From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: A Day in the Life
Now out from Restless Books.
Forgetting. It is one of the great themes of literature, Renzi said as he began his class. To be forgotten; the tragedy of the abandoned lover who knows he is lost to the memory of the one he loves. And then the inability to forget, another grand theme, memories as a condemnation, remorse.
I’d like to open this subject toward three linguistic points that may perhaps allow us to advance a little. Let’s begin with the distinction between enigma, mystery, and secret, three forms in which information is typically coded inside stories.
The enigma, as we know, even through its etymology, would be the existence of some element—it may be a text, a situation—that contains a meaning that is not understood but can be deciphered. Enigma, etymologically, means “to imply.”
The mystery, on the other hand, is an element that is not understood because it has no explanation, or at least none within the logic of reason or the concept of reality as it is given, and within which we conduct ourselves.
As for the secret, it also has to do with a void of signification, a forgetting, something desired to be known that is not known, like the enigma and the mystery, but in this case, it refers to a thing that someone has and does not say. That is, the secret is a meaning subtracted by someone. The text, then, revolves around the void of that which is unsaid; within the series that I’ve been discussing, it has the distinctive quality of referring us toward something that is guarded—and here once again the etymology of the word secret is pertinent—so that it immediately produces a well-known series, resembling gossip, where different versions of the same story are circulating: who knows what, who doesn’t know…
Within this series, I would like to pick up on the notion of forgetting. Something is forgotten because it’s indecipherable or because it’s incomprehensible or because someone has erased it. But the question, for us, is whether forgetting can be deliberate, and what class of strategy that would be; what is it that provokes or produces oblivion, that is, the forgetting of something.
Inside the third-floor lecture hall there were close to three hundred students crowded in, filling the benches but also sitting on the floor, in the aisles, many of them taking notes and smoking and others aiming their recorders toward the platform from which Emilio was speaking, now and then turning to write words on the blackboard and then, chalk still in hand, stepping down from the platform and pacing from one end of the room to the other, making use of the free space between the wall and the first row of desks to follow a horizontal line.
The word for forgetting, oblivion, is formed from Latin roots. Its lexical components are the prefix ob- (over) and levis (light). The verb obliviate comes from the Latin oblitare, derived from oblitus, which is the participle of the verb oblivisci (to forget), formed from ob- (against, facing, opposition) and livisci, from the Proto-Indo-European root lei (viscous, smooth), which gave lima, file, an instrument for polishing, and liniment. The original idea was the slipping away of memory, the slide toward oblivion.
Now let’s turn to Greek words; and he wrote on the blackboard, using the vague memories that he had from Greek III, which he’d taken as a student, at the College, αλήθεια/alitheia (= truth) and λήθη/lethe (= oblivion). The meaning of the word αλήθεια, in Greek, derives from the state in which things are not in the domain of oblivion, that is, they are known and apparent and are, for that reason, essentially true. Furthermore, the Greek word λάθος/lathos (= error) is related to the words αλήθεια and λήθη, he said as he copied them out on the blackboard, since all of these words take their root from the verb λανθάνω/lanthano (= to escape someone’s notice, to be latent, to not be manifested).
Indeed, when something escapes our perspective, perception, or attention, we tend to fall into error. Following the same line of thought, memory (μνήμη/mnimi in Greek) is a very important tool for defending the truth, for defending ourselves, I should say, said Renzi. In the Greek tradition, then, oblivion is antagonistic to truth as well as to memory, that is, it can be assimilated with the creation of an illusory and fragile world. It doesn’t have to do with doxa or error but an empty class of entity, or rather, it belongs to a category of objects that are at once absent and latent. You all already know that, in the seminar, we defined fiction as a particular form of utterance, defined, as I’ve told you, in the following way: “The speaker does not exist.” The one who speaks and narrates in a story doesn’t exist, that is the truth of fiction; regardless of whether or not everything that is said in the story may be real and verifiable, fiction does not depend on the true or false content of what is related but on the position of the one who utters it, whom we define as a forgotten subject.
Now and then the door would open, and another late student would enter, looking for a place to slip in, but Renzi paid not the slightest attention to the interruption. Forgetting, he said, is an action, in principle, involuntary, which consists of ceasing to store acquired information in memory. Often, forgetting is caused by “interfering learning,” learning that replaces a memory that hasn’t been cemented in memory, making it “disappear,” to put it one way, from consciousness. We must remember that one does remember having forgotten something, which is to say that one is aware of having certain knowledge that is no longer there, that is, there is a consciousness of having had it. Thus, forgotten memories do not disappear but rather are buried somewhere. We’ll call this transition the amnesiac archive, that is, the place or site or space where the faces, the words, the facts, the people we’ve forgotten are accumulated. It’s a kind of limbo where lost memories persist, invisible. In the Argentine countryside, in the desert, beyond the frontier, in a strange land, as Fierro says, the forgotten memories are manifested and appear as a glow, as evil lights, luces malas, as they’re called in our Pampas.
Martín Fierro sings so as not to forget, and Facundo, according to Sarmiento, has a prodigious memory, he remembers all of his soldiers’ names. Rosas recognizes which ranch in the province he’s in by the taste of the grass. There’s something barbarous in excessive memory. Borges’s Funes is a primitive man, and even Plato had opposed writing to memory. Nevertheless, in one of the great narratives of Argentine literature, Martínez Estrada tells the story of a man who remembers an entire book that has been lost and writes the prologue to the absent work on the basis of his photographic memory. In Onetti’s Goodbyes, the narrator “forgets” some letters, which reappear at the end of the story and are decisive for deciphering the enigma of the story and which, in being remembered out of place, make another truth possible. I’d like you all to keep track of the moments of oblivion that are narrated in the fictional texts by Onetti and Felisberto Hernández and Rulfo, places where they narrate act of forgetting or the loss of the memory of an event.
For us, the nouvelle form is structured around the narration of something forgotten that becomes the center of the plot. Why? Because if it were remembered, then it would have to be written as a novel. The concentration of the nouvelle form is founded upon forgetting. But not any forgetting, rather a void that arises and circles around the frame of the story, that is, among those who tell the story. They are the ones who are unable to remember something—a face, an address, a name—and that is the reason they narrate. The narrative is woven together with the fabric of oblivion. Example: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Melville’s Bartleby and Kafka’s great short novels.
In Greek mythology, Lethe (Λήθη), literally “oblivion,” or Leteo (from the Latin Lethæus) was one of the rivers of Hades. Drinking from its waters caused complete oblivion. Some ancient Greeks believed that souls were made to drink from that river before being reincarnated so that they wouldn’t remember their past lives. And there’s something of that in Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo and in the specters of Cortázar’s short stories and in José Bianco’s Shadow Play. Lethe was also a naiad, a daughter of Eris (“Discordia” in Hesiod’s Theogony), although probably a separate personification of forgetting rather than a reference to the river that bears her name. Some private mystery cults taught the existence of another river, the Mnemosyne, whose waters, when drunk, made one remember everything and attain omniscience. The initiates were taught that they would be given a choice of which river to drink from after death and must drink from the Mnemosyne instead of the Lethe. These two rivers appear within several verses inscribed on gold plaques from the 4th century BC and onward, located in Thurii, in southern Italy, and throughout the Greek world. The myth of Er, at the end of Plato’s Republic, tells of the dead arriving at the “plain of Lethe,” which is crossed by the river Ameles (“neglected”). There were two rivers, then, called Lethe and Mnemosyne, on the altar of Trophonius in Boeotia, from which the worshipers drank before making oracular consultations with their gods. Among ancient authors, it was said that the little river Limia, close to Xinzo de Limia (Ourense), possessed the same memory-erasing properties as the legendary Lethe. In 138 BC, the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus attempted to dispel the myth, which was impeding military campaigns in the area. It is said that he crossed the Limia and then called his soldiers from the other side, one by one, by name. Astonished that their general could remember their names, they too crossed the river without fear, thus bringing an end to its reputation for danger.
In the Divine Comedy, the current of the Lethe flows to the center of the earth from its surface, but its source is situated in the Earthly Paradise, located on the top of the mountain of Purgatory. And then Renzi, from memory and with an elegiac tone in his perfect Italian and his usual pedantry, cited the verses in which the reference to the miraculous river appears for the first time:
E io ancor: “Maestro, ove si trova
Flegetonta e Letè? ché de l’un taci,
e l’altro di’ che si fa d’esta piova.”
“In tutte tue question certo mi piaci,”
rispuose; “ma ’l bollor de l’acqua rossa
dovea ben solver l’una che tu faci.
Letè vedrai, ma fuor di questa fossa,
là dove vanno l’anime a lavarsi
quando la colpa pentuta è rimossa.”
Poi disse: “Omai è tempo da scostarsi
dal bosco; fa che di retro a me vegne:
li margini fan via, che non son arsi,
e sopra loro ogne vapor si spegne.”
In a lost and nameless work of theater about Eurydice, of which only seven fragments remain, quoted by Herodotus, all of the shades must drink from the Lethe and become something resembling stones, speaking in their inaudible language and forgetting everything of the world. Likewise, a mention is made to the river Lethe in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it is the ghost of the father who recalls the river of forgetting. Then, once again from memory (he’d memorized it the night before, repeating the verses in front of a mirror), he quoted, in his Elizabethan English learned from Miss Jackson:
Ghost, he said, with a voice from beyond the grave, and then clarified, changing his tone: The ghost of the father is speaking.
I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear:
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
A reference is made to the waters of the river Lethe in poem number LXXVII, “Spleen,” from Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. And in his macaronic French, holding a photocopy of the paragraph in his hand, he recited the verses with an air of mystery:
Le savant qui lui fait de l’or n’a jamais pu
De son être extirper l’élément corrompu,
Et dans ses bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent,
Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent,
Il n’a su réchauffer son cadavre hébété
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé.
On the other hand, he added, reading his notes, the waters of forgetting are referenced in John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” as well, and he repeated the unforgettable verses in his English learned in childhood:
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Poisonous wine, venenoso vino, he translated with irony; Borges liked that figure, and indeed, recall his poem “To Wine,” which also alludes to the river of forgetting; and after a rather theatrical pause he recited two verses from the poem in the weary intonation of Borges:
Que otros en tu Leteo beban un triste olvido;
yo busco en ti las fiestas del fervor compartido.
After illustrating those references and others, he asked the students to look for the context of the verses referenced, that is, to read the poems completely. Thus, Renzi brought the class to an end and asked the students to write, for next time, a twenty-line summary of the plot of Sad as She, Onetti’s nouvelle. Please, he said, as he moved away, typewrite it, I mean, on the computer, double-spaced, without corrections, and try to be clear and not to interpret the story but narrate it over again. I will analyze what you’ve forgotten from the plot in retelling it. See you next time, he said, stepping down from the stage to be immediately surrounded by a group of students, all talking at the same time.
Translated by Robert Croll
Ricardo Piglia (Buenos Aires, 1940–2017), professor emeritus of Princeton University, is unanimously considered a classic of contemporary Spanish-language literature. He published five novels, including Artificial Respiration, The Absent City, and Target in the Night, as well as collections of stories and criticism. Among the numerous prizes he received were the Premio de la Crítica, Premio Rómulo Gallegos, Premio Bartolomé March, Premio Casa de las Américas, Premio José Donoso, and Premio Formentor de las Letras.
Robert Croll is a writer, translator, musician, and artist originally from Asheville, North Carolina. He first came to translation during his undergraduate studies at Amherst College, where he focused particularly on the short fiction of Julio Cortázar.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.