- The Questionable Past
Many of the pieces in this issue concern the challenge of understanding the past. Andrew D. Cohen's essay "Television Days" describes the importance of television in one family's memory and history. M. G. Stephens's essay on the British painter Francis Bacon takes a fresh approach of portraying the artist not by recapitulating his chaotic, alcohol-driven life but by illustrating and dramatizing it through the physical evidence of his extraordinary studio, re-created in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin.
Julyan Peard's story "A Man from Zagreb" retrospectively recounts a young married woman's affair when she was living in New York with a baby, bored with her husband and her life. The story describes the weird feel of certain episodes in one's past that can be recalled in detail yet cannot be fully felt or remembered—as if they belonged to another life. In "The Mariposa," Maggie Shipstead writes of an illegal Mexican immigrant tormented by memories of his wife and his own recent behavior, even as he prepares for her arrival in this country. Tsung-yan Kwong's story "Tooth," about a mythical hero of the North Korean gulags, is a masterful and disturbing speculation about the reliability of memory, particularly memory of trauma, and of the need to reinvent reality to make certain recollections bearable. [End Page 5]
In Richard Bausch's dreamlike narrative poems, the past remains undisclosed, but its presence lies just beneath the surface, influencing meaning. Daniel Anderson's poems explore our dubious grasp of the past. In "The Hills, Beautiful Hills," the speaker climbs into the attic of his youth, looking through the memorabilia and thinking about the ways in which a family's past is a natural phenomenon that fades away like the hills in a photograph of his grandfather. Mark Kraushaar's meditative poems range from imaginary reflections by the dead to fantasies of the past and future of an identical universe. All three of these poets share a concern over how much of our histories we should hold on to and what influence they should have in our lives.
I recently went on a fishing and camping trip with friends in the San Juan Mountains north of Durango, Colorado. Five of us rode horses fifteen miles and stayed in a campsite at 10,500 feet. My oldest friend, J. B., had arranged the trip. We've known each other since we were toddlers. One evening we sat in the kitchen tent trying to stay warm and awake, recalling the night we both first got raging drunk, at age thirteen. On that night in 1959 we mixed a half-dozen kinds of liquor and liqueurs, mostly from his mother's liquor cabinet, chuffing them down and getting vividly sick through the rest of the night; for J. B., the sickness spanned the following three days. There were details he recalled about the night that I had forgotten, including our attempt to walk to the Dairy Queen at midnight, falling into the bushes as we dodged police cars on the prowl for kids out past curfew.
In the company of old friends, what surprises me is not forgetting shared experiences or remembering them slightly differently but the fact that we have anything like the same memories. Perhaps that is a simple confession of aging. Yet psychologists have grown increasingly skeptical about the human ability to remember and accurately recount the distant past, just as historiographers are dubious about our understanding of history. This declining faith in our grasp of "what really happened" has taken a particularly dramatic dive over the past century.
Jonathan Littell's recent novel The Kindly Ones (published in English in 2008) dramatizes the questionability of human memory with frightening believability. It recounts the life of a World War II German SS officer, Maximilan Aue. Aue is active in mass slaughters, especially of Jews, in the Ukraine, and later he serves as a bureaucrat under Himmler, helping manage [End Page 6] the Final Solution. The book's stunning power comes from the fact that while its narrator, a classical-music-loving intellectual, presumably remembers the details of his...