, 23 years after his overthrow and on the 92nd anniversary of his birth, the dictator’s widow is treated to a tribute, whereby those in charge of codifying and preserving the best of the national experience labor mightily to produce a few minutes of “fabulousness.” Opera singers strain their larynxes, prima ballerinas their ankles, while composers wring the last note of bathos from their storehouse of musical notes—so that this “fabulousness” can overlay the odor of blood, sweat, and decayed flesh; the echo of moans of pain and outraged screams, the redolence of a thousand pairs of shoes assaulted by mold. The dead are thereby not simply forgotten but removed from having existed, despite the list of names chiseled into the stone of a shrine of “martyrs,” alongside the statue of a goddess who, if logic were to be followed, should have been faulted for having allowed the travesty to occur in the first place, rather than praised for a victory wrestled from 25 years of struggle. It is a denial of people’s ability to transform their own social environment by attributing their success to some mysterious higher power, preferably imported. The subtext is the preservation of a people’s reliance on authority and of a people’s belief in their powerlessness.
A dictator’s overthrow, it would seem, had wrought an end to all that, the judgment already chiseled in stone, but to a people and a nation constructed from a series of historical accidents and the desires of Others, a summing up does not sum up; the past is always malleable, and neither truth nor lie is an absolute. To such a people, amnesia is not a state of being; it is a willful act of conciliatory remembering, of preferring an artificial memory of pleasantness, because it is unpleasant to recall the unpleasant and easier to pretend that life experience does not provide lessons. Besides which, lessons are only derived from summings-up, or what Einstein defined as the schematic representation of experience. The amnesiac cannot make the leap from perceptual to cognitive knowledge.
This willful substitution of a simulation for a reality comes easily to a people who have forgotten even the name of their favorite and most common dish, even at the instant of their chewing it, this repast of pork chunks and chicken pieces simmered slowly in a broth of soy sauce and vinegar, with a concoction of spices. What is it called, what is its name? No one remembers, and is reduced to referring to it by the Mexican term adobo, which in truth is as far from the dish as can be. If food itself loses its designation, then there is nothing out of kilter in towns, villages, streets changing names, or languages altering in accordance with every change in ruler. This is not a frailty but a virtue; it is celebrated as an infinite capacity for adaptation. Hence, in Japan, the women acquire local names and wear kimonos; in Saudi Arabia, they don the hijab, while in Europe, their children acquire hazel and blue eyes and light skins. The men serve under flags of every sea-faring country in the world, spending their adulthood in unbounded oceans, their moorings reduced to portable memories: photographs of wives, children, parents, a song or two … This malleability is said to be what enables them to survive, even in the most perilous of the 198 “host” countries to which globalization takes them, chattering in Italian on the piazza where once a week, they gather to cease soul-shifting just long enough to enable their strangeness to surface and morph into familiarity by virtue of numbers.
Soul-shifting from a surfeit of memory is peculiar to a constructed people who hold in their psyche several complete and competing operating systems, their worldviews swinging from one to the other to ensure survival. A Japanese is; an American is; and a Frenchman is French … A constructed people, on the other hand, is always something more, over and beyond the naked basic essence, carrying as it does an imposed history. This soul-shifting has become engrained, because colonialism, occupation, and neocolonialism are drawn-out acts of genocide. The authority of the Other remolds the subjugated into an image of the Other, reflective of His view of the world, and that process of recreation entails the destruction of a people’s sense of what they are. Having experienced this dismantling of one’s being, the colonized understands that amnesia is necessary, and soul shifting is vital to survival. It is a complex process done instinctively, without calculation almost, even though it is based on the most profound of calculations.
On the day of the overthrow itself, even as the shouts of jubilation rise through the air, the process of forgetting is already underway. The overthrow is hailed as a great victory for democracy and no one remembers any more how the very system that is being hailed provided the dictator with his ladder to power and the ever-intensifying consolidation thereof, that the onerous impact of his rule was legitimized through the courts which declared his “executive orders” legitimate and refused to rule on many challenges to his right to govern by decree. His successor is repainted as the victor of the only-just-finished elections, this myth of a “democratic” system triumphantly substituting for the intensity of the march of a million, two million, and the spontaneous refusal of the majority—clerks, vendors, teachers, farmers, workers—to participate in turning the wheels of social business one fine day. The successor won; the dictator cheated; ignore that instant of stillness, incandescent as lightning and just as swift, that fell over the land when everyone chose to ignore the last decree.
This affirmation of the correctness of corrupt systems and process of governance, those hailed as sure signs of a democracy, must now entail the frustration of anything to the contrary. Unfortunately, some 10,000 misguided former residents of various detention camps run by the dictator filed a precedent-setting case against his estate—for he has, by now, peacefully and sans accounting, escaped through death’s door—and won, thus documenting for all of time the intolerable vile acts of perfidy and treason perpetrated by institutions that now serve the successor. That will have to be nullified, gently if possible, harshly if not. And thus begins the long wait for justice and balance for the 100,000 who sojourned in the detention camps, as the new government exercised eminent domain and claimed all the available wealth of the dictator and his various friends and relations, denying the right of the victimized. Slowly, that issue is laid to rest because time is on the corrupt system’s side, as not a few of the victimized succumb at last to the wounds and stress of their torture and deprivation.
In this state of amnesia, it is possible once again to commit the same vile acts of perfidy and treason against the people for whom government is supposedly set. The first decade of the new century is marked by political assassinations, disappearances, and the inexorable fall of fear and trembling over the land. Each successor after the dictator has driven the land deeper into poverty, selling off land, sea, and sky for quick profit, and when all natural resources are gone, then selling off the people themselves without shame, nakedly, and giving them the sop of a tribute as the new heroes of the economy, the better for them to endure their slavery.
By now, it should be clear that this is about the devolution of social transformation, the reversion of its most noble impulses and objectives to the single principle of power—the acquisition thereof, the monopolization thereof. Because one plus one is never two but remains one plus one, tyranny and corruption are a constant, and the idea of a dictatorship lingers as both a sly temptation and objective. It has never been thoroughly anathematized. In due time, in ways big and small, the idea becomes flesh and throughout the archipelago, warlord clans accumulate power through the expediency of violence and corruption. Each lords it over any one of the 150 ethno-linguistic groups which had been forcibly welded together into an alleged nation by historical accidents and by the desire, needs, and greed of the Other.
Amnesia is tragic to a people who live on islands afloat on the ocean of storms and tsunamis. The first thousand buried by mudslides caused by the denudation of forests are speedily forgotten with the advent of the second thousand devastated by a typhoon, who in turn lose their hold on public attention with the third thousand murdered by a deluge, who must thereupon give up their place in the collective memory to the fourth thousand … And so it goes, as the sea rises higher each year and enters villages, towns, and cities deeper. Though amnesiac, the constructed people’s memory is swollen with fabulousness: the hit tunes of now, the telenovelas of today, outrageous romances, impressive displays of wealth, plastic surgery, and skin whitening …
This madcap fabulousness that has replaced true memory makes it possible for a warlord clan in the third poorest province of the archipelago to play the system, build a private army, and, having accumulated power through the naked exercise of nepotism, build more than two dozen mansions for themselves, thus negating poverty from their personal environment, and then enabling the casual massacre of 57 people, including 21 women, two of whom were pregnant, and 30 journalists.
It is a remarkable story which, in due time and much like the thousands of assassinations and disappearances postdictatorship, will be overtaken by amnesia.