Forgetfulness -by Francis O’Gorman
- a DougInNC book report
- “More than a Review”
This reader’s summary, is definitely far “more than a review.” You’ll find far more length and far more analysis than even my usual missives on books. Please settle in for an extended ride.
For this book I endeavor to capture chapters 1 to 4. This could free another reader to delve directly into the concluding chapters 5 and 6. Those latter two units have greater philosophical focus and provide ingredients for critical thinking about the implications of Forgetfulness.
My decision to take this approach was an outgrowth of (1) gifting the book to a distant friend having only perused reviews, (2) feeling I should read it myself to be fair to the friend, (3) finding the writing at the outset to be a challenging compilation, (4) hoping to encourage my friend’s pursuit, and (5) seeking a better position to discuss the thoughts of O’Gorman when meeting my fellow reader.
This blog post will recount the essence of those first four chapters. It is therein that the author develops background and constructs his position.
Three parts follow:
Part I. A description of the book, in the author’s words.
Reviewer Summary, Part I. The author’s descriptions of his work:
- Page 5 – “Forgetfulness concerns the disappearance of pasts … a phenomenon, which commences in earnest in the nineteenth century … the almost completely successful attempt by modernity … to focus human minds on the future, … downgrade history and render care about it a weakness …”
- Page 16 – “This is a book in defense of active analytical remembering; … taking the trouble to think about achievement rather than simply about promise.”
Page 5 – It is “… in praise of valuing, or minimally in simply remembering better, what consequence history has bequeathed to us, of deeds and things.”
- Page 12 – “The subject is what the loss of histories might mean for a contemporary understanding of cultural identity … and the challenge of fundamentalism and nationalism.”
I defer my critique of the above claims until Part III of this summary.
Reviewer Summary, Part II. Chapters 1-4:
Ancient Greeks and Romans were anchored in their culture’s past. Their gods built, framed, and affected their present world. Mindfulness of the gods was paramount. History and legend taught the ways of the good life. Their past was powerful.
Thoughts in italics indicate a personal perspective added to those gleaned from the author.
This “… memory culture’s relationship with time is one in which the past is central: the primary location of meaning and the ground of duty, respect, and law.” (page 8)
These memory cultures were “… a way of existing in a community where shared assumptions about history and the vigor of continuations were necessary. To forget here was to destroy.” (page 24)
Those societies were organized into city-states. Exile from the state awaited those of the greatest transgressions and was feared, like death. The exiled lost their connections, which were sacred to the way they lived and what they lived for.
Ancient death was depicted as a process that took the dying further and further from the real world, and was seen as the crossing of rivers, indeed a ‘passing.’ The final stage was Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, after which there were no memories. Death was the ultimate banishment, a total loss of connections.
Modernity (at least in Europe and North America) differs from antiquity both for end of life and the life being lived. Two major inflection points pushed away the past.
Christianity is one of those, directing much thought toward the fate of the soul. The ultimate aspiration became a lasting connection to God. The impact of Christian thought seems a proper attribution in Forgetfulness, but is not a deep focus.
Modernization is the other great inflection point, beginning to surface late in the 18th century. It has made future-focus paramount within the bounds of the living world. Revolution, industrialization, and mobility/migration are the forces that gave rise to it. The structure for this modern drive is nearly impregnable, sustained by “technological, financial, psychological, and material” factors. (page 66)
A celebrated modern goal is to become the ‘to be,’ or create the next new thing. However, the ‘next thing’ is frequently redefined before the prior ‘next’ is achieved.
“… [T]he future to which our minds are so comprehensively directed is often chimerical … false futures … always and anyway replaced by new ones as if reaching an end-point is by definition a disappointing experience.” (Page 10)
Business plans are guides for modern growth, and they are also the false promise that the future can be written, claims the author. To capture the future, in word and deed, takes precedence today over capturing history as a guide. Watchwords of today are innovation, entrepreneur, growth, productivity, and opportunity. Note that these terms are forward-looking.
Literature transitioned along with lifestyle. Poetry and allusion, once dominant, compelled the reader to think in order to learn. Today narration is the dominant literary format. Fictional narrators lay it all on the page. Non-fictional material provides explanations for all things (whether that telling is truly factual or only the appearance of such).
The loss of history with its lack of ‘memory culture’ is unsettling because it creates “multiple forms of rootlessness — in loneliness, dislocation, sorrow, …” (page 7) and a dearth of satisfaction.
“… the desires contemporary culture creates within us for what is to come are those that, even if obtained, will always be replaced by other ones …” (page 87)
Why is history less of a focus today? In addition to uprooted connections to the past, “[t]he business of comprehending something from days long gone requires time and labor: reading, traveling, looking, thinking.” (page 138)
Further, the target is literally moving and the shift is tectonic. European emigration numbered in the range of 11 million during a span of 50 years in the mid-1900s. Over the next 50 years, straddling the turn of the millennium, that direction flipped to immigration in numbers three-fold greater, or 35 million immigrants (page 162). History is harder to discover and hold with the gaudy pace of change in the world.
Historical eddies seem to appear in the flow of modern life, but they are surface aberrations rather than a changing of the tide pulling the world away from its past.
Nostalgia is a quaint anomaly with admiration for arts, crafts, and architecture. Scrape the surface and find, in most cases, these passions are simply means to a monetary end.
Environmental focus is a sidebar, though one apparently with promise per Mr. O’Gorman:
“… A significant strand of modern nature writing [contains] a gently counter-cultural assertion of continuities. It has provided a literary practice that modestly returns the body and mind to a relationship with pasts …” (page 155)
“Forgetfulness” also explores poststructuralism, a phenomenon birthed in the second half of the twentieth century. (“The Death of the Author,” Barthes, 1967) This line of thought is the ultimate weapon for disconnecting with history because it conceives that everything written is open to new interpretation by each reader.
“…[T]here is no real or dependable relationship between a word and what it apparently meant …” [when it was written or spoken]. (page 125)
One finds post-structural thought playing a role in the last chapters of the book, where society’s disjointed debate around twenty-first-century issues is addressed. Nationalism, cultural wars, Brexit, open borders, and identity politics are key topics.
Francis O’Gorman acknowledges that few have the propensity of time and material to forge their own deep connection with history and develop their own ‘memory culture.’
He does not explain how modern society could shift to a greater focus on history, but seems to hold some fascination that the wonders of nature can form the path. This offering of lofty words could inspire the outside-focused:
“To stand in an immense starred night is to be a citizen of the universe.” (page 159)
Reviewer: These quotes epitomize the strength of this book and also the weakness that may, paradoxically, be its greatest gift. The strength is the compilation of ideas. The weakness is that many are borrowed, not new thoughts (these missives are from Lewis-Stempel, Solnit, and Deakin, respectively). Still, the gift from O’Gorman is that he exposes the reader to abundant lines of study from many periods and professions while building his thesis.
Read “Forgetfulness” by Francis O’Gorman to expand your thinking.
Perhaps this summary, focused on chapters 1-4, allows a time-pressed reader to enter at chapters 5 and 6, wherein most thoughts are directed toward our present world.
Reviewer Summary, Part III.
The remainder of this review provides the reader’s perspective concerning some topics addressed earlier. Thoughts in italics continue to indicate personal observations of the reviewer, not the stated position of the book’s author.
First, repeating the author’s depiction of his work, and adding evaluations of the effort:
Page 5 – “Forgetfulness concerns the disappearance of pasts … a phenomenon, which commences in earnest in the nineteenth century … the almost completely successful attempt by modernity … to focus human minds on the future, … downgrade history and render care about it a weakness …”
The bold goal for “Forgetfulness” to document this ‘phenomenon’ is quite well supported in the text. The broad use of varied references that shaped the thoughts of the author is admirable. The detailed reference list in the book’s back matter is impressive.
Page 16 – “This is a book in defense of active analytical remembering; … taking the trouble to think about achievement rather than simply about promise.”
These proclamations are not achieved as well as the author might feel they are. The book could more be described as a lament for lack of remembering.
Page 12 – “The subject is what the loss of histories might mean for a contemporary understanding of cultural identity … and the challenge of fundamentalism and nationalism.”
This claim is catchy marketing, but found to be minimally addressed in the text. O’Gorman does give the reader an ability to understand that the chasm between nationalist thinking and modern liberal thought is difficult to bridge.
Second, the reader extends the point that literature has moved away from poetry to narrative. Perhaps it is continuing to move toward ‘the next thing:’
A contemporary literary shift is the abundance of tales in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Readers and viewers are given visions of the ‘next’ stage of the world and readily absorb them. This is a distinct departure from the aspirational nature of poetry and the telling of history.
Third, the reviewer has observed, in his own environs, illustrative and amusing examples of ways that modern focus is dismissive of history’s elegance:
Valuable antiques? Replace them with furnishings that can and will be quickly replaced. Beautify the world around you? Replace lawns with artificial turf. Admire nature? Declare the beauty of a blooming rose to look “as good as a silk flower.”
Finally, recent events are recalled that seem for this reader to reinforce that post-structural attitudes continue to influence the meaning of words and acceptance of a “blank page” to define history:
In the past decade, Merriam-Webster elected that the word ‘literally’ could be used to mean ‘figuratively,’ a decision I found to be quite absurd.
That dovetails with a second reported item, youthful proclivity to spell ‘whoa’ as ‘woah’ and declare it proper because “the dictionary should change to match me, not the other way around.” (Wall Street Journal, September 2019, quoting a college student).
A third reference event shows greater impact than linguistics. A U.S. Federal judge issued a verdict in a 2019 case of national importance, declaring the matter at hand should not be settled on the basis of decades of prior rulings that repeatedly affirmed one position. A half-century of precedent was reversed by the court. Indeed, as explained in the book, the loss of ‘memory culture’ continues to generate disconnection, even unto the common law of Western society. As author O’Gorman conveyed:
A “… memory culture’s relationship with time is one in which the past is central: the primary location of meaning and the ground of duty, respect, and law.” (page 8)
Once again, read “Forgetfulness” by Francis O’Gorman to expand your thinking.