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Pain, Forgetting and Good Digestion

‘It is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting’.

On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life

In a previous post, we looked at the human animal’s exceptional capacity for remembering and noted the fact that this is very much a mixed blessing. Remembering too much can keep us trapped in the past, re-living painful experiences that we have yet to come to terms with and move on from – in Nietzsche’s terms: experiences that we have yet to forget.

Nietzsche uses the metaphor of digestion for the way people should deal with life’s experiences. Each experience should be digested (processed), extracting what nourishment we can from it (learning), before passing it out of our systems (forgetting). To be hung-up on past experiences is, for him, a kind of psychological constipation.

‘A strong and well-constituted man digests his experiences (deeds and misdeeds all included) just as he digests his meats, even when he has some tough morsels to swallow.’

On the Genealogy of Morals

In this vivid metaphor, he describes being unable to forget as a failure to ‘relieve’ one’s self.

But in fact, for Nietzsche, we forget all the time and we would be unable to function if we didn’t. The issue is more about forgetting enough things and forgetting the right things. But perhaps this claim itself needs examining. Do we really forget all the time? Sure, we occasionally mislay keys and cellphones, forget where we’ve parked our cars or forget passwords for our online logins, but do we really forget in the habitual way that Nietzsche suggests?

It’s important to understand what Nietzsche means by ‘forgetting’. Yes, he means forgetting in the absent-minded way we normally understand the word, but he also means ‘putting out of one’s mind’ or ‘neglecting to think about’. This forgetting can be unconscious (when thoughts are unknowingly repressed) or conscious or even somewhere in the grey area between the two.

For example, often in life we are faced with choices where the options are numerous and the consequences significant. Too much choice can overwhelm and paralyse us, so we simplify the choice or limit the scope of our considerations to make choosing more manageable. We focus on a few simple options and forget the rest.

I read about an excellent example of this kind of choice-paralysis recently. In one American state, convinced that more choice is always better, municipal workers were offered a choice of over 40 pension plans. What happened? Pension enrolments dropped off dramatically – exactly the opposite of what was intended. Hardly surprising. We like choice but there are limits.

Some examples of more wilful forgetting: we buy cheap coffee or fruit and ‘forget’ that the real costs are borne by exploited farmers in the developing world. Really, we know, or at least suspect, that these products are cheaper to us to the precise degree that they are subsidised by driving down the wages and the working conditions for these already poverty-stricken communities.

Similarly, we ‘forget’ about the child labour and sweatshop conditions that provide us with clothing and we ‘forget’ about the abuse, neglect, overcrowding and wholesale slaughter that puts the meat on the clean, well-lit supermarket shelves (with regard to this last example: look at the bizarre vitriol with which vegans are attacked online by some who eat meat. Is this because the vegan commits the crime of reminding people of that which they are actively choosing to forget?).

Right now, it is helpful to forget that a few hours’ flight away, there are Syrian children dying of malnutrition.

Facts like these are made easier to forget by society as they are usually kept out of plain sight. Their reality becomes just an abstraction for us, which makes them much more easy to dismiss from our minds. How many times have you crossed the road to avoid a homeless person or to dodge a charity collection? Often, we don’t want reminding about such things – we resent it even.

It is important to understand that Nietzsche doesn’t claim that you are doing anything wrong by pushing such injustices out of mind. In fact, he says it is a sign of good health to be able to do so. This may sound callous to us, but remember that Nietzsche is making an observation rather than a recommendation. Quite simply, the sheer cruelty and unfairness of the world would crush us if we did not filter most of it out. So humans have a natural, in-built tendency for ignoring such outrages.

To live at all is to accommodate one’s self to universal injustice. The food you eat and the comforts you enjoy are denied to another person who could be in your place, eating that food and enjoying that comfort instead. Living things must eat each other or they will die. The world is not a fair place.

‘It requires a great deal of strength to be able to live and to forget the extent to which to live and to be unjust is one and the same thing.’

On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life

Another example of forgetting: some Christians claim that those who do not embrace Jesus as saviour will burn in Hell, yet somehow manage to sleep soundly in their beds, undisturbed at the thought that billions of ordinary men, women and children are bound for an eternity of agony. As so many of these Christians claim compassion as a core tenet of their faith, how are they not driven insane at the thought of such stupendous suffering? Perhaps they are able to forget. Perhaps they don’t really believe. Perhaps a little of both.

Then, of course, there is the vague awareness we all have of our own mortality, as well as the insignificance of each of us, and our projects, on a cosmic scale - indeed the insignificance of our tiny planet itself. How is it that we can enjoy a pleasant family dinner when everyone around the table will be rotting in their graves before too long? Certainly, we sometimes have moments of grim contemplation on these realities, but if we are to get on with life, such gnawing anxieties must be dampened, dismissed or repressed.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes about Shakespeare’s Hamlet who has ‘looked truly into the essence of things… gained knowledge, and [found that] nausea inhibits action’. People who reflect on life from such a perspective know that ‘action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet… true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action’.

The nihilism that such meditations engender is a key concern for Nietzsche in his radical attempt to redeem life – to justify human existence. That is a topic we will pick up elsewhere. Suffice for us this far to recognise that:

  • The human animal tends to suffer an excess of remembering which inhibits flourishing.

  • The human animal employs strategic forgetting in order to be able to live and flourish at all.

  • Therefore, could it be that discriminating and skilful remembering and forgetting can be used to promote a life of maximal flourishing?

Is it possible to control what one remembers and what one forgets? Nietzsche would argue it is. How is this done? We will explore this soon, but first we need to understand where the anomalous human propensity for excessive memory actually springs from.

Next Post: A History of Memory

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