Memories Speak

When Nabokov wrote his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Speak, Mem­o­ry, in 1966, he took an usu­al path few have been able to fol­low. In address­ing the mem­oir to the very idea of mem­o­ry itself (Nabokov appar­ent­ly want­ed the title to be more explic­it — Speak, Mnemosyne – but his pub­lish­er told him no one would buy a book if they could­n’t pro­nounce the title), he took a some­what dar­ing approach to how we choose to con­struct our selves through our own rec­ol­lec­tions.

I think you could also see Nabokov’s approach as a sub­tle rebuke of Proust’s telling of invol­un­tary mem­o­ry. In À la Recherche du Temps Per­du, Proust is essen­tial­ly a pas­sive view­er to his life, as his rou­tine con­fronts him with small pieces of sen­sa­tion that pro­duce a flood of mem­o­ries. Nabokov, instead of sub­mit­ting him­self to what­ev­er result­ed from the objects in front of him, chose to force his mem­o­ries to sur­face dur­ing a rewrite. “I revised many pas­sages and tried to do some­thing about the amnesic defects of the original—blank spots, blur­ry areas, domains of dim­ness,” he wrote. I dis­cov­ered that some­times, by means of intense con­cen­tra­tion, the neu­tral smudge might be forced to come into beau­ti­ful focus so that the sud­den view could be iden­ti­fied, and the anony­mous ser­vant named.”

Yet, Nabokov’s mem­o­ry is not entire­ly an act of will. He often cred­it­ed his grapheme-col­or synes­the­sia with the vivid­ness of his prose — he saw lan­guage as col­or. Thus, his mem­o­ry of a scene was intri­cate­ly tied to its image — the col­ors and words were insep­a­ra­ble. When he sat down to write, con­struct­ing his descrip­tion of a scene, he could nev­er escape how the col­ors of the let­ters and words would blend. Even as he forced his mem­o­ries to cohere, he was con­struct­ing them to be beau­ti­ful.

It is the beau­ty of Nabokov’s play­ful prose that makes so many peo­ple relate to his work, but I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by how he approached the idea of mem­o­ry. The way he han­dled mem­o­ry was so — well, mem­o­rable — that W.G. Sebald incor­po­rat­ed it into his own mem­oir of exile and grief, The Emi­grants (to the point of a name­less Nabokov, a famed but­ter­fly col­lec­tor, mak­ing cameos doing exact­ly that). For Sebald, mem­o­ry is like a ghost that eter­nal­ly haunts you. Or maybe it’s bet­ter said Sebald sug­gest­ed that trau­ma is a ghost that haunts you like a mem­o­ry (since that is sort of the theme of the book).

Any­way, Nabokov was nev­er shy about how con­struct­ed mem­o­ry can be — in Loli­ta, he turned mem­o­ry into a weapon deployed by a depraved Hum­bert to jus­ti­fy his sex crimes. In Despair, too, Nabokov’s Her­mann uses his own mem­o­ry as a plot device to jus­ti­fy a heinous crime and bru­tal self-delu­sion. But in Speak, Mem­o­ry, Nabokov uses mem­o­ry as an anchor for his iden­ti­ty — even when it’s unre­li­able, like when he  sec­ond-guess­es his own rec­ol­lec­tion of the Made­moi­selle of his child­hood so pro­found­ly he begins to ques­tion whether she even exist­ed. It is his mem­o­ries that made him who he is: as he nev­er felt at home after being exiled from Rus­sia and then from France and Ger­many, all he has left is his mem­o­ries to con­struct his iden­ti­ty.

I bring up this ram­bling, dis­cur­sive intro because of a recent sto­ry about cen­sor­ship. The New York Times pub­lished a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry about how Chi­na’s cen­sors have to essen­tial­ly learn Chi­na’s for­bid­den his­to­ry in order to keep it off their inter­net. It fol­lows a young cen­sor as he learns about Tianan­men Square and the human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (whose Nobel Peace Prize is for­bid­den knowl­edge in Chi­na), and blocks or delete increas­ing­ly obscure ref­er­ences to them on behalf of Chi­nese com­pa­nies who wish to remain in the cen­tral gov­ern­men­t’s good graces.

The com­pa­ny they pro­file, Beyond­Soft, works in the para­dox­i­cal grey­zone of a cen­sor­ship-based regime: their young work­ers gen­uine­ly don’t know what is for­bid­den, so they have to learn for­bid­den ideas and events in order to rec­og­nize them for cen­sor­ship. The com­pa­ny even uti­lizes qua­si-legal anti-cen­sor­ship soft­ware to cir­cum­vent the auto­mat­ic con­tent fil­ters west­ern com­pa­nies helped Chi­na build so they can learn what memes and ideas are being devel­oped on for­bid­den web­sites and keep up with the cen­sor­ship.

Now there is a lot in there to dis­cuss, but what I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by is how mem­o­ries are, essen­tial­ly, being pre­served in the effort to cen­sor them. In oth­er places where ref­er­ence to a trau­ma is for­bid­den, peo­ple don’t exact­ly for­get, but they stop remem­ber­ing. It is what has hap­pened to Uzbeks liv­ing in the city of Andi­jan, where gov­ern­ment stormtroop­ers gunned down hun­dreds of peo­ple as they protest­ed gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy. Islom Kari­mov, the ruler of Uzbek­istan at the time, hunt­ed down those who fled and tried to speak about what had hap­pened. Those who stayed learned to not remem­ber, even if they nev­er for­got, because remem­ber­ing was dan­ger­ous (Uzbek­istan’s polit­i­cal pris­ons are noto­ri­ous­ly bru­tal).

Remem­ber­ing Tianan­men is dan­ger­ous in Chi­na. But unlike in Uzbek­istan, where no cam­era actu­al­ly filmed the mas­sacre itself and only a few reporters man­aged to sneak in in the imme­di­ate after­math to inves­ti­gate, the Tianan­men mas­sacre hap­pened right in front of the glob­al media. It is eas­i­er to choose to not remem­ber when there is no video to find, no rea­son to think a for­eign­er might bring it up at an inop­por­tune time and put you in a del­i­cate posi­tion.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­men­t’s intim­i­da­tion of every­one who wit­nessed the mas­sacre, and pun­ish­ment of any­one who dis­cuss­es it now, has deep­ened under their cur­rent leader, Xi Jin­ping. And from the looks of it, that real­ly might have erased the mem­o­ry of Tianan­men from Chi­na, at least for most cit­i­zens who do not reg­u­lar­ly con­sume west­ern media and who do not have the tech­ni­cal skills to cir­cum­vent the many cen­sor­ship tools. But there is always the chance that some­one could, and so the youth, who nev­er learned about the mas­sacre, must learn about it so they can bury it.

I won­der what those who expe­ri­enced the hor­rors of June 4 would make of that. Mem­o­ry is a plas­tic thing, and we can pre­tend things did not hap­pen because we wish they did­n’t hap­pen — it is as true for child­hood trau­ma as it is for polit­i­cal vio­lence. New­er research sug­gests that inten­tion­al­ly sup­press­ing an unpleas­ant mem­o­ry can be healthy, as it allows our per­son­al­i­ties to escape the grav­i­ty of trau­ma. This is a cop­ing mech­a­nism, and it prob­a­bly is healthy for the reg­u­lar Chi­nese peo­ple who face noth­ing but agony and tor­ment if they chose to keep remem­ber­ing.

But is the arti­fice of pre­tend­ing these things nev­er hap­pened any less real than Nabokov’s forc­ing his mem­o­ries to cohere into some­thing he could describe, even if they nev­er hap­pened? I wish I could say — I don’t see where there must be a dif­fer­ence between plau­si­bly fill­ing in gaps in your mem­o­ry and cre­at­ing gaps to avoid pun­ish­ment (how­ev­er arbi­trary). Mem­o­ry, as a thing, is unre­li­able, and that unre­li­able­ness can be used for either good or evil, to remem­ber or to for­get.

In lit­er­a­ture we often cel­e­brate the thrill of an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor — the char­ac­ter whose mem­o­ry might be gauzy, or over­ly beau­ti­ful, or incom­plete, such that we feel a shock and thrill as the unre­li­a­bil­i­ty is revealed. Nabokov was a mas­ter at this, and man­aged to demon­strate how unre­li­able his nar­ra­tors could be (whether inten­tion­al or not — I’m think­ing of the extreme­ly com­pli­cat­ed back sto­ry he built in the anno­ta­tions to Pale Fire).

But unre­li­able mem­o­ry becomes less charm­ing when it is expressed as a soci­ety as a whole. We tend to cel­e­brate the act of remem­ber­ing in equal mea­sure to the act of not remem­ber­ing, espe­cial­ly if it is rebel­lious mem­o­ry. Pop cul­ture is replete with sto­ries of a pop­u­la­tion awak­ened by choos­ing to remem­ber some­thing for­bid­den and throw­ing off the shack­les of tyran­ny. Most of the time, how­ev­er, that is just a fan­ta­sy. In 1984, Win­ston recants all of his for­bid­den knowl­edge when con­front­ed with Room 101 — it is far more real­is­tic that we will choose self-preser­va­tion in the face of vio­lence.

In the Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence, we don’t move in this space very well, which I think is why we don’t treat it well in our sto­ries (Nabokov brought a very Russ­ian and Euro­pean sen­ti­ment to his work). I think it’s because we still draw the dis­tinc­tion between mem­o­ry and his­to­ry, as sep­a­rate things with dif­fer­ent rules and con­trast­ing expec­ta­tions: you can choose to remem­ber or not, but you can­not ignore his­to­ry, because it is real. It does­n’t strike me as fair. Amer­i­ca is, right now, going through a painful process of accept­ing that his­to­ry is not the same as our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry — from the con­fed­er­a­cy to AIDS to the cur­rent pres­i­dent. But there is no gov­ern­ment, no lit­er­al con­spir­a­cy of cen­sors mon­i­tor­ing our every move­ment to trash­can, say, ref­er­ences to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Fer­ry (or the nation­al guard mur­der­ing col­lege stu­dents at Kent State).

All of the pun­dit­ry hand-wring­ing aside, no one is pun­ished in Amer­i­ca for remem­ber­ing. In Chi­na, they are. But they can’t quite kill it off: they have to keep that mem­o­ry alive, on a life sup­port of sorts, in order to kill it off.

I won­der what Nabokov would say about that.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.