Amnesia Vlad Morariu

I

Amnesia is an organic or functional disturbance of memory; obviously, it is the loss of memory. Memory is our ability to learn, store, retain, and recall information when needed. This ability is fundamental for the continuity of the self, for having a sense of it, for building up a personality, a personal history, and a proper way of dealing with the world. It also enables us to expect certain things from the future, based on past experience. Our memories are called into action at every level of human activity. A damaged memory makes it impossible for a person to live in his own time. With a damaged memory, there is no way one can make sense of the present or the future. The same applies to societies as wholes. Without a consciousness of past events and memory to construct a sense of continuity, the present and the future escape comprehension. Let us take Romanian society as an example and hypothesize that nothing serves better than a kind of regressive amnesia to explain the trouble it has had in accessing and assuming the facts of the Shoah which took place on its own territory—even when confronted with indisputable evidence. However, amnesia is not the whole story because besides Romania’s being amnesic—that is, besides suffering from a compelling sort of forgetfulness—there has also been a perverse revisiting of moments which seem to be inaccessible, which drove the Romanians to vote for Marshall Antonescu1 as one of Romanian Television’s top 10 most important historical personalities, and which make our prime minister and our politicians attend the funerals of ex-members of the Archangel Michael League.2 The Romanian Shoah exercises fascination and fear at the same time; there is a sort of blindness—a refusal to see—at stake here, despite wide-open eyes.

II

There is a small episode in the first part of Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung3 in which we are told how Kien, the main character of the story, educates his sight in order not to perceive the changes which occur once he gets married to his former maid. Kien starts by finding pleasure in common everyday habits, such as washing his face. As before, he closes his eyes so water does not get in them—he regards his eyes and his ability to read as his most valuable assets, shuddering at the idea that he might someday lose his sight. Kien now discovers that closing his eyes while he washes prevents him from seeing the new layout of his study, whose design he cannot stand. Soon closing his eyes becomes one of the small joys of his everyday life; he starts to see it as providing a moment when he can assert his autonomy from the reality he cannot fit into. He then extends the pleasure: he trains himself to walk with his eyes closed, to find his clothes and dress, and to identify the books he needs for his studies, while his other senses—touch, hearing—improve progressively. Finally, after four weeks, he manages to master his blindness, finding himself an illusory realm of freedom in which everything is at peace. However, as we find out later in the novel, something happens to Kien in this period: accustoming himself to his blindness makes him incapable of seeing the world as it is, even though his eyes still perceive daylight. And Kien even grounds his new technique of escape on a philosophical principle—esse is percipi: if one does not perceive things, then things do not exist. He soon thinks that blindness is a sort of weapon against time and space; the most fundamental principle which rules the universe. It makes possible the simultaneity of things, which would be impossible if things themselves could see each other. There is only one way of dealing with time, flowing, as it does, continuously: not to see it. Kien does not invent blindness: he only uses it to escape from the consequences of his visible life. He, so to speak, refuses to struggle with the world around him, to which he remains insensible, and ends up constructing his own world. Having placed himself there, he constructs an explanation for every disturbing experience, but even if this solves, momentarily, his contradictions, he eventually only becomes even more alienated. Having learned to see differently, he stops defending himself. Kien is a temporary survivor, but his refusal to access the past and present realities, his amnesic forgetfulness, is only the prologue to a greater fall.

III

Freud’s analyses in Totem and Taboo have been widely criticized as fairly fanciful. The book has been described, for example, as “a work of literature or creative mythology,”4 and even we would regard with suspicion the founding myth of the crime of the primal horde. However, there are some fragments in Totem and Taboo which, in spite of their awkwardness, might inspire us in some ways.

In the second essay of the book, “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence,” Freud draws a parallel between the behavior of primitive people who create taboos and the behavior of neurotics who create taboos for themselves. This surprising parallel escapes the criticisms that apply to the essay as a whole, because Freud warns us that: “The similarity between taboo and obsessional sickness may be no more than a matter of externals; it may apply only to the forms in which they are manifested and not extend to their essential character.”5 Freud shows that etymologically the word “taboo” has two meanings, and as such, it hides an attitudinal ambivalence toward whatever constitutes a taboo. On the one hand, “taboo” means “sacred” or “consecrated”; on the other, it means “uncanny,” “dangerous,” “forbidden,” or “unclean.” This ambivalence of the primitive man has its counterpart in the behavior of the neurotic; both feel devotion and fear toward an object or person. The outcome is a phobia of any kind of touching—and this phobia is not only physical, it is symbolic, too: “As in the case of taboo, the principal prohibition, the nucleus of the neurosis, is against touching; and thence it is sometimes known as ‘touching phobia’ or ‘délire de toucher. Anything that directs the patient’s thoughts to the forbidden object, anything that brings him into intellectual contact with it, is just as prohibited as direct physical contact. This same extension also occurs in the case of taboo” (author’s emphasis).6

In both cases, the fear of touching lacks a clear motive and has an unconscious origin. In psychoanalysis, the existence of a prohibition on the part of the neurotic is interpreted as a symptom that something has been repressed. The prohibition itself has the function of a substitute that compensates for damage to the psychical apparatus. By asking questions like: “What kind of mental impulses are subject to repression?” “What forces are used to accomplish this repression?” and “For what motives?”7 the therapist assumes that every symptom conceals its meaning in certain definite unconscious processes in the patient’s mind. It is also a principle of psychoanalysis, of course, that whenever that which was unconscious becomes conscious, the symptom must disappear.

We might ask now: would it be so far-fetched to hypothesize that Kien’s exercise in blindness is just a concealed form of the délire de toucher ? Moreover, if this parallel is plausible, can we also interpret the fascination and repulsion Romanian society feels toward its Shoah—i.e., its revisitations and refusal to see—as a form of délire de toucher? Would we be right to conjecture that the object of this amnesia as repressed memory stands before us as taboo, as something we, Romanians, see and worship, but something that we fear at most and cannot really see?

IV

Mihail Sebastian, a classical case of délire de toucher, supports this conjecture. Sebastian was one of the most promising literary talents of his generation, now praised as the most prolific generation of intellectuals that Romania has ever produced. His real name was Joseph Hechter and he was a non-practicing Jew born in the small town of Brăila on the Danube. An outburst of anti-Semitism among intellectuals resulted in a phobia of touching him, which soon led to his isolation. Among his closest friends who refused contact—while slowly embracing the cause of the Legionary movement, becoming one of its most notable theoreticians—was Mircea Eliade.8 The publication of his book It’s Been Two Thousand Years (1934) caused a huge scandal. Not only did his intellectual friends abandon him; he soon became a pariah even within his own community, which could not forgive Sebastian for having naively invited Nae Ionescu to write the preface. The book, written in the first person, reflects the dilemmas of a young intellectual who feels more like a Romanian than a Jew. It’s Been Two Thousand Years is a testimony which includes events the writer himself had experienced: organized beatings at the university, a lack of cohesion among the Jewish students, and a yearning to live a normal life despite the curse of his ethnic roots. Sebastian decided to keep Ionescu’s preface even after it turned out to be a cruel attack on the Jews, an ontological justification of their “implacable destiny” (Ionescu held that suffering is a part of being Jewish because the Jews are responsible for the death of Christ). With his primitive logic, Ionescu maintained that the Jews were not members of the national body, and were thus less than men; they were curious beings that did not deserve salvation. All in all, any laments were useless.

The phobia of touching Sebastian even survived until his ambivalent rehabilitation in the 1990s. It was not until the mid-1990s that his Journal was published for the first time in Romania. At that time, Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran’s fascist works were being republished. But while appraisal for Cioran and Eliade had generated new disciples, as their articles on fascist ideology became foundational documents for the New Romanian Right, Sebastian remained taboo. And when the translation of a book by Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine9 was published in which she documents the attempts of Eliade and Cioran to cover up their fascist pasts and their allegiance to the Legionary Party and devotes an important part of the book to the relationship the two had with Mihail Sebastian, she was quickly excoriated by a large part of the public for impiety and tendentious interpretation. It seems that the trial of Socrates is to be repeated over and over again.

V

Any kind of politics tends to create a meaningful context for itself. “Meaning” and “context” are concepts directly related to linguistics, semiotics, and hermeneutics. Thus, politics constructs narrations, ways “in which material objects, events, documents, and descriptions are linked together into a coherent narration of past and present.”10 A society’s identity emerges from the configuration of these signs, its sense of being and belonging, its self-perception, and the social environment of its members as shaped by history.

Our narratives, the stories of our cultural memory, are still incomplete and they are partly broken. The functions of collective memory can be described by relating them to those of personal memory; thus, there is a sense in which we can discuss collective amnesia, a condition in which whole societies seem to forget events in the past because their truth might be too harmful. The consequences are similar: a feeling of being lost, representations of a puzzle in which disparate fragments testify to something dreadful and which, though in the past, show their ugly faces and haunt the present and the future. However, as psychoanalysis shows us, certain mechanisms of compensation are being invented—a never-ending series of them in the case of Romanian society, I would say. Nevertheless, to continue with the analogy to psychoanalysis, a complete cure is achieved only when one finds the means to unravel the horror and make it visible: sincerity, acceptance, a politics of recognition are needed. For more than 65 years, Romanian society has been amnesic toward the Shoah—partly because of the unwillingness of the communist regime to accept it and partly because of a conservative right-wing politics which, after 1990, would only recuperate the digestible parts of the past. The last 15 years have been dramatic, for they have meant a continuous reevaluation of history, a refabrication of the country’s self-image, and, often enough, failed social experiments. A passive and unconscious negationism has always made its way into the heart of society, and it has opened the way for the rise of the New Right.

Thus we hold that such a social condition can only be healed, as psychoanalysis shows, by a politics of remembrance. This was indeed initiated in 2003 by the leftist president Ion Iliescu, who called for the creation of an international committee on the history of the Romanian Holocaust, which published a Final Report, which constitutes the basis for a future Study Center led by Elie Wiesel. Its conclusions were later introduced into the curricula for the study of the Holocaust in schools. So I would say that we are now in the “recovery” (recuperare in Romanian) room, where we are performing the exercise of “remembrance” (rememorare in Romanian); the Latin roots of the two Romanian words signaled a disorder in the health of the body, a menace against life, but also the counter-position of resistance, the knowledge of the medicine which restored health. The Latin may also help us understand the causes of the disorder: it tells us that it has to be unraveled and cured so it might never occur again. And if we are undergoing therapy, we hope that the patient does not die before he recovers.

Note

1 / Ion Antonescu (1882–1946), Romanian marshal and statesman who collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.

2 / Romanian Fascist Organization (1927–1941), also known as Garda de Fier (Iron Guard), which focused on a “Christian and racial” renewal of Romania in the spirit of anti-Semitic and mystical nationalism.

3 / Elias Canneti, Die Blendung: Roman, Hanser, Munich 1981.

4 / Pamela Thurschwell, Sigmund Freud, Routledge, London 2000, p. 97.

5 / Sigmund Freud, “Totem and Taboo,” Sigmund Freud: Complete Works, ed. Ivan Smith, The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London 2000, p. 97.

6 / Ibid., p. 2674.

7 / Ibid., p. 2675.

8 / Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco: L’oubli du fascisme: trois intellectuels roumains dans la tourmente du siècle, Presses universitaires de France, Paris 2002.

9 / Ibid.

10 / Eric Kluitenberg, “Politics of the Cultural Memory,” Nettime (July 22, 1999), http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9907/msg00083.html (accessed November 17, 2010).