The Woman From Beijing


It probably doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten her name. She was on loan from a university in Beijing, a soft-spoken woman who had left a young child behind in order to take learning wherever in the world it was going. She had experiences unimaginable to me, was old enough to have survived the Cultural Revolution, had read widely and thoughtfully. In her gaze I saw a hard but becalmed stoicism that distanced her from sorrows, perhaps horrors, that have to be abstracted in order to be endured. Her mind turned smoothly and quietly, as if life had taught her that holding back was both a useful tactic and way of keeping in touch with the long view. She weighed words by the ounce. She did not seem brilliant. She glowed.

“Perhaps it is more important to forget,” she said quietly.

With the stroke of that simple sentence she brushed over two hours’ worth of my babblings about memory. The importance of memory: How the Greeks had a goddess, Mnemosyne, to honor memory, give it divine presence, and how they assigned vital cultural functions to Mnemosyne’s nine daughters in the hope that these daughters’ pregnant powers would preserve culture, nurture it, make it thrive.

It is the quality of our memory, I recall myself saying in preparation for a discussion of Elie Wiesel’s Night, that matters most. I’m aware of some of memory’s thorns: The tricks it plays on me, the way it reinvents itself, conflates fantasy and fact, is sensitive to pleasure and pain. I worry too about collective consciousness: How nations recall, invent, mythologize, and institutionalize their histories, and how the construction of collectively shared narratives may affect the rise and fall of empires. I bore people complaining about general American indifference, even hostility, to history, about history conceived as a series of contests defined by the dates of wars and names of generals. The quality of historical memory, I like to think, might be best served not by recall of actual events but by studying a culture’s major and representative works of art.

Secretly I had misgivings about Wiesel’s Night. Wiesel’s powerful book provides a vivid account of an individual’s harrowing experiences, but it does little to provide an understanding of the complex causes, or systems, that made Nazi power and cruelty possible. While eliciting a wholesale emotional reaction against Nazi evil, it does not guide the understanding to an effective targeting of that evil, faces of which perhaps lurk in ourselves. In Night the Nazi world’s evil is real if not well understood; the non-Nazi world includes the rest of us, presumably good. As such Wiesel’s little book strikes a generic chord as melodrama rather than tragedy.

“Why,” asked the woman from Beijing, “should we read this book? Perhaps it is more important to forget.”

Banishing books is unthinkable, but suddenly the thought of banishing thoughts became thinkable. Why canonize, memorialize, Wiesel’s book? She was too gracious to explain, confident that the silence that followed her question–like those Chinese paintings in which empty space seems the main subject–was large enough to contain unspoken answers to the objections certain to be voiced. Why remember the Holocaust? Maybe it is more important to forget.

I wondered if her view was both narrow and long. She had seen much–the busloads of families shipped off to re-education camps and collective farms. And she had read much–no doubt about the Long March and its pleasantries. And she came from a nation of 1.4 billion souls. Six million maybe seemed small in her view, both World Wars sideshows on a greater Asian screen. Was she saying that in the West we are self-absorbed? Should we pay more attention to her history and its enormities?

Eventually the obvious occurred to me: We are by nature calibrated toward forgetfulness, perhaps for survival purposes. As we age we forget where we put the keys, the eyeglasses, the book that was just in our lap, and if we live long enough we (most, not all) little by little seem to lose our minds, rather completely. If the opportunities for self-disgust also increase as we age–via the aches and pains, foul odors, incapacity, incontinence, etc.–memory loss may be nature’s way of encouraging us to make a separate peace with destiny that helps ease us on our way out.

It’s a dark view, perhaps realistic.

So how can we speak to the quality of memory? We know that even when we’re old memory still serves us in pleasurably important ways. Nostalgic moments “relived,” for example, bring an aching pleasure of sorts that evokes the sweet sorrow of loss. And we all recall the same old re-runs over and over again–those defining (call them seminal) moments: The home run we hit in the bottom of the ninth, or the pop-up we dropped, or our wedding night, or that time we told the boss where to go. These select moments are re-run more frequently as we age, digging calcifying grooves into our minds deeper than the furrows on our brows. They are perhaps one way we underline the episodes vital to the story of our lives we feel the need to script in our minds. Yes, the past as memorized is mainly where we live, certainly at the end of our lives and also maybe starting on day one.

But where does this leave Wiesel’s Night? Is it just another book to forget–indeed is it important to forget this book and the experiences it reflects?

I’ve been trying to fill in some of the blanks the woman from Beijing left in her silences. She did offer a frame. “In China,” she said, “we have to forget. It is the only way we can continue to live.”

Paradoxically, of course, she knew her own history well, and would never be able to forget the painful episodes she had personally experienced. But she seemed willing enough to keep her knowledge and pain to herself. She found no use in passing memories of wholesale suffering on to generations approaching their own histories with relatively blank slates.

What then should be recorded on these slates? It’s obvious that memory is selective. The millions of lives lost in World War I, in the USSR during World War II, and in various African nations do not equally have front and center seats in the theatre of the mind. And memory of what happened is always incomplete, sketchy at best and therefore a caricature, so why we remember is central to memory’s usefulness. Do we read Wiesel’s Night in order to remember the Holocaust in order to justify a current politics? If so, then there is a moral dimension to memory. Reading Night in order to remember the Holocaust in order to justify a current politics may be morally defensible if the current politics is morally defensible.

The jury is hung-up on that issue.

In such cases it is perhaps useful to pay attention to how memory is scripted. Do we become inclined to mis-remember our histories, public and private, when we script them as epics rather than as dramas of the absurd, melodramas rather than tragedies? If epic gives us winners and losers, dramas of the absurd level the entire field of players and require a radical re-evaluation of where we fit on the stage. If in melodrama Good and Evil are morally unambiguous and justice is achieved via vengeance performed by heroic figures, it becomes easy to find someone to blame in black and white terms. Not so in tragedy. In tragedy a suffering hero is absurdly scapegoated, made to carry the weight of a historical burden many had a hand in shaping. We read tragedy to remember how we attach blame, misinterpret responsibility, and seek misplaced revenges. Tragedy gives us the scapegoat victims our bloodlust requires, then lets us move on beyond revenge by showing us that we resemble, at least dimly, those who brought the evils on. Such a view requires us to look at ourselves as if through a glass darkly, and to begin the healing at home.

It is that dark glass, that sense of tragedy inside a concentrated gaze, that I remember best about the woman from Beijing.

“The Woman From Beijing” was just awarded first prize for submissions sent to the Monadnock Writers’ Group Anthology (New Hampshire).