- From Haunting to Trauma: Nietzsche’s Active Forgetting and Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster
Part I. Active Forgetting
In the second of his untimely meditations, Nietzsche suggests that a cow lives without boredom and pain, because it does not remember.1 Because it has no past, the cow is happy. But the animal cannot confirm its happiness precisely because it does not have the power to recall its previous state. It lives unmindful of the past, which, as it gives happiness, also takes it away from the animal. Nietzsche uses this example to point to the liberating power of what he terms “active forgetting,” a willfull abandonment of the past that is beyond the capacities of the cow:
In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness... it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration.(UD 62)
Nietzsche calls for an abandonment of the past because, as he says, it “returns as a ghost and disturbs the peace of a later moment” (UD 61). Too much past precludes action, happiness, and further development. As an antidote to this predicament he suggests a critical discourse on the past that would be attentive to the needs of the present and able to distinguish between what in the past is advantageous and what is disadvantageous for life. Thus “active” forgetting is selective remembering, the recognition that not all past forms of knowledge and not all experiences are beneficial for present and future life. Active forgetting is then part of a more general attempt to rationalize the relation to the past and to render conscious—in order to overcome—all those haunting events that return to disturb the calm of a later moment.
Nietzsche’s understanding of forgetting stands in marked contrast to that of Plato.2 For Plato, forgetting—forgetfulness—is a predicament of human, that is, mortal, embodied, and historical creatures; for Nietzsche forgetting seems to be the opposite, for it enables the human to step outside of history, to, in his words, “feel unhistorically.” While for Plato forgetting marks the disaster at the very origin of thought, for Nietzsche forgetting is evoked for its potential to save humans from history, which is regarded, at least in part, as a disaster. That Nieztsche regarded history as a partial disaster does not imply that history itself is either a falling away from the immediate, or solely a history of infliction, and, therefore, a politically overdetermined term.3 Such conclusions would miss other points made by both Plato and Nietzsche: that history is not one, that it does not have one direction, that there are moments in it which interrupt the totality history is supposed to be. For Plato, the loss that is forgetting is constitutive; for Nietzsche the loss is inflicted: in both cases, however, the centrality of forgetting reveals the kind of emotion, if not outright fantasy, with which history is invested—namely, the fantasy that history has a unifying principle and can serve as a unifying principle, a horizon of meaning of a given culture or nation.
But the ghost that haunts does not come from elsewhere; it comes from here and now. In this essay, I treat Nitezsche’s call for active forgetting as a puzzle—how, indeed, can humans forget? What is forgetting? In what follows, I will try to show that active forgetting, when understood as a moment within the Eternal Return, opens memory onto the radical alterity of forgetting by relating a possibility for history to a discourse about and in time. I focus my discussion largely on Nietzsche’s key essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” and move from haunting to active forgetting to the Eternal Return as I argue that Nietzsche’s critique of history requires us to think about disaster. In part II of this essay, I turn to Blanchot’s writing of the disaster, and argue that Blanchot’s understanding of time echoes and extends Nietzche’s critique of history. I conclude with a consideration of the issue of trauma itself.