Remembering, Forgetting, and Irony: Thinking About Kundera

Posted on February 18, 2013

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Remembering and ForgettingAccording to his translators, Milan Kundera writes, “remembering is a form of forgetting.”

Why?

Remembering is always a reconstruction and, eventually, a construction. Remembering can’t reproduce an experience. At best, it refers to it. Eventually, remembering creates a wholly different experience, with almost no connection to the original experience.

Kundera also sets immediate experience — the concreteness of the present — on a kind of pedestal, regarding it as the most real experience of all experiences. In remembering and reconstructing what was once the present, we lose — that is, we forget — how the present was immediately experienced. We die, he claims, without knowing what we have lived.

This conclusion only seems lamentable, I think, because Kundera holds immediate experience in the highest regard.  In contrast, for me, the present moment of remembering is an immediate experience that is no more or less concrete than any other immediate experience. The concreteness of the present can be experienced in any moment, even a moment of remembering.

True, I can’t remember the immediate experience of what it was like to be happy on this day, twenty years ago, but I can experience what it is like to be happy on this day now. Yes, I will never again directly experience what it was like to see my lover’s face when I first fell in love with her, but I can directly experience what it is like to see my lover’s face now. If she or the love is gone, the reconstruction of the past experience can be a salve or it can be a crutch, but it is not any less real or valuable.

For me, remembering is a part of living, living always happens in the present moment, and we can experience any moment’s concreteness, if we so choose. The wished for ability to recall a past experience, as it was first immediately experienced, seems to me antithetical to living. In living, we become different than we once were, so an experience can’t be relieved, without also returning to who we once were. When we die, we will know what we have lived by knowing who we’ve become.

Of course, Kundera is an ironist, so it’s quite possible that something like my observation is what he intended all along. Perhaps, with the phrase, “remembering is a form of forgetting,” his intention is to mock — among others — the emigre’s nostalgic and impossible longing for the eternal return by invoking it. Perhaps, he turns the phrase only to mock those who readily accept and lament it.

The strength and weakness of irony is that it allows the ironist to say, depending on the tribunal before which he find himself, “that’s what I meant all along.” Sometimes, irony is a salve and sometimes it is a crutch.

Posted in: Philosophy