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Woe to Mnemosyne

According to The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Mnemosyne, in Greek myth, is a Titan goddess, who is the personification of Memory and the mother of the Muses. I could not restrain myself from thinking how this classical deity would feel in the twenty-first century, where the word ‘memory’ seems only to be associated with electronic gadgets like computers, laptops, tablets, discs and so on. Nowadays, we tend to forget everything (a great idea to deal with unpleasant issues) and look up with unaffected admiration to those who remember all their assignments and appointments. The first thing we look for when buying these gadgets is how much ‘memory’ they possess. Making the virtual memory indispensible, we are gradually doing away with our inherent faculty of remembering things. A rendezvous with a buddy at four o’clock in the afternoon–one should definitely give a ‘missed call’ to the other. Want to borrow something from your friend?—ring him/her twice; a text message should precede/follow the frantic calls. To remind someone to give a reminder—even a jabberwocky looks more logical than that.


The utility of these devices cannot be denied, but it seems to be high time that we give a nudge to our aptitude. Our innate capacity of keeping things in mind turns fallow without much use. Before the days of computers people did remember things; they had made accurate calculations regarding the movements of the planets; the binding force that keeps the protons and neutrons together in an atomic nucleus; the speed of light and so on. Today, it would be preposterous an idea to do away with computers and cell phones altogether. True. We can hardly get out of this labyrinth. We owe this to our lifestyles. What seems to be more alarming is the fact that children and youngsters have grown to be reliant on the modern day contrivance of virtual ‘memory’. At a time, in the primary levels of our school, mental mathematics had been a part of our syllabus. There was a book of mental problems which instructed us not to scribble the calculations in the book, but to cultivate the ability to work sums in your head. The process did not, of course, turn all of us into mathematical geniuses, but it definitely had enhanced our concentration.


Robert Lynd, in “Forgetting”, humorously comments that we forget those things we wish to forget. Going by this statement, it appears that oblivion is an effective way to deal with unpleasantness. Most of us often forget to take medicines; perhaps, because in the deep recesses of our mind, we have repulsion towards them; Lynd makes this comment in the context of taking medicines. However, the deduction is not so simple for all the cases. Forgetting, as an act of deliberation, involves a sort of negligence and imprudence that gradually develops into a habit. Excluding those who have genuine psychological problems, the combined lack of commitment and attentiveness may be seen as factors contributing to this. Mahasweta Devi’s “Bhulo Bhoot” is a story about an absentminded ghost; though written in lighter vein, the story seems to imply that the pernicious habit of forgetting survives even after death.


Many a times, it is observed that forgetting serves useful as an excuse. Nevertheless, once its potential is realized, it is exhausted and exploited. But then again, memories of certain traumatic experiences (like partition, holocaust) are chosen to be repressed by people. The entire community intentionally tends to subdue memories of the cataclysm. Does memory really involve willingness/unwillingness?


We preserve our childhood memories, though not chronologically, but certainly as “spots of time”. (William Wordsworth,The Prelude, Book Twelfth) We can hardly forget if wronged by someone. Our memories become astonishingly acute while registering others’ mistakes. Sometimes we revise past incidents and recollect them in a way we wish to remember them.


Memory and oblivion are like the two faces of the same coin; the conflict between the two has a long history. In this regard, I am reminded of Plato’s Phaedrus, where referring to the Egyptian myth, a conversation between Theuth and Thamus, Socrates quotes Thamus’ disapproval of writing. Jacques Derrida, in Dissemination, discusses Phaedrus at length; Derrida illustrates how Thamus posits that eventually those who write will stop exercising their memory and become forgetful. That is to say, writing is not a remedy for remembering, it is a device to remind you of the things you have forgotten, if not implicitly propagate forgetfulness. Derrida points out the ambiguity of word pharmakon, which in Greek stands for both “remedy” and “poison”.


So, it’s better to remember than to be reminded of; a reminder (as a device, pharmakon) may instigate forgetfulness. What about our unwarranted reliance on the virtual memory—elixir or poison?

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