I Forgot to Title This Conference Presentation: Memory and Its Discontents

Amber Lee
University of South Carolina  

In skimming through a yellowed and brittle issue of La Nación, the Argentine national newspaper, it would seem that June 7, 1942 was yet another Sunday amongst many routine-altered days of World War II. The front page’s left column reports the British onslaught over Germany, while the right mirrors the offense, describing Japanese casualties in Midway. Between advertisements for “Eno’s Fruit Salt” (a “digestive aid” on sale for 70 cents per vial) and “Fernet Branca” (a beverage that should be brought home whenever “one brings a friend”) are accounts of an earthquake in Mendoza as well as an update on rubber rationing, announcing that factories are once again legally permitted to restore used tires.

In skimming through a yellowed and brittle issue of La Nación, the Argentine national newspaper, it would seem that June 7, 1942 was yet another Sunday amongst many routine-altered days of World War II. The front page’s left column reports the British onslaught over Germany, while the right mirrors the offense, describing Japanese casualties in Midway. Between advertisements for “Eno’s Fruit Salt” (a “digestive aid” on sale for 70 cents per vial) and “Fernet Branca” (a beverage that should be brought home whenever “one brings a friend”) are accounts of an earthquake in Mendoza as well as an update on rubber rationing, announcing that factories are once again legally permitted to restore used tires. In Sports, a play-by-play of the national football team’s victory spans two pages, and the Entertainment section promotes Pirates of the Caribbean in Technicolor. However, because June 7, 1942 just so happens to have fallen on a Sunday, the newspaper is supplemented with the weekly “Arts and Letters” section, the final page of which debuts a short story, “Funes el Memorioso,” or, “Funes the Memorious.” Later, in 1944, it would be published in Jorge Luis Borges’s critically acclaimed Ficciones. However, on this particular Sunday, La Nación’s readers were introduced, for the first time, to Ireneo Funes, a peasant who, after falling off his horse and concussing, recovers consciousness with the bizarre “skill” of remembering absolutely everything (Borges 1942).

I say “skill” in scare-quotes because it is easy to presume that remembering everything is a fortunate ability rather than affliction: usually, we associate remembering with good, generative, and positive, while forgetting is bad, lacking, or negative. This is not an unreasonable assumption. For example, memory is one of the five rhetorical canons in part because the Greek tradition relied on orality, and, in the most basic sense, an orator needed to remember (not forget) his speech in order to deliver it. For example, the Sophists considered remembering to be interconnected with reasoning: it was intertwined with the production of thought itself, making invention not only dependent upon, but “impossible without remembering” (Radstone and Schwarz 2010). Notably, Hippias of Elis possessed “such extraordinary powers of retention that, even after hearing fifty names only once, he could repeat them in the order in which he heard them” (Radstone and Schwarz 2010). Subsequently, Hippias used this as evidence that he possessed a “mastery” of memory. Furthermore, Plato’s concept of anamnesis—the concept that people possess an innate knowledge rooted deep within their souls, and that learning is, in fact, remembering—hinges on the value of remembering as good as opposed to forgetting, which is bad (Phaedo). Not only does this hierarchy underscore the Greek concepts of aléthia (unforgetting) as opposed to lēthe (forgetting), but also innumerable other engagements with memory champion the extreme cases of remembering as “good” and life affirming, while warning against forgetting as death. For example, Simonides, the “inventor” of mnemonic techniques, was able to name (and, in a way, resurrect) each guest at a banquet after the dining hall collapsed because he could remember each person’s location, as they were seated at the table (Radstone and Schwarz 2010). It then follows, even if only based on these few illustrations, that remembering is how memory extends, preserves, or affirms life, while forgetting negates, subtracts, and kills. And, while we could go on at length recalling scholars from the Sophists onward who, in some way, champion remembering over forgetting, for the purposes of time and space, let us push forward under the assumption that the glorification of remembering (and, as a result, the valorization of the people who possess such capabilities) continued through antiquity, and has since proved difficult, if not impossible, to forget.

As such, Borges was by no means the first author to become enamored with the prodigious “ability” to remember; however, his orientation towards such a “capacity” differs: that is, Borges takes this capacity to the extreme. Through Funes, he argues that an extraordinary memory is not simply a blessing—or even a curse—but rather, is a violent force. The “extraordinary” capacity to remember does not, as it would seem, lead to an extraordinary affirmation of life—but rather, the denial of it. For example, in the final encounter we have with Funes, he is 19; yet, despite his youth, he looks “as monumental as bronze—older than Egypt, older than the prophecies and the pyramids” (Borges 1944/1962). Three years later, Funes dies of pulmonary congestion. Remembering every breath he drew left no room for new ones.

Funes’s story might ring particularly familiar, especially in the sense of Nietzschean philosophy—which is not uncharacteristic for Borges, who consistently highlights matters of philosophic and scientific import in his fiction. Through Borges’s stories, these often abstruse, intangible concepts come alive: for example, infinity as a point that contains the universe (The Aleph), endings without ends (“The End”), or the eternal return (“The Library of Babel”). “Funes the Memorious” does not break this trend. In a story of barely 2,500 words, Borges animates the ascetic ideal as well as characterizes Nietzsche’s “intuitive man,” all while exploring the vast complexities (and, furthermore, potential consequences) of having an unlimited capacity to remember.

While it is one of his lesser known works, in the second of his Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Friedrich Nietzsche problematizes memory’s interconnectedness with history by claiming that history does not “serve life” (Nietzsche 1874/1995). He articulates this claim through what he calls a “historical closure,” or “horizon”: namely, “what nature does not subjugate, it knows how to forget… This is a general principle: each living being can become healthy, strong, and fertile only within a horizon” (Nietzsche 1874/1995). However, as Nietzsche goes on to articulate, this horizon can also be fatally limiting. For example, the secluded man (or, the “Alpine” dweller), whose only view is other mountains, who is sequestered from the rest of civilization, may live a happy life—one full of “invincible health and vigor”—however, his “invincibility” is because of and dependent upon his strict prison, which he does not recognize as a prison but as the entirety of the world (Nietzsche 1874/1995). His life is an arrogant and ignorant one. Conversely, he who voraciously pursues horizons is insatiable for more because what he has is never enough: it is not everything. In the case of this particular essay, Nietzsche is describing the “historian:” he who consumes and consumes “to the point of constipation”—not only cultivates but valorizes excessive concern for the past (Nietzsche 1874/1995). According to Nietzsche, this indigestion is indicative of sickness as he says, “a limited range of historical knowledge is necessary to the health, happiness and creative powers of a people” (Nietzsche 1874/1995).

In this sense, historical indigestion is an impasse: history does not allow any experience, event, triumph, trauma, sigh, sneeze, or flatulence to pass—it is a closed sphincter to even the most “insignificant” events—because, ultimately, how can even the most “objective” historian say what should be valued through remembrance and what should be denied or forgotten? No one could possibly make that “objective” decision. The problem, however, is not in the decision, but in the system which requires such a thing. The problem lies in the system of curation upon which we rely: if all history is “good”—or, perhaps, worthy of being remembered—the attempt to reclaim, to retain everything renders us constipated and sick. On the other end of the spectrum, it is also problematic to decide or place judgment on what should be remembered and what should be forgotten—in essence, what memories matter and which ones do not.

The connection between extreme and excess is important in that Nietzsche continues to caricature this insatiable desire in the Genealogy of Morals through his description of the ascetic ideal. As Nietzsche claims, ascetic priests are “concerned with one thing: some kind of excess of feeling” (Nietzsche 1887/1962). Similarly, he invites us to imagine such a character in relation to memory. That is, if the “goal” of the historian is to remember everything, Nietzsche implores readers to imagine what such an example might look like, and in doing so, illustrates that the actualization of uninhibited memory may not be monumental, but monstrous: He says,

Imagine the most extreme example, a human being who does not possess the power to forget, who is damned to see becoming everywhere; such a human being would no longer believe in his own being, would see everything flow apart in turbulent particles, and would lose himself in this stream of becoming; … in the end he would hardly even dare to lift a finger. All action requires forgetting, just as the existence of all organic things requires not only light, but darkness as well” (Nietzsche 1887/1962).

Borges has imagined such a character. Not only does Funes embody the incapacity to forget—a characterization of an extreme impossibility (or, some might argue, possibility)—but also Funes’s memory allows him to embody other “impossible” Nietzschean characters. For example, the intuitive man. In Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” intuitive man is opposed to rational man; however, both “men” are equally insatiable and unstable in their “desire to rule over life” (Nietzsche 1874/1995). Intuitive man recognizes and is attuned to difference, yet he is also incapable of not recognizing or not reflecting upon difference: he is incapable of forgetting difference.

While this might not seem worthy of concern, the absolute full “capacity” to remember everything, every difference is in fact incapacitating: the inability to forget renders the intuitive man “just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness” (Nietzsche 1874/1995). The intuitive man falls into the same ditch repeatedly because, to him, it is altogether a different ditch; he curses the storm cloud because to him, it is entirely different than anything else which has encountered. Meanwhile, rational man “forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves.” He is arrogant and mendacious, yet, when the storm cloud approaches and intuitive man is lost to insanity, rational man pulls his cloak about him and steps out from under it (Nietzsche 1874/1995). In other words, Nietzsche’s rational man is all men—all men except Funes.

Because of his exception—because Borges’s main character is unable to forget anything, it is also impossible for him to ignore (or, forget) any difference. Every encounter, every moment, every memory is completely different and new. Such a comportment to the world thus renders language (at best) problematic and intensely frustrating: “Funes, we must not forget, was virtually incapable of general, Platonic ideas. Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol ‘dog’ took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the ‘dog’ of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun the ‘dog’ of three-fifteen, seen frontally” (Borges 1944/1962). Furthermore, “Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree in every patch of forest, but also every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf” (Borges 1944/1962).

And while Funes had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, and Latin, the narrator suspects that “[Funes] was not very good at thinking” (Borges 1944/1962). The difference between learning and thinking, then, marks a shift, both for the story as well as the traditional valorization of prodigious memory: while most scholars traditionally purport the sophistic value of “exercising” or “practicing” mnemonic techniques in order to strengthen it, for Funes, such an exercise would not only be pointless, but impossible. For him, memory is “effortless” in its most literal sense—absolutely without, or absolutely lacking effort. Any effort, any exercise of the mind would be opposite remembering.

That is to say, because of the extreme nature of Funes’s memory, “effortless learning” is not necessarily positive: effortless, in his case, does not denote ease or simplicity, but rather the complete lack of effort—so much to the point where it is not liberating, but incapacitating. Thinking, however, requires something other than remembering—namely, thinking requires forgetting—which, we might remember, Funes is incapable of doing. In this case, thinking (production, generation, creation of something new) is wrapped up in forgetting: as Borges says, “to think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract” (Borges 1944/1962). In other words, Funes could not think because he could not forget.

What we might gather, then, is that our conception of memory operates on a spectrum of negation—a spectrum which we (humans) have constructed—yet have forgotten having constructed. That is, we do not recognize this spectrum as being fabricated. To simplify, common assumption and practice determines remembering, on one end, as “good” while forgetting, on the opposite, as “bad,” and, furthermore (or, perhaps more dangerously so), those who remember are rendered “good,” “virtuous,” “genius,” or “capable”—while those who do not become “bad,” “lacking,” “ignorant,” “stupid,” or even “insane.” Yet, as we have just explored, there is an imperceptibly fine line between genius and insane, between virtuous and evil, between good and bad: there is always a positive or negative connotation, depending on where we place the line on a hierarchy containing a value system we created. In this system, then, there is no possible movement for memory to make that is not negative. When taken to extremes of these constructed poles, Funes, with his total “ability” and “genius” to recall everything is bound to madness, repetition, the inability to create or think—to death. Meanwhile, the absolute eradication or erasure of memory negates not only the possibility of preservation and invention, but also life. Perhaps this is one reason why we find memory to be so viscerally frustrating: it doesn’t operate like the structure on which we have placed it. We have attempted to confine memory (or, perhaps, “define” memory) to a fabricated and flawed fortress, which has, in turn confined and warped our conception of memory and how it “works.”

Any movement within the system, then, is negative: memory is predominately seen through (or, rather, chained to) a binary system and argued through a dialectic—that of remembering/forgetting; life/death; dominant/disenfranchised; good/bad; possession/lack; etc. As we have seen, this predominant assumption that memory operates on a spectrum between remembering and forgetting, on a more or less linear, plottable structure is intensely problematic; however, addressing it against or outside that structure presents its own problems. That is, we cannot simply reject the dialectic, as this rejection merely repeats the same negative movement; however, nor can we continue to repeat the same modes of negation within a polarized structure. As John Muckelbauer argues in The Future of Invention, “any attempt to refuse dialectical change or to move beyond it is necessarily destined to remain trapped within its repetitious negation and trapped by the ethical and political dangers it enables” (Muckelbauer 2008).

As such, addressing memory through such a complexity—a complexity which takes these problems into account—considers that memory both is and is not fluid between remembering and forgetting. Admittedly, in addressing memory as a complex force, it does not necessarily become less frustrating for us, but rather, might frustrate us differently: memory is always both remembering and forgetting, resistance and passivity, life and death—and it is also neither.


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Borges, Luis (1942, June 7). "Funes el Memorioso." La Naćion, pp 10A, 11.

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Muckelbauer, John (2008). The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. New York: SUNY Press.

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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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