Remembering to forget

Article 17 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) creates the legal framework in the European Union for the right to be forgotten. Couched in terms of a ‘right to erasure of personal data’, this oblivion clause ensures that others don’t have claim to our history. That our past is ours alone.

That we’ve come so far as to require others (governments and corporations, in this case) to erase our prints and forget our past actions should not remove from view that it all began with what may arguably be called the European obsession with memory and forgetfulness.

One of the earliest manifestations of it transpires in the earliest European epic poems, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, whence it spilled voluptuously onto the subsequent history of literature. The ancient Greeks have frequently been credited with developing an obsession with beginnings. Much of Greek thought turned to how things were in the first place, where everything came from, whether it be the universe, nature or human society. The obsession with oblivion, on the other hand, hasn’t been much noted.

In the Iliad, Achilles is a most complex character subject to numerous tensions and contradictions. One of his pre-eminent concerns is eternal fame, in other words, he abhors the idea of being forgotten in death. He rushes all the more anxiously in battle, putting himself at risk, as he is persuaded that his name wouldn’t be forgotten. We can be sure he would never have signed the GDPR directive. Oblivion is the fate of lesser mortals, whose renown or simply memory of their lives was assured by the efforts of those left on earth to honour that memory. Oblivion on Earth had a match in the Underworld, where the river Lethe, ameles potamos (literally the river of unawareness) rendered whoever drank from it self-oblivious – a most terrifying punishment to a hero wishing to be remembered on Earth and to remain aware of his own identity, deeds and glory in the afterlife. The tension between memory and amnesia runs through the Greek understanding of human existence. Securing both worldly and underworldly remembrance agitated the reflecting Greek mind.

In the Odyssey, the obsession with oblivion is built into the narrative. Odysseus and his men are blown off course and reach the island of the Lotophagi, the Lotus-Eaters. It became clear that the fruit of the lotus tree was an oblivion-inducing narcotic. Whoever chew it was overwhelmed with forgetfulness, not remembering who they were, where they were going or what had happened to them: total amnesia, past, present and future. As with all the other obstacles to Odysseus’ homebound journey, the lotus too was an existential challenge: to forget yourself or where you’re going is not much different from death itself.

The Homeric poems are the products of a non-scriptural context. The epic poems were initially performed, not read, and there is no trace of literacy therein. But while the anxiety demonstrated around the question of oblivion in the two poems is one we might call existential – and the epics are rife with similar anxieties –, forgetfulness becomes a concern in a literate context as well. Writing is permanence, the enemy of oblivion, despite the reservations issued by Plato’s Socrates in the Phaedrus. But even there, forgetfulness, which Socrates argues is the result of writing ‘in the learners’ soul, because they will not use their memories’, is the focus of an idée fixe. The struggle against forgetting would focus the mind not on remembering, but on recording – the fixed, transpersonal memorandum that promises to lessen the fear of being forgotten against one’s will.

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