“…to remain alive is to be subject to the grinding force of memory. Day and night the millstone turns, shaping the soul and softening the heart. To some, this going around and around the same subject may seem like emotional paralysis. But there is also something freeing about this attachment to remembrance. One day, one hour, one child, keep cutting through to the present. All other days take shape around this circle of emptiness.” ~V Schwarcz (Bridge Across Broken Time)
I was a child,
Nostalgia seemed a small stamp:
I was here…
My mother was there.
When I grew up
Nostalgia became a ticket:
I was here…
My bride was there.
Nostalgia was a little tomb:
I was outside…
My mother was inside.
My nostalgia is a shallow strait:
I am at here…
The mainland is there.
~ Yu Guang Zhong
“The Chinese expression for “nostalgia” is xiangchou, literally “village sadness.” …xiangchou describes the grief that accompanies the traveler who cannot find a way back to the home village…[it] is not a geographical predicament but a spiritual state of being. First he finds himself outside the mother as a tiny emblem of apartness, then he is the man who contemplates her tomb. The shallow waters of the Taiwan straits are, similarly, not only a spatial divide between the island and the mainland but a reminder of the longing for, and the impossibility of going back to, ancestral roots.” *
*cited: V Schwarcz (Bridge Across Broken Time)
To be human was to be a sentient being who remembers.*
“The third-century classic Jinshu summarized the paradox of memory: ‘Qing you yi sheng, bu yi ze wu qing.’ No words in English can capture the condensed reservations expressed in nine simple characters. The first four summarize ancient psychology: emotion is born out of remembrance. The next five advise the wise to stem this process of arousal altogether: where there is no remembrance, emotion will dissolve as well. The point, simply put, is that distress causes memory. To be sure, it is human to have feelings, but this can be curbed by a willful quieting of the emotional upheaval caused by remembrance.
“Simcha, the Hebrew word for ‘joy,’ has as its root macha, meaning ‘to remove’ or ‘wipe away.’ To be joyful, in this sense, is to be free of the tearful weight of the past.
“In the end, however, neither Chinese or Jewish rememberers settled for the peace of a memoryless world.
“The opposite of quietude can be found in the story of Lot’s wife… Here, a woman who refuses to walk away from history is turned into salt–a concrete symbol of endless weeping. Lot’s wife captures the need to remain connected to the past and dares to stand still when the known world is about to crumble. Although some might argue that Lot’s wife looked back with nostalgic regret for past pleasures, Anna Akhmatova, in the poem, ‘Lot’s Wife,’ suggest she did so out of her refusal to become deaf to the grief embedded in the past.”*
*Vera Schwarcz, Bridge Across Broken Time
Metaphor ferries memory across time. It allows us to enter worlds of imagination and feeling that might otherwise be closed to us …
… memory can take refuge in silence…*
The rememberer … is a person who defies the natural laws of decay, one who makes of the heart a more hospitable ground for traces of the past… The rememberer might also be a lonely rebel against the passage of time. To resist the erasers occasioned by this passage, memories have to be written down.
Although yi (memory) brings up unsettling emotions, and simcha (joy) depends on wiping away old aches, remembrance remains the only way not to betray the past.V Schwarcz, Bridge Across Broken Times
“Reachable, near and not lost, those remained amid the losses this one thing: language.
“It, the language remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its wounded wordlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and giveback no words for that which happened.” ~Paul Celan* (cited: V. Schwarcz, Bridge Across Broken Time p. 85)
*Poet, translator, essayist, and lecturer, influenced by French Surrealism and Symbolism. Celan was born in Cernăuţi, at the time Romania, now Ukraine, he lived in France, and wrote in German. His parents were killed in the Holocaust; the author himself escaped death by working in a Nazi labor camp. “Death is a Master from Germany”, Celan’s most quoted words, translated into English in different ways, are from the poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue). Celan’s body was found in the Seine river in late April 1970, he had committed suicide.
“…memory can take refuge in silence…”*
Nikon D750 f/7.1 1/400s 135mm 3200 ISO
*cited: Vera Schwarcz, Bridge Across Broken Time
We become one man
awash in dreams
as you tell old stories
from back home.
The string of recollection
rouses new hope:
we will craft
even livelier tales,
brimming with wonder,
illuminated by electric bulbs,
mirroring the sheen
of ancient cinnabar.
This night’s prattle
meanders along a foreign river,
revives a sorrow soul
as if no earthy shadows followed.
~ Chen Yinke*
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 me 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