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.