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The Intertwining of Remembering

and Forgetting in Walter Benjamin

Amresh Sinha

Published in Connecticut Review, vol. XX, no. 2, Fall 1998, pp. 99-110.


"It took Proust to make the nineteenth century ripe for memories." (Benjamin, "The Image of Proust")

 "Thus all remembrance of things past indicates the inevitable absence of the self from itself." (Carol Jacobs, The Dissimulating Harmony)


The concept of aging in Walter Benjamin's essay on "The Image of Proust" as the interweaving or intertwining (verschränkte) of remembrance and forgetting reveals the similarity between them which must not be mistaken for identity.[1] Even the confusion that results when something is remembered as forgotten should not lead us to equate the two. Yet to view them as purely antithetical or oppositional categories is also a mistake. A close reading of Benjamin's essay directs us to the difference between remembering and forgetting specifically as the discrepancy between the presence and the absence of the self.

Remembering and forgetting are forever a place of intertwining, a crossroad, a junction. Thus they forge together where they intersect with each other, in that instant--a place in time where time itself finds a place--a space that reflects time through images.[2] To speak of "a place in time" is to think forgetting in terms of a spatial metaphor that designates the "when" (as in, the time when I forgot or remembered) as well as the "where" (as in, the place where I forgot). From the diachronicity of "when" to the synchronicity of "where" is the passage of time (Zeitverlauf) that leads to forgetting.

Does this mean what we have just remembered is nothing but what we had thus far forgotten? In other words, when we remember we remember only what was forgotten. Each time we remember we remember forgetting. Thus the only thing remembrance remembers is obviously not itself, but it's other, namely forgetting. And although they are not the same, they are closer to each other than we normally think.

The close relationship between remembrance and forgetting deepens once we take into consideration that the past that emerges from the vertiginous folds in our memory is not quite identical to the past that was actually experienced at that time. Not only is time in memory a figure or metaphor, it is just not possible to temporalize a time whose function in memory is purely spatial. And the only spatial configuration of time possible in our experience is the manifestation of a transitional element, namely, what Benjamin calls, the instant. Memory is the instant of an experience, lived synchronically, which is devoid completely of any temporality whatsoever, though it depends on the lapse of time. Therefore memory does not revert toward itself in order to catch up with the past which is left behind. In this sense memory is not ahead of itself in that it must wait for time to come up beside it surreptitiously. Memory, instead of regressing toward a past, stands still, frozen in its tracks; it will sleep until Prince Charming wakes it up in some distant future. What one experiences in memory is hardly time, but the timelessness, or the lack of it--the death of time. Neither past nor future is remembered in memory, but the self in its absence is now re-presented as a forgetting through images. Memory sees itself fleetingly as eternally present in the instant of forgetting and aging.

Forgetting does not necessarily always depend on remembering. In our daily lives, we forget a lot of things that we had never intended to remember in the first place. Such impressions are not present in our perception but yet the unconscious has access to them precisely because of their absence. Any attempt to grant priority either to memory or to forgetting would meet with frustration. The question whether memory precedes forgetting or vice-versa is sometimes not above idle chatter.  Neither memory nor forgetting is contingent solely upon the exigencies of temporality as the index of their existence. It is a matter of learning from experience how difficult it is to learn, or, as Alexander Kluge will say, how difficult it is not to learn. In any case, both memory and forgetting hardly need recourse to temporality to disclose their identities. Memory's position, as it essentially positions itself behind the facade of temporality in self-concealment, is clearly reflected in its reluctance to accept an experience imposed on it by the weight of past. Memory takes a deep breath and shakes itself loose from the weight of past.

"The similarity of one thing to another which we are used to, which occupies us in a wakeful state, reflects only vaguely the deeper resemblance of the dream world in which everything that happens appears not in identical but in similar guise, opaquely similar one to another."[3] The above statement of Benjamin in the Proust essay reflects some of his essential concerns. The "deeper resemblance" or the correspondence between the messianic and the theological, between language and memory (where the trace of language is not unlike the memory trace) is predicated on a mimesis. The self has a deeperresemblance with itself when it appears in the "guise" of memory. It does not appear as identical to itself in memory, but much like the self in the dream world. Similar but not identical.

The deeper resemblance, for Benjamin, corresponds to the mimetic feature of the image. This image is not the reflection that plagued Narcissus in the contemplation of his own beauty, for beauty has already been omitted from critical theory's program, as is well documented in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory and Benjamin's critique of mechanical reproduction. For both Benjamin and Adorno, "the beautiful has no place in" art.[4] What prevented Baudelaire from appreciating beauty, according to Benjamin, "is the image of the past...veiled by the tears of nostalgia."[5] The image of the past does not reflect itself in memory as identical; rather, it resembles itself. The imagery of the past and the image that a past produces in memory has something in common with the dream world. Benjamin writes, "the dream world in which everything that happens appears not in identical but in similar guise" is the "true surrealist face of existence" that expresses the "homesickness...for the world distorted in the state of resemblance."[6]

It is hard to miss the echo of the fallen language as it acquires it metaphoric image from the discrepancy of literature and life.[7] It is in language or literature that the actual physiognomy of the image appears. Let us read Benjamin: "The image of Proust is the highest physiognomic expression that the irresistibly growing discrepancy between literature and life was able to assume."[8] That the image of the author was produced by the interaction of life and literature, from the amalgamation of fiction and reality is a further indication of the significance memory has for Benjamin in determining a large number of his critical projects. What else besides memory can possibly trace the movement between life and poetry (Poesie)? Not only is the image a product of the relationship between life and poetry, mediated by memory, as in Proust's case of mémoire involontaire, but it is also the site of forgetting.

"The Penelope work of forgetting," as Benjamin characterizes A la recherche du temps perdu, is after all nothing but the relationship of life and poetry that culminates in a most intense "homesickness," wrought by an author lying on his sick bed, who in a "deliberate and fastidious way" weaves the text of forgetting, which will be only unraveled in the daylight of remembering. Is all philosophy homesickness, as Adorno and Horkheimer, echoing Novalis, claim in Dialectic of Enlightenment?[9] In every case of homesickness "there is a reminiscence of history," of "human alienation" and a "longing for the lost primal state of man."[10] Yet, it would seem, in Proust's case, that far from harboring a nostalgic return to his homeland--to the vast expanse of recollection mediated by a desire to actualize the grieving, sick life through what Benjamin calls the "elegiac concept of happiness"--a desire is still manifested for the "eternal restoration of the original, the first happiness," the longing to return "existence into a preserve of memory."[11] Proust journeys through his life, his existence, his world, his dreams, in order to empty himself of the self, as in the children's game of the stocking, which is endlessly emptied of its content for a false promise. Odysseus' homesickness, on the other hand, is a escape from the myth of the prehistoric world; he returns home, like the Hegelian spirit, to find, and to regain himself. The reminiscences of "domiciled and settled life" of Odysseus mark a bitter contrast with Proust's "distorted world of resemblances."[12]

Thus homesickness in Proust is not a nostalgic desire for the reappropriation of the self, but, as Carol Jacobs demonstrates in "Walter Benjamin: Image of Proust," an endless play or dédoublement of a sign "signifying nothing beyond itself and serving no purpose."[13] The rolled up stocking is both a sign and a content for itself and yet it has a third dimension. When rolled up it is a bag that appears to contain something. When children reach into it they find the bag empty. The game, which the children know only too well before hand, is to reveal this empty nature of the container. In repeatedly playing the game, the children's joy is not in finding a hidden or secret content, but in repeatedly transforming the container and the content into something else--the real stocking.[14] Mémoire involontaire in Proust is that empty sign which never tires of repeatedly voiding itself. Like the rolled up stocking it promises "plenitude," but delivers a mere empty sign. This countless playing of the empty sign, of an apparent fullness and subsequent nothingness, in Proust acquires "the structure of...dream world" of noncoincidence to which a third element is added--the image. From an empty sign and an empty content a third thing is produced--the image, the stocking itself. Where did it come from? It came from the process of emptying of the self as sign, as presence. Thus Benjamin remarks, "Proust could not get his fill of emptying the dummy, his self, at one stroke in order to keep garnering that third thing, the image which satisfied his curiosity," and in Proust's curiosity, if we recall what Benjamin tells us, "there was something of the detective."[15]

It is here that we can actually apprehend the real meaning of the "deeper resemblance" that prefigures noncoincidence of the dream world. The relationship between sign and meaning is that of similarity, resemblance (as in the case of the rolled up stocking as a sign for a bag or a container containing a "present" as meaning, which we know is as empty as the sign itself) and not a play of identity. The nonidentical world of dreams and Proust's mémoire involontaire share the children's penchant for reaching in the stocking endlessly for the production of the image. The structural or primordial relationship between the self and its image, between life and literature, is primarily an issue of resemblance, of similarity, which ought not to be confused with that of identity.

When Benjamin recalls the image of Proust as neither the image of life nor the image of literature or poetry, the creative-in-difference (Schöpferische Indifferenz) at the center of Proust's "'lifework'" is not found in the description of life as Proust saw it, "but [in] a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it."[16] The remark that immediately follows can be applied to understand Benjamin's overall writing as well. As if Benjamin is providing us with the key to decode his own work through the "guise" of attempting to interpret Proust's work, a work which he had formerly acknowledged to be too close to his own. Benjamin writes:

For the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection. Or should one call it, rather, a Penelope work of forgetting? Is not the involuntary recollection, Proust's mémoire involontaire, much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory? And is not this work of spontaneous recollection, in which remembrance is the woof and forgetting the warf, a counterpart to Penelope's work rather than its likeness? For here the day unravels what the night has woven. When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of tapestry of lived life, as loomed for us by forgetting. However with our purposeful activity and, even more, our purposive remembering each day unravels the web and the ornaments of forgetting.[17]    

The long paragraph approximates what could be considered a Benjaminian critique of himself, a self-critique that speaks of its own art by inviting to ponder someone else's. Nevertheless, the above passage illuminates a whole range of Benjaminian territory or paths that lead to some of his major preoccupations. The "key" to understand a Benjaminian text is through an understanding of how the concept of remembrance, or for that matter forgetting, functions. At one point in the Proust essay Benjamin almost confesses that the essence of language acts like a secret agent, like a "detective," that history passes its inheritance only to those who are "acquainted" with its secret password, that the world is shrouded in mystery, mystery like darkness pulled all around Proust as he changes his days into night, his reverie into artificial illumination to write, to adorn, to ornament, to weave, to spin "intricate arabesques" of forgetting and remembering. In this secret world of language, of image, of remembering and forgetting, the usual expectation of history, that is meaning, is not simply rendered. There is a secret that the author keeps from society and unburdens to his readers. Benjamin says that the secret of nineteenth century France, a secret which history secretly communicates to its legitimate inheritors, was not revealed to the naturalist writers like Zola and Anatole France, "but to the young Proust, the insignificant snob, the playboy and socialite...."[18] "We do not always proclaim loudly the most important thing we have to say.  Nor do we always privately share it with those closest to us, our intimate friends...."[19] The author like a secret agent does not easily want to part with his secret, his memories, his life work. Most of the times a true writer will, like a true detective, not share them even with his intimate friend/reader. How often has one tried to read Benjamin historically or materialistically at the very moment when he is most certainly at his theological and messianic best? By confessing that authors do not readily share their meanings with their readers, Benjamin is already confessing or parting with a few of the meanings of his own text to his readers. He has already cautioned his readers, by way of Proust, not to look for meaning that is not intended for them.

The proscription applies to his text as much as to any other text whose subject is memory. That yearning for the past is not merely a symptom of stupefying nostalgia; rather, it is a "rejuvenation" of memory brought about by aging. One of the oldest memories of language in Benjamin's "On Language as Such and the Language of Man" was the forgetting of the "Fall" of language.[20] The "intertwining" of memory and forgetfulness, the weaving and the unraveling in Proust's work, according to Benjamin, is a mark of the "inexorable process of aging. When the past is reflected in the dewy fresh 'instant,' a painful shock of rejuvenation pulls it together" that reveals "the whole world age by a lifetime in an instant."[21] "The whole world age by a lifetime in an instant" is as much a description of Benjamin's reflection on his own theory of dialectical image and eternity as a discourse on the domain of Proustian correspondences, the state of resemblance.

Among the most important contributions of Benjamin's essay on Proust to literary criticism are his ideas of temporality. Since Aristotle, throughout the history of Western metaphysics, there has been a primacy accorded to temporality in remembering the past. Benjamin has commented repeatedly on this phenomenon, but, for brevity's sake, we will consider only two concrete instances from his writing. The first is from "The Image of Proust": "The eternity which Proust opens to view is convoluted time, not boundless time. His true interest is in the passage of time in its most real--that is, space-bound--form [raumverschrankten Gestalt], and this passage nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and aging without" (emphasis added).[22] The passage indicates the split in eternity between convoluted and boundless time. Proust's eternity belongs to the realm of convoluted time, according to Benjamin. The boundless time of eternity is obviously a reference to Bergson. Before commenting on the relationship between the two different realms of eternity mentioned above we will first discuss the nature of "space-bound" time.

What is predominantly interesting in the Benjaminian formulation is the spatial or "space-bound" aspect of convoluted time. Carol Jacobs translates the convoluted (verschränkte) time more aptly as "intertwining time" that at once makes us recall another instance where Benjamin remarks on the "intertwining" of remembrance and aging.[23] Jacobs provides us with a perceptive reading of the interweaving of time and space in Proustian time as the interweaving of remembrance and forgetting. In Proust a time to remember is also a place of forgetting. This element of forgetting, which is implied in the process of aging, is the place for the "rejuvenation" of the past, of memory, and above all mémoire involontaire. Thus, Jacobs perceives, the "counterplay" between remembrance and forgetting, through which "the past is reflected in the dewy fresh 'instant,'" is finally the "ascendancy" of forgetting over remembering.[24] Forgetting, as we have already seen, coincided with the space-bound nature of time, as the historical process of aging, through which every instance of our lived life is recorded, imprinted and developed as image. This brings us to the second part of our commentary.

How important is the sense of time to Benjamin in his reflections on memory? Temporality and history often emerge at loggerheads in Benjamin. The unlimited, boundless time (grenzenlos Zeit) of eternity, the Bergsonian durée, "suppresses death." And suddenly for Benjamin death becomes a historical factor. Because Bergson's durée "eliminates" death from his concept of eternity and instead chooses a concept of life, therefore, he "in his conception...has become far more estranged from history.[25] The elimination of death, in other words, the elimination of experience from time is what actually makes the unhistorical nature of Bergsonian durée so unacceptable for Benjamin. By denying experience its rightful place in the order of history one unfortunately excludes tradition from it as well.

We find yet another instance in Benjamin that clearly demonstrates the primacy of experience over temporality.  "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," Benjamin states that "the recognition of a scent is more privileged...than any other recollection, this may be so because it deeply drugs the sense of time. A scent may drown years in the odor it recalls."[26] "Drugging" the sense of time has twofold meaning for Benjamin. He recounts that on July 29 in Marseilles, after taking hashish, he lay on the bed listening to a child crying. "I think three-quarters of an hour have already passed. But it is only twenty minutes...."[27] What are this twenty to twenty five minutes time lapse in Benjamin's rather novice career in drug addiction compared to the drowning of years in one mere recollection of the supreme addict, Baudelaire? What could be possibly common between the amateur drug experimenter and a professional user, if not the experience of time--"of absolute duration and immeasurable space" that "a dull feeling of foreboding" brings along.[28] The haze of hashish in Benjamin brought about a sensory apprehension of time as a quality of experience. "For someone who is past experience, there is no consolation," says Benjamin.[29] At another place in "Central Park," Benjamin observes: "Petrified unrest is also the formula for the image of Baudelaire's life, a life which knows no development."[30] Baudelaire's frantic rages were a symptom of the "shock" of his incapacity to experience what in Proust we have come to celebrate repeatedly--the unhistorical character of mémoire involontaire. "The heroic tenor of the Baudelarian inspiration," writes Benjamin, "shows itself in this, that with him memory [die Erinnerung] recedes in favour of remembrances [des Andenkens]. In his work there are noticeably few 'childhood memories.'"[31] Yet, in a strange way Benjamin will find in Baudelaire's "desolation" of being past experience a more credible picture of history that lies "outside of history."

The outside of history is also, of course, the history of the outside that is presented through the drugging of the senses of those who "wander restlessly" outside on the periphery of Bergsonian durée. Benjamin stresses here that the true nature of experience is valid only after it is confronted violently by the historical experience.[32] The true experience of time, that of modernity, is the "scattered fragments of genuine historical experience," which in Baudelaire's hands resembles those hands that "weakly and loosely" in the Proust essay hold "a few fringes of the tapestry of lived life."[33] Thus once again we find ourselves perched on the threshold of forgetting and stepping outside of history. The momentum to step outside of history, in Benjamin, is an invitation to step inside in the arena of mémoire involontaire.




[1]... Walter Benjamin, "The Image of Proust," Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) 201-215.

[2]... For an excellent reading of the place of memory or the memory of place, see Edward S. Casey, "Keeping the Past in Mind," in Descriptions, eds. Don Ihde and Hugh J. Silverman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 36-56.

[3]... Benjamin, "Proust" 204.

[4]... Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," Illuminations 187.

[5]... Benjamin, "On Some Motifs" 187.

[6]... Benjamin, "Proust" 204-5.

[7]... To a large extent our reading of Benjamin's concept of forgetting in "The Image of Proust" is indebted to Carol Jacobs' brilliant reading of that essay.  See The Dissimulating Harmony (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) 89-110.

[8]... Benjamin, "Proust" 202.

[9]... Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972) 78.

[10]... Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic 78.

[11]... What makes happiness, as it were, tick, is none other than this power of forgetting, a power that is reminiscent, for both Benjamin and Nietzsche, of the great reliever, sleep.  Neither Zarathustra nor Proust can prophesize or write without the aid of forgetting, without the assistance of darkness, without the power of slumber. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. Adrian Collins (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1957).

[12]... Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic 78.

[13]... Jacobs, Dissimulating 95.

[14]... Children often derive inordinate amount of pleasure from compulsive repetition of the same game played over and over again. They repeat the unpleasurable experiences so that they can master the situation actively rather than being prone to it passively. The things that give pleasure to children can never be repeated often enough. Everyone knows how much a child enjoys doing the same thing, listening to the same story, playing the same game. Each fresh repetition seems to strengthen the desire of the children for more pleasure. "Repetition, the re-experiencing of something identical," says Freud, "is clearly in itself a source of pleasure." Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1961) 32.  

[15]... Benjamin, "Proust" 205, 209.

[16]... Benjamin, "Proust" 202. Benjamin comes back to the question of creative-in-difference (schöpferische Indifferenz) in relation to memory and historiography in "The Storyteller," Illuminations 97.

[17]... Benjamin, "Proust" 202.

[18]... Benjamin, "Proust" 205.

[19]... Benjamin, "Proust" 205.

[20]... Benjamin, "On Language as Such and the Language of Man," Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) 314-332.

[21]... Benjamin, "Proust" 210.

[22]... Benjamin, "Proust" 211.

[23]... The original version of "Zum Bilde Prousts" follows as such: "Die Ewigkeit, in welche Proust Aspekte eröffnet, ist die verschränkte, nicht die grenzenlose Zeit. Sein wahrer Anteil gilt dem Zeitverlauf in seiner realsten, das ist aber raumverschränkten Gestalt, der nirgends unverstellter herrscht als im Erinnern, innen, und im Altern, außen." Benjamin Schriften II (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1955) 143. See also the translated version in Illuminations 211.

[24]... Jacobs, Dissimulating 98.

[25]... See Henri Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1961) 56-58. See also Illuminations 185.

[26]... Benjamin, "On Some Motifs" 184.

[27]... Benjamin, "Hashish in Marseilles," Reflections 138.

[28]... Benjamin, Reflections 38, 37. For an interesting discussion on the experience of time in relation to disruption, disjunction and diachronicity, see Richard Terdiman, "Deconstructing Memory: On Representing the Past and Theorizing Culture in France Since the Revolution," Diacritics 15.4 (Winter 1985): 13-36.

[29]... Benjamin, "On Some Motifs" 184.

[30]... Benjamin, "Central Park," New German Critique 34 (Winter 1985): 40.

[31]... Benjamin, "Central Park" 55.

[32]... See Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" in Reflections 278.

[33]... Benjamin, "On Some Motifs" 185, and "Proust" 202.