MARCH 9, 2021
“OBLIVION” — LIKE “HEAVEN” or “hell” — is an ill-defined destination. One can be consigned, lost, and abandoned to oblivion, and also rescued, recovered, reclaimed from its depths. Oblivion may be gathered or sought out, it may be experienced as mercy or as sentence. It is a tantalizing word with a hypnotizing etymology, originally meaning to “smooth out,” “efface,” or “grind down.” Its Latin roots contain a hint of ancient memory practices, a trace of a time when “oblivion” was something that could be commanded and materially enacted: stone tablets whitewashed, and etchings literally “ground down” to nonexistence. Both noun and verb, “oblivion” is an action and a destination, a curse and a gift.
In Russian, the word for oblivion is “zabveniye,” suggesting a prolonged or unending state of forgetting, a designated holding cell for all forgotten things. “Oblivion, the copycat of nonexistence, has a new twin brother: the dead memory of the collector,” Maria Stepanova writes in In Memory of Memory. Beautifully translated by the poet Sasha Dugdale, the book teems with oblivion. Family heirlooms are “dragged out of their oblivion,” experiences and memories are saved from its cold embrace. “All the past is carried off into oblivion,” Stepanova writes, “and it leaves a clear space for the future.” Oblivion is a kind of storage facility for exhausted histories. Inside its walls, Stepanova acts as collector and critic, and makes her temporary home.
Memory is not a novel but “a romance,” a love affair with memory and its advocates. “This book about my family is not about my family at all,” she writes, “but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.” At first, her mission seems quite clear: she will root around in her familial past and bring each of her ancestors into the spotlight, if only for a moment. “None of these people, not those still alive, nor those already dead, were ever seen,” she writes. “There was, it felt to me, an urgency in speaking about them and on their behalf, and the endeavor frightened me.” Stepanova becomes the medium through which the living and the dead are reclaimed from oblivion and immortalized on the page for all to see. “To start writing,” she writes, “was to cease to be a curious listener, an addressee, and to become instead the horizon point of the family line, the destination for the many-eyed, many-decked ship of family history.”
But to what end? What is the point of all this remembering, all this careful sifting through the detritus of the past, all this study of memory and its meanings? Stepanova reads the letters of her dead aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, she sorts through their empty apartments, visits their ancestral homes, and searches for them in the archives. She discovers their affairs, fears, failures, lies, and sorrows. When a colleague invites her to Saratov and helps her find her great-grandfather’s former home, Stepanova runs her hands over its brick walls and enters a state of rapture, communing with the dead. “I recognized my great-grandfather’s yard unhesitatingly,” she recalls. “There was no doubt in my mind, even though I’d never seen it or had it described to me.” She commits every corner to memory, she describes the courtyard enveloping her in a warm embrace. A week later, her colleague calls her to say he is so sorry, he made a mistake and got the address wrong. Her rapture was misplaced. “And that is just about everything I know about memory,” Stepanova writes.
Yet, she persists with her project. This early disappointment only pushes her further into memory’s clutches, though it makes her anxiously, recursively reappraise her relation to her source material. By recording, ventriloquizing, translating the stories of the members of her Jewish family, she wonders if she is not somehow furthering the initial injustice of their erasure. After all, she is a “watcher” of history, she will pick and choose the stories and characters who get a second life in her literature. It is a complex and somewhat damning role: “The word ‘watcher’ in Russian has a second, less obvious meaning,” Stepanova writes. “In the language of prisons, camps, and the criminal underworld, known by a significant portion of Russian-speakers, the watcher is the one who sets the rules and makes sure the others follow them.” Memory can be a kind of prison, outfitted with an unending series of well-studied cells.
At a certain point, when Stepanova is entirely consumed with the labor of researching, writing, and traveling through the past, she realizes that she is not alone in this endeavor, that a small throng of nostalgics have been doing the same.
[T]he search for lost time had become a general obsession, and everyone had thrown themselves into reading, writing, and describing our relations with the past. […] Everyone was engaged in “getting a good view” on the past, as if there was nothing else worth doing, as if this was the new form of the Grand Tour.
Everyone had fallen in love with the past and lost their equilibrium. “Love is an ungainly and absurd sentiment,” Stepanova writes. “[I]t bends the lover to the ground, to his own weakness and mortality. It’s heavy to carry, even heavier to witness.”
As the title suggests, In Memory of Memory might be read as a eulogy for our obsession with the past, one of those rare works that narrates its own disillusionment with its subject. Stepanova embraces memory in order to eventually free herself from its suffocating embrace. “It is a luxury permitted to very few to vanish entirely, to disappear from the radar,” she writes. But is this luxury not precisely what she sought to free her invisible ancestors from at the outset of her project? The reader might wonder whether she mines her family history and retraces her dead relatives’ steps so that neither she nor anyone else will ever have to think of them again. The only way to escape from the clutches of memory is to “turn and meet it head-on,” Stepanova writes. This is literature as exorcism: Stepanova conjures up memories in order to send them straight to oblivion. She seems to agree with Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, whose canonical study of Jewish memory and history ends, as Stepanova describes it, “with a near prayer for oblivion; that it might cease to be a sin, that all the rips and tears might be left in peace, to be themselves, untroubled.”
But that is not how Yerushalmi leaves things. In a postscript to his 1982 Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory titled “Reflections on Forgetting,” he does not pray for oblivion, but rather condemns it. “Against the agents of oblivion, the shredders of documents, the assassins of memory, the revisers of encyclopedias, the conspirators of silence […] only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard,” he writes. Better to have too much memory than too little: “Let the flood of books and monographs grow, even if they are only read by specialists. Let unread copies lie on the shelves of many libraries, so that if some be destroyed or removed others will remain.”
Yerushalmi ends his postscript with a revealing anecdote: around the time that the trial of the Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie was being prepared, the French historian Pierre Birnbaum sent Yerushalmi a clipping from Le Monde relaying the results of a poll the paper had conducted about whether the trial ought to proceed.
The central question was formulated as follows: Des deux mots suivants, oubli ou justice, quel est celui qui charactérise le mieux votre attitude face aux événements de cette période de la guerre et de l’Occupation? [Of the two following words, forgetting or justice, which is the one that best characterizes your attitude toward the events of this period of the war and the Occupation?] Can it be that the journalists have stumbled across something more important than they perhaps realized?”
Yerushalmi wonders, “Is it possible that the antonym of ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering,’ but justice?”
Stepanova embraces this possibility, in her own way: “Memory brings the past and present into confrontation in the search for justice,” she writes. But justice comes with a price. “This passion for justice, like the obsessive scratching of a rash, tears any system from the inside, forcing us to seek and demand retribution, especially on behalf of the dead — for who will defend them, if not us?”
We may be ruining ourselves with our endless calls for justice, but we have no other choice.
The injustice she is most concerned with, however, does not pertain to the murderous 20th century, but rather to what she sees as the ongoing injustice of misappropriation. “The dead have no rights: their property and the circumstances of their fate can be used by anyone in any way,” she writes. The wealthy dead are excepted from this abject state for as long as their wills allow, but eventually copyrights expire, estates are bought and sold, the world-historical dead are exhumed, reanimated, recast. “I believe this must change, and change within our lifetimes, just as it has changed over the last hundred years for other groups of the abused and humiliated,” Stepanova argues. But even after she comes to this realization, she does not retreat from her excavation. She goes to Paris to stay in the same building as her great-grandmother Sarra, trying to “quite literally get under the skin of history.” She imagines Sarra walking the city streets in 1911, a year when everyone seemed to be in Paris: Lenin, Gorky, Brod, Kafka, Akhmatova, Rilke, Modigliani. Stepanova gazes back romantically upon this moment, still very much in love with memory:
Those few prewar years are a time when the entire future twentieth century, together with a large part of the nineteenth century, swept its skirts along the same boulevards, sat at neighboring café tables and side by side in theater stalls, hardly suspecting the existence of each other.
In the end, though, her exorcism succeeds. Stepanova admits that she has grown “terribly tired” of family, and the reader feels similarly fatigued. In Memory of Memory ends in the same place it begins, standing on the precipice of oblivion, staring covetously into its depths. It is fitting, then, that Stepanova quotes the Russian poet Mikhail Gronas on the final page. The Russian word for forgetting, Gronas points out, is derived from the word for “being.” “In our language to forget is to begin being,” he writes. Gronas repeats this relation like a mantra or prayer: “[T]o forget is to begin being / to forget is to begin being / to forget is to begin being.” Dugdale’s translation of this line strikes a slightly different note: “[L]iving comes of oblivion.”
In Memory of Memory is Stepanova’s offering to the altar of oblivion, the altar where the ancient Greeks would go to settle scores for all time. On the final page, she ends her love affair with memory and secures her release. Her reader is left behind, caught in the crosshairs of memory, wondering if the oblivion to which Stepanova has steered is curse or gift, heaven or hell.