Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nineteenth-Century Memory: On Biography, Forgetfulness and Not Knowing

Sundial, St Peter's Church, Norton Disney
Photograph by J. Hannan-Briggs
Used under the Creative Commons License
In March this year I attended a conference at Leeds Trinity University College on the theme of Nineteenth-Century Memory: Approaches and Appropriations. Papers ranged broadly, from Victorian accounts of the recent past to NeoVictorian re-imaginings, from trauma and melancholy to tropes of time passing.

Of particular interest to me were papers on the subject of memory and life narrative, including Jo Taylor (Keele) on the posthumous reputation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as shaped by the editorship of his children, Sara and Hartley, and Hana Leaper (Liverpool) who traced the influence of Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book on the work of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. And it was Victorian biography -- a much-maligned genre -- that provided the subject matter for Trev Lynn Broughton’s (York) opening keynote on the topic of remembering and forgetting.

Broughton challenged the notion that remembering and forgetting are opposite terms. To forget something, she argued, was not simply a case of failing to remember. Turning to biography, so often seen (in its Victorian manifestation) as a ‘site and sign of repression’, a literary form in thrall to censorship and reticence, forgetfulness can be read as a creative act. In organising a life into a coherent narrative, biography is necessarily selective; it chooses what memories to transmit to a new generation of readers, and it chooses what elements to pass over, to omit or obscure. For Broughton, therefore, biographies are both a ‘memorial’ and a ‘site of burial’ -- in remembering their  subject, they demonstrate the importance of forgetting.

The endlessly re-tellable nature of life narratives supports this reading of biography as a product of forgetfulness. With each new version of a life -- with each new claim to have written the “definitive” account -- different elements are remembered and forgotten, different memories are uncovered and buried. But is it ever possible (or desirable) to remember and memorialise a life both entire and complete? Alongside remembering and forgetting, should we consider the problem of not knowing?

In 1927, E.M. Forster delivered the Clarke Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, published later that year under the title Aspects of the Novel. In these lectures Forster drew a distinction between ‘Homo Fictus’, the species of human living in fiction, and ‘Homo Sapiens’, the species of human living in history [1]. What separates these different classes of being is their un/knowability:

In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly. [2]

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to debate Forster’s claims for status of characters in fiction, but his account of the unknowability of ‘Homo Sapiens’ helps shed a light on the vitality of remembering and forgetting in life-writing. If our knowledge of a biographical subject is ‘illusive’, then remembering and forgetting are the means by which we construct this illusion. In remembering certain elements and forgetting others, we cover and smooth the gaps and fractures -- we can thus stake a (false) claim to the “definitive” life. And yet, it is the unknowable nature of ‘Homo Sapiens’ -- the very impossibility of ‘clairvoyance’ or ‘complete confessional’ -- that empowers the biographer to remember and forget, which guarantees the re-telling, the re-writing, the re-membering of a life narrative.

[1] E.M. Forster [1927], Aspects of the Novel (London: Edward Arnold, 1945), p. 78.
[2] Forster, Aspects of the Novel, pp. 67-8.

1 comment:

  1. This is of especial interest to me. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on how the popular image of Benjamin Franklin in the early United States was shaped largely by what he wrote about himself. I noted that every biographer for almost a century had an agenda to peddle, notably people who wrote school books, but they all depended on what Franklin had said about his own life. In other words, the self-made man continued to make himself for long after he died. Today, when I read an anecdote supposedly about Franklin, I know it was fabricated by a moralist or recognize it as an anecdote that in Franklin's time was told about William Pitt. What people remember is often something they never knew in the first place.