The persistence of memory and the blessing of forgetfulness

A recent article in the New York Times, “Borges, Paradox and Perception” (read it here reminded me of one of those abiding problems that makes me look at the world in a different way.

The writer, William Egginton, discusses the relationship between Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Funes the Memorious” and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. (A copy of the short story may currently be found here You must read it. I will grant no exemptions. You must.) Egginton says that “that the uncertainty principle was intuited by Heisenberg’s contemporary, the Argentine poet and fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges, and predicted by philosophers centuries and even millenniums before him.”

Egginton then goes on to suggest that what all these scientists and philosophers–and at least one poet, Borges–shared was the assumption that the world presented itself to us in paradox, inviting us to infer physical continuity and a separate reality not contingent on our own observation. Yet deeper analysis always ends by confronting us with the elusive nature of observation–that to observe is to manipulate and that the act of observation changes the observed.

Borges’ fictional Ireneo Funes is a human being tormented by the perfection of his memory, a peculiarity that befell him after an accident that paralyzed him. He now remembers everything he has ever observed in all its detail and particularity. The result is that he is completely incapacitated from generalizing, as he cannot erase enough details from his observations to see overarching ideas or themes. (Yes, Borges mentions Platonic forms.) He writes of Funes before the accident:

“…For nineteen years he had lived as one in a dream: he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything.”

Or, as Holmes observed to Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “You see but you do not observe.” We are all half-blind, ignoring and forgetting what we see.

“…Now his perception and his memory were infallible,” Borges continues. “Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.”

What Funes lacks is uncertainty; he alone is granted perfect perception and the result is a nightmare. In a world without blurriness, continuity becomes impossible. (Any mathematicians reading this are laughing beneath their breath, thinking of how continuity is defined in their field.) Perfect knowledge is paralysing.

And thus the ability to forget becomes a blessing. In Jewish tradition there is an “angel of forgetting”. Among this angel’s jobs is visiting every fetus just before its birth. Apparently we each spent our time in the womb learning all of Jewish tradition and, just as we are about to be born, this angel touches us and we immediately forget everything we have learned. (The little dent above your upper lip marks where the angel touched you.)

But for me the real truth of this charming midrash is that forgetfulness is a necessity for living in the world. By letting our experiences cloud over a little, we exchange perfect observation for reasoning and understanding. This Heisenbergian trade-off is what allows us to ignore the paradox of the world for long enough to live in it.

One of the qualities attributed to God is omniscience–a quality that causes no end of trouble philosophically. (How do you reconcile divine omniscience with human free will? with cause and effect? with time’s arrow?) But we, as imperfect copies made in God’s image, are spared the burden of omniscience. Instead we can live in the paradox of a world that is all too real and at the same time not real at all.

Yours for more imagination and less reality,


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