5.24.2007

Damnatio Memoriae

Something has to stand in for the other side of immortality, and not surprisingly, the Romans had both a name and a plan for it. Obviously, eradicating every image on a coin, in a painting, or on a statue, and every name scratched onto papyrus or into stone requires some serious overtime and a fairly good idea of where you've left everything you want destroyed. We know (and when I say we I suppose I mean modernity) that when ordered it didn't quite have the desired effect. I imagine a certain degree of notoriety -- or prestige, depending on which side you're on -- must attach itself to being enough of a nuisance to warrant an emperor or senate trying to erase you from history. We certainly seem to remember the few who earned the distinction. I suspect the ordering authorities would lack the sense of humor required to appreciate the irony.

"Damnatio Memoriae" is therefore largely a symbolic gesture of a mangitude that has all but gone out of the universe. This is not to suggest that I would want to inhabit one wherein governmental bodies could still get away with ordering that sort of thing. It's terrifying fascist, calling to mind the Nazis with their book-burning and Orwell's vaporization of unpersons in 1984. Nevertheless, the Roman incarnation has an epic feel to it that for some odd reason appeals to me.

At any rate, my recent encounters with matters of posterity, durable storage media, and the digitization of the archive as a repetition of the manuscript-to-print transition that took place in Europe after Gutenberg got me thinking about what I'd call the pocket-veto version of Damnatio Memoriae. Choosing not to transfer, transmit, or maintain some part of the past is a passive act of damnation. I shy away from introducing the personal to this forum, but my recent photography recovery initiatives and a week's worth of spring cleaning and clutter consolidation have forced me to think fifty years down the line. I have chucked out a few bits and pieces this time around that I had held onto for years with the express intent of periodically revisiting. In discarding the odd keepsake I was very much aware of Damnatio Memoriae. Understanding that I could not rely on my memory to remember what I was throwing away, I began to wonder about what I had already forgotten. What of my own past did I banish from future recollection? Was there anything at all? To what extent is my memory really attached to material cues? To what extent will it be as I get older and there's more to remember (and/or forget)?

From the early years of print and on into the eighteenth century, philosophers, scholars, and other like curmudgeons fretted what they perceived as the deleterious effects of books on memory. Because I have been ruined by popular culture, I turn to movies for an example. From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

Henry Jones: I found the clues that will safely take us through, in the Chronicles of St. Anselm.
Indiana Jones: What are they?
Henry Jones: (silence)
Indiana Jones: Can't you remember?
Henry Jones: I wrote them down in my diary so I wouldn't have to remember.

Which line rather says it all. I am no cognitive scientist, so I don't know what effects writing and the print revolution really had on human memory capacities or operations. But it does seem to me that by not writing something down I am ultimately condemning it to oblivion. I am compulsive hoarder of correspondence, but no diarist, which will at some point in the future give me a very odd sense of a life defined by other people's sentiments. Already I have had noticed that by reading old letters my life seems longer, a phenomenon I hope will offer some comfort when little of it remains. It's all written down; I'll remember it later. One can see why "writing to the moment" perhaps meant something quite different for Sterne than it did for Richardson; the latter was providing "complete" documentary evidence; the former was trying to stall death.

Every time you throw out a postcard, a birthday missive, etc., you are effectively committing an act of Damnatio Memoriae, but rather than just obliterating someone else from the record you are also destroying a part of yourself in the eyes of the version of you yet to come. People burn photographs, throw away correspondence, return gifts at the end of relationships. In reordering my bookshelves I came across some junior-high era yearbooks, and flipping through them I found several photos of people along with their names marked over with black magic marker. Clearly, some of the old ceremoniousness has come down to us from antiquity. And it completely worked; I couldn't make out who they were, nor why I blacked them out. Though nearly twenty years on, I rather wish I could remember what had obviously been big enough a part of my life to warrant the treatment.

Each of us is to some extent our own posterity; we leave things behind at every age for rediscovery. Should you edit as you write, or not?

2 comments:

Padmini said...

Have you read Neil Postman's The Judgment of Thamus?

El said...

Whenever I think about damnatio memoriae, I recall the family portrait on the Arco degli Argentarii and the gaping space where Caracalla's brother, Geta used to be. That gaping space is so startling, namely because it reflects what it is to have your identity chipped away from antiquity.

I'm not sure if I could ever adequately appreciate what it is to be deleted from history. In a contemporary context, nobody suffers this condemnation. Not even the most heinous figures in criminal history. In fact, we are more likely to become familiarised with the iconography associated with their crimes. We would look at the symbol of a Swastika and exactly understand the breadth of its significance.

I do not think damnatio memoriae is particularly reflected in any contemporary method of condemnation, at least in the punitive sense. I think the concept really attaches itself to this innate, unspoken desire that we have to be remembered.. not only in what we have contributed to society generally, but that we are duly venerated by following generations. Perhaps the best way to do that is to keep their all those photographs and letters, for moments that are especially contemplative.