in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, September 03, 2007

Remember to Forget to Remember (old school cows)

As a young man, Nietzsche was jealous of cows. It wasn’t their splendid horns or udders that moved him to fits of envy, or their ability to enjoy (for a second time) the food they regurgitate back into their mouths. It’s just that, well, they don’t remember. Without any sense of Tuesday or ten years ago, cows live a life that’s neither boring nor painful: a life that could be loosely described as happy. As Nietzsche himself wrote, “A human being may well ask an animal: 'Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?' The animal would like to answer, and say: 'The reason is I always forget what I was going to say' – but then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent: so that the human being was left wondering...”

Lumbered with memories, we humans are unable to forget and condemned to remember, so most of the time, our “existence is only an uninterrupted has-been, a thing that lives by negating, consuming and contradicting itself.”

But bingeing changes all that. Booze, drugs, whatever your poison, they’ll wash away painful memories in the sweet tides of oblivion. When some old Dig reminds you irritatingly that ‘A man is not a camel’, what he neglects to mention is that us munters may not be camels, but we’re not far from Nietzsche’s cows. But non-remembering not confined to munters. I just got back from a school reunion, and the weird interplay of remembering/forgetting is something that will stay with me… at least until the booze starts flowing again. That’s why you drink a toast to absent friends… but is present company excluded?

“I feel like I’ve definitely done damage to my short-term memory,” an ex-raving school friend of mine confessed. He’s now a psychologist. “I sit in a room with a patient and suddenly, I forget their name…” He comforts himself by remembering another friend (who forgot the date of the reunion, and couldn’t make it) whose short-term memory has been so bad for so long that he started recording every single drug he’s ever taken, apparently something approaching 1,000 units… This is a horrible thing to want to remember, especially when you still can’t remember the number of the rehab clinic, or you’ve walked into the bedroom with a kitchen knife (again) but can’t remember why…

But apart from short-term memory loss, most of my old school ties had done other kinds of damage to themselves: getting the wrong one knocked up; becoming bull-necked and boring; getting chained to some ‘hell hath harbour views’-type job they seemed to want to resign from… and yet were resigned to… or had even re-signed to… or finding God – good lord. Why do they call it ‘seeing the light’ when it’s much more like a warm, soothing (and sanctimonious) darkness? Ignorance is righteous bliss. God seems to have all the effectiveness of crawling under blankets to stop boogymen (what you can’t see can’t hurt you, right?). But that’s the funny thing about oblivion. For something so frightening, it’s scarily popular. And back at the reunion, oblivion was chilled in bottles, marked CUB.

I got panicked seeing everyone standing there, with their wine and their name-tags. But only half of the panic was because of the memories. The other half was because of the complete lack of memories. Truth was, I didn’t really know who most of these people were. I barely recognised them, even with the name-tags on. Even after they told me who they were (again). So I kept drinking. It worked: by 3am, a wonderful thing had happened. All the people I couldn’t remember had gone… somewhere… home? Back to school? To be replaced by my close group of friends, who, because of all the drinking (just like old times) I could barely remember (just like old times). It was… um… just like old times… stop me if I’ve told you this one before… sorry, what did you say your name was again?

And by the time it was within sipping distance, oblivion had become incredibly cheerful. It was a thirsty, tasty thought. Yes – the fact that the memories of a huge chunk of my life ended up teetering between twenty standard drinks and total personal oblivion was a source of great comfort to me… yes… the grass really was greener on ‘the other side’… It’s true. By 3:30 I was as happy as a cow in the sunshine of the smokeless pub (whose spushy carpet smelt like vomit)… it’s just that I just can’t remember why.

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.