Saturday, July 6, 2013

Milan Kundera on memory and conscience- Updated

In my post "Memory and Morality: God remembers all," I wrote about the central role that memory plays in the works of Milan Kundera, literary works that I cherish and to which I return time and again. Kundera certainly grasps the necessity of remembering in order for there to be truth. Nonetheless, he also grasps that human beings are, due to our limited nature, forgetful creatures. In this he would not differ with Pope St. John Paul II, who insisted that the purification of memory consisted first and foremost in remembering accurately and not evading evil episodes, or even trying to tidy them up, or explain them away. After all, to forgive can never mean to forget, at least not entirely. To do so would wipe away the significance of forgiveness itself!

In his second encyclical, Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope, Pope Benedict XVI noted something of tremendous importance: "justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (this also serves to remind me that I need to re-read Derrida's "On Forgiveness," something I read last fall on an airplane and prompted many thoughts).

Reading from the same book of Kundera's essays, Encounter, last night I read something that helped me to tie up a loose end concerning memory and the gap between believing and not believing in God. The essay that contained the clarification is entitled "The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis (a text published in 1980 with two interventions from 2008)." The enlightenment comes from Kundera's first 2008 intervention, when, remarks on his initial response to re-reading his essay on what the musci of Xenakis meant to him after the 1968 Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia:
Reading my old text, seeing the phrases "my nation had just gotten a death sentence" and "the catastrophe that had struck my country...and whose consequences will be felt for centuries," I felt a spontaneous urge to obliterate them, since these days they can only seem absurd. Then I got a grip on myself. And I even found it rather disturbing that my memory should think to censor itself. Such are the Splendors and Miseries of memory: it is proud of its ability to keep truthful track of the logical sequence of past events; but when it comes to how we experienced them at the time, memory feels no obligation to truth...

Russian tanks roll through Prague, Spring 1968

... if we we forget our state of mind back then, there is no way to understand anything
Of course, his desire to revise what he wrote in 1980 clearly arose, in 2008, from the fact that Czechoslovkia no longer existed, there is the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, neither of which are under either Soviet or communist domination. In other words, he was tempted to see his 1980 observations as incorrect, inaccurate, in need of revision, or obliteration. He realized that such a revision is a gross violation of conscience, what happened in the interim notwithstanding. It also reminded him of the transitory nature of all earthly things. Does this not reveal the beauty of Eastern Christian response to someone's death, "May his memory be eternal"?

Update: Just this morning, as I resumed my initial reading of Pope Francis' and Pope Benedict's collaborative encyclical, Lumen Fidei, I was struck by this (which, in my view, is pure Ratzinger)- "The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness" (par. 25).

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