I have posted a few times about literature and forgetting before: here, here, and most recently here. In all those posts, I looked at literary endings (or thereabouts), as places where forgetting and remembering might both be required. I have been thinking about whether I could find similar dynamics in the midst of works, where forgetting is germane to proceeding rather than concluding. As it turns out, the example which seems most apt is a passage I have pondered many times, not least because it has been a set text for those of my students who choose a Latin literature option: the end of Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 6. This is Dryden’s translation:
Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish’d ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro’ transparent horn arise;
Thro’ polish’d ivory pass deluding lies.
Of various things discoursing as he pass’d,
Anchises hither bends his steps at last.
Then, thro’ the gate of iv’ry, he dismiss’d
His valiant offspring and divining guest.
Straight to the ships Aeneas his way,
Embark’d his men, and skimm’d along the sea,
Still coasting, till he gain’d Cajeta’s bay.
At length on oozy ground his galleys moor;
Their heads are turn’d to sea, their sterns to shore.
Aeneas is the hero, the founder of Rome. Anchises is his father, or rather the shade of his father, for at this point Aeneas is leaving the underworld, where he has been a ‘divining guest’, a visitor receiving prophecies of his descendants’ glorious future. Aeneas moves on purposefully – ‘Straight’ – and commences his settlement (or invasion) of Italy.
The exit via the cave of sleep has two gates. One is the departure point for ‘true visions’, the other ‘deluding’ ones. This seems like a conventional sort of allegory, a way of imagining the origin of dreams. However, when a human has to walk through the gates, they take on additional, strange, tangible significance. Virgil is clear: Aeneas leaves by the path of delusions. The implication – a somewhat indirect one – is that he will forget what he has heard in the underworld. He does not mention the prophecies again. He fulfils his destiny unencumbered by knowledge, though perhaps he is fuelled by the residual conviction.
The tangle of thoughts about prophecy and forgetting helps us see the strange burden of being Aeneas. He is always the founder of Rome, always destined for greatness, and yet he finds his way there through humans pains and failings. The work needs its readers, too, to rediscover what it already knows, that Aeneas will found a great city, but then to set that knowledge aside and engage with the narrative’s fears and doubts. This is hard to do, paradoxical – but the point about literature and ‘motivated forgetting’ is that it’s not simple, and it’s counter-productive in some ways.
The neural signs of motivated forgetting discussed in my first post on the subject arise when we have to do something about unpleasant, painful, and/or embarrassing experiences. It seems telling, then, that Virgil includes the figure of Marcellus in the line of Roman heroes that Anchises shows Aeneas. Marcellus is the nephew of Augustus, Virgil’s patron and Rome’s leader. He died young, much lamented. The appearance of this figure, unexpected, discordant, tactless, painful, in the glorious parade, might be just the sort of thing that motivated forgetting might helpfully downplay. Better to keep things on track. In conjunction with the two gates from the realm of Sleep, this puts further stress on the way that progress through glory and pain may involve forgetting and remembering in a precarious balance. Even if Marcellus is the kind of thing we might productively forget, and Aeneas seems to, most readers don’t.
Finally, I think there is a parallel with the end of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve leave the Garden after a long prophecy about the traumatic future of mankind, and its ultimate hope of salvation. Milton is not as tantalizing as Virgil on the subject of memory, but it must be at stake to some extent.
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
They are all on their own, unsure where to go, not clued-up about how to proceed. Nevertheless, they must carry with them the promise of salvation, and that must retain its relationship to the generations of conflict and suffering. They are not facing what mostly lies in the past for the reader, which adds further twists. However, this is another ending, and this was meant to be about middles.
Perhaps what the Aeneid knows about motivated forgetting is not just that it sometimes needs to be done. It is one way, as the scientists suggest, of holding life together in a consistent shape. However, it is a flawed system: some things aren’t easy to forget, others really should not be forgotten.