Memory and Catharsis in Ene Mihkelson, Sofi Oksanen, and W.G. Sebald

Maire Jaanus (Barnard College / Columbia Graduate School)

Neuroscience gives us seemingly many new “facts” about memory. We know that we mix new information with old and store them together so that there is no pure memory; we know that we do not have a core identity that remains the same through time, and that information coming into the brain is immediately split into fragments that are sent to different parts of the mind so that the consonants and vowels of even a single word are lodged in separate sites. We also know something new about the destruction of memory from the stages by which it is seemingly lost in Alzheimer’s. This information gives new life to questions raised about remembering and forgetting by thinkers and writers in the past, such as Plato, Augustine, Proust, Freud, and Lacan, many of whom were already (since Nietzsche) particularly interested in forgetting, ignorance, aporias, or synapses, either in the name of life and creativity or, as in the case of Freud, in the interests of eradicating symptoms and traumas. What makes possible an emptying that leads to the birth of the new? Is the complete purgation or catharsis (in Aristotle’s sense) of the symptoms and traumas of an individual or a culture possible? Is there only what Sebald calls “the natural history of destruction,” an underside of history that leaves us with no memory at all and that we have preferred to ignore?  What happens to narrativity under such new conditions and where do we locate the love that was once an inalienable part of our humanity?

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