- Representations of Forgetting in Life Writing and Fiction by Gunnthorunn Gudmundsdottir
In her new book, Representations of Forgetting in Life Writing and Fiction, University of Iceland Professor of Comparative Literature Gunnthorunn Gudmundsdottir offers a two-part analysis of forgetting across life writing and fictional texts. Part I focuses on the "role of the forgotten" or "scenes of forgetting" in contemporary representations of life writing, ranging from conventional autobiography to social media. Part II is more culturally oriented, covering fiction as well as autobiography. Gudmundsdottir explores the social and political consequences of forgetting and draws her examples from a variety of histories in the West. The particular texts under scrutiny in the volume are intriguingly idiosyncratic. The objects of her attention vary from Norse mythology in the first chapter to photographs in the book's coda, including the American contemporary photographer Sally Mann. Most of the texts Gudmundsdottir analyzes in her book were published in a single decade, from 1995 to 2005, a period during which questions of remembering and forgetting produced what she calls the "millennial memory boom" (131).
The introductory chapter is comprehensive and does a good job of reviewing the scholarship of memory and forgetting with a particular emphasis on life writing and representation. Gudmundsdottir's examination of essential theoretical writing on forgetting leads to her laying out her own perspective in which the binary of remembering and forgetting have a Derridean dependency. Forgetting, she writes, is always part of memory. She invokes the work of Marc Auge in his short, graceful book Oblivion (2004). Her first sentence quotes Auge's aphoristic formula: "Tell me what you forget and I will tell you who you are" (1). Auge's writing about forgetting is highly evocative and poetic. He reminds us that forgetting is a condition of living: "Oblivion brings us back to the present, even if it is conjugated in every tense: in the future, to live the beginning; in the present, to live the moment; in the past, to live the return; in every case, in order not to be repeated. We must forget in order to remain present, forget in order not to die, forget in order to remain faithful" (89). For Auge, forgetting makes it possible to live in the present. [End Page 413]
Gudmundsdottir also leans on Paul Ricoeur, who in his last big book Memory, History, Forgetting (2004) argues that forgetting is, to some extent, an instrument used to control individual and cultural memory. He cites three abuses of memory, all of which involve forgetting: "blocked" memories, resulting from trauma that serve individual psychology either benignly or pathologically; through "manipulated memory," a tool of power to control identity within the nation-state; and "obligated" memory in which political power through amnesty or censorship sets the requirements for and limitations on what is remembered and forgotten (see 68–69, 445). Gudmundsdottir follows Ricoeur and others in tying remembering to forgetting. She evokes the memory boom of the end of the millennium that saw the enormous production of memorials, museums, and memoirs to remind us that at the same time, various cultural pundits voiced apocalyptic proclamations regarding, as Andreas Huyssen put it, the "waning of history" and cultural amnesia (14). Gudmundsdottir reminds us of some of the major tropes of forgetting, such as water imagery, drug- and alcohol-induced forgetfulness, and the literary expressions connecting the fear of being forgotten to mortality. In addition, she reviews the practical purposes of forgetting, of discarding some memories to emphasize others, as the autobiographer constructs a narrative and, with narrative, constructs a self to be remembered. She reminds us about the necessity of the forgotten in what is remembered: without the doubt created by the hesitations and gaps in memories, the memories themselves might seem overly insistent and thus suspect.
The central question of the second chapter, "Forewords and Forgettings: Introductions and Preambles in Autobiography," has to do with the way that forgetting functions in prefaces and introductory chapters across life writing. The chapter begins with the role of forgetting in...