if I go to heaven I will forget you,
if I go to hell you will forget me.*
In China a person who will not forget the past is described as ‘one who did not drink Old Lady Meng’s soup.’ Borrowed from Buddhist folklore, Old Lady Meng dispenses the Broth of Oblivion to souls leaving the last realm of the underworld on their way to reincarnation. After drinking her soup, the soul is directed to the Bridge of Pain that spans a river of crimson water. There, two demons lie in wait: Life-Is-Not-Long and Death-is-Near. They hurl the soul into waters that will lead to new births.
Old Lady Meng is more than a quaint antidote for the Greeks’ Mnemosyne. She embodies a psychological understanding about the forces that promote, indeed demand, forgetting for the sake of ongoing life. It is not enough to note that water is linked with amnesia in Chinese folklore as much the same way that the river Lethe is associated with forgetting in Greek mythology. The challenge here is to make sense of the distinctively Chinese attachment to remembrance in spite of the benefits of Old Lady Meng’s soul.
In Jewish tradition, too, the benefits of amnesia were acknowledged along with the sacred commitment to recollection. There is a midrash, or Torah-based story, that teaches us a lesson similar to that of Lady Meng: ‘God granted Adam and Eve an all-important blessing as they were about to leave the Garden of Eden: I give you, He said, ‘the gift of forgetfulness.” What is so precious about amnesia? Why would God, who demands fidelity to memory, offer the relief from recollection?Perhaps it is because without some ability to forgive and forget we might become bound by grudges and hatred. To remember everything may be immobilizing. To flee from memory, however, leads to an ever more debilitating frenzy.(40-41)**
*Arang and the Magistrate
Munhwa broadcasting corporation
**Bridge Across Broken Time
Initially posted on October 10, 2013