Pain, Memory, and Commemoration

Only a week ago, in Berlin, Germany, the memory of those devastated by the gruesome and calculated extermination carried out by the Germany of National-Socialism has been commemorated. As in every international Holocaust remembrance day, I come to ponder the memory we are commemorating. For most of us have not witnessed, nor survived, nor fought against, nor died while fighting, these forces. We are witnesses of these memories only in their re-writing, in their annual repetition. I also ask myself if these memories can retain their importance for the ones who are only the descendants of the humanity of that era? If in our commemoration, we are not only able to sketch the contours of what can never be truly recollected again?

In his book, Tashach (1948), gifted writer and holocaust surviver, Yoram Kaniuk, provides us with a definite answer. He argues that even he himself, a surviver, a fighting partisan, does not remember the “horrible pain” but only “remembers that he has pained”.

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Yoram Kaniuk (Photograph by Marcel Molle)

The Wunderblock:

In his attempt to describe the mechanism of memory, Freud uses the metaphor of the Wunderblock. The Wunderblock (known in the 1980’s, in its developed version, as the “Etch A Sketch”) is an old children’s game composed of a board made of wax and a cellophane screen. The child draws on the screen with a plastic pencil leaving marks on the wax board. The Wunderblock is so “Wunder-ful” because it enables the child to pull off the screen from the wax board and make the drawing disappear. Nevertheless, when describing the Wunderblock, Freud insists that the drawings on the wax board is never fully erased, but carries a “remainder” which is indefinitely carved on the board. Freud argues that the mechanism of memory functions in the same way. The child’s etching on the cellophane screen akin to the conscious experience – constantly processing sensual stimuli. The wax board akin to the unconscious, the place where these experiences are copied and indefinitely preserved.

wunderblock

While Freud’s Wunderblock metaphor seems to be quite relevant for the description of the mechanism of memory in simple organisms, and even more developed animals, Lacan argues that it is not sufficient for the description of the memory of human beings (speaking-beings). For example, it is quite evident that my cat still acts in accordance to an exact copy of her experience of “horrible pain”. She was adopted after going through the hardships of the life on the street, and thus usually reacts with an immediate attack/flight whenever she experiences the tiniest of unidentified noises or movements in her surrounding. Every time she does so, it seems she is experiencing (in a concrete and unmediated way) that “horrible pain” at the root of her traumatic past. Nevertheless, when we talk about humans, memories do not function in the same exact way. That is because for us memory is not a mater of imprinting but of converting – the conversion into a signifier. Or in other words, the conversion of the “horrible pain” to the signifier that has “pained”.

What Keeps on Not Being Written:

For each one of us, the “horrible pain” at the root of our traumatic past can only be considered in terms of an object already lost. A Thing of the real, which was not directly inscribed in the unconscious, but converted to a signifier and only then retroactively inscribed. Accordingly, when Yoram Kaniuk argues that he “remembers that he has pained”, he represents that “horrible pain” with a signifier – he instates a signifier in the place of the real Thing. A Thing which was lost, which could have never been directly inscribed, but is only inscribed through its conversion.

Therefore, the memory of the holocaust can never be the memory of the Thing itself, but only its conversion to a signifier. For us, those who did not directly experience the “horrible pain”, it is a conversion of a conversion – an inscription of an inscription. A two-fold process, which is sometimes at the risk of losing its touch with the original traumatic core. That is why the commemoration taking place in the international Holocaust remembrance day is so crucial. It represents our collective insistence to inscribe that un-inscribable trauma, to find it a place in between the signifiers – in between ourselves. This is the only way the collective traumatic experience can find its place in the course of history. Through this paradoxical attempt. For the real can be made present, only in its absence, when it is eclipsed by the signifier.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

* Great thanks to the brilliant teacher, Gavriel Dahan, which gave a lecture on the 24.4.2015 on which this post is based upon.

Demand (minus – ) Need (equals = ) Desire

 Babies and cats are spoiled and selfish creatures. That is why, whenever I am faced with my cat’s selfish narcissistic tendencies, I ask myself – “can these creatures even have the capacity to love?” Faced with this predicament, while taking into account that babies and cats are also quite silly creatures, I find myself truly doubting that they are able to comprehend such a complex concept (a concept that for some of us is even incomprehensible) like love.

This makes me a little paranoid, and so I wonder – “if these silly creatures don’t really ‘love’ me, what kind of relationship do we have? Taking into account the fact that in their limited developmental stage babies and cats have no capacity to comprehend the concept of love, what do they feel towards me?” Thinking of my cat, I come to one conclusion – what she feels is the need to be fed.

And indeed, humans (we’ll put cats in parenthesis for now) are born with a variety of organic needs which are necessary for their survival. Furthermore, because we are born way before we are developed enough (physically and mentally) to fulfil these needs on our own, we are dependent on our adult caretakers to fulfil them. This physiological fact – rooted in the baby’s helpless undeveloped (but cute) starting point – entails something very real about us humans – the fact that we are originally and necessarily dependent on the care of others.

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These others, or more precisely, these adult caretakers, are the ones who surround the child from birth and take care of his or her needs whenever they randomly spring out of somewhere. Nevertheless, as some of us know too well, it is hard to understand what exactly the baby truly needs and when. And indeed, after a terrific time in mommy’s womb – a place where all needs are immediately satisfied – in the first days in the outside world, the baby is faced with a bunch of unfulfilled needs and a group of naive humans that can’t telepathically understand what he or she whats when he or she wants it. Accordingly, in order for their needs to be satisfied, young humans must be quite resourceful in taking on themselves a new relationship with signifiers, with the language of the adult world in which they are engrossed, and to articulate – in one way or another – a demand.

And indeed, just like that, through trial and error, we see babies starting to adopt the ways of the others and communicate with them using signs, movements, and sounds. In this way the baby’s needs are transformed into a demands, as they are symbolically articulated by the child in order to be satisfied in a timely and efficient manner (“blink once if you are hungry”). It is through this early relationship with language that the organic body composed of the child’s primal instinctual needs is re-appropriated by the signifier, and is utilised in the creation of demands which are framed by signs or language.

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Jon Beinart, Toddlerpedes, 2006

Nevertheless, when the child’s need is transformed into a demand – mediated by language – a new set of worries and repercussions which are alien and external to the domain of the original physiological need arises. For when needs are directed towards the others as demands, they are not only composed of the basic physiological need, but (as some of us know too well) also come to satisfy the desire for the attention and love of the caretakers to which the demand is directed to.

Parents find very quickly that when they wake up at night to the cries of their baby (or cat) and run quickly to their room, they find them – quite timidly – just lying there not physically needing anything. But do they not need anything? Well, yes, they do not need anything speaking in a strict physiological sense – they desire something beyond need. And indeed, according to psychoanalysis, when a demand is articulated in language it always entails an additional dimension which is not included in the domain of the original need. This is the domain of the desire of the others – their affection and love; a domain which, undisputedly, reaches beyond the limited sphere of the satisfaction of the particular physiological need.

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Accordingly, Lacan insists that every demand – when it is subtracted from the original need – is in fact a demand for love.* More precisely, he claims that whenever an original need is articulated in language as a demand, we are faced with a uniquely human side effect – the formation of the demand for the attention and affection of the other to which the demand is directed.

Listen to your children and cats! Whenever a young child calls out to his mother, “I’m thirsty!”, it is possible he in fact means that he would like her to bring him his water bottle, but beyond that, it is quite possible that he also actually wants her to bring it to him – that she will give him her attention and affection by doing so. In other words, that she will see him as her object of desire.

It is therefore not surprising that one Lacanian definition of desire is: the remainder of the subtraction of the need from the demand articulating it in language. According to Lacan, desire gains it consistency from the fact that when a child articulates his need in a demand, something is left out. Something in language is not able to grasp the full scope of the child’s original need. That part of need is what, according to Lacan, is primally repressed, and in turn engenders the place of Desire.

But what is exactly the love of the other which the child desires? Lacan gives us the following answer – the desire for the love of the other is in fact the demand for the others desire (read that again). Meaning, the other’s capacity to desire – the part in the other which desires. In other words, we can say that when the child demands something from the other he also desires the part in the other which is desiring.

This initial form of desire is also manifest in our adult life, in our relationships with the ones that we love or that love us. It appears in the demand for love, not as the satisfaction of a need, but as a satisfaction of the desire for the desire of the loved one.

If we are lucky enough (and this is a discussion for another time), we find out quite early in our lives that this demand is impossible to fulfil. That is because human beings, like you and me, don’t really have a specific part in our bodies or minds which is desiring, and can be cut out and given to another person as a present. Non of us are really the practical owners of our capacity to desire. Accordingly, in the face of our lovers demand, we are left helpless – for there is no way we can truly satisfy it. There is no pleasure, nor promise, we can bestow on our lovers that can be equivalent to the thing they demand in the first place. All we can do as lovers is in actuality – lie. Providing our lovers with these accepted artificial signs that signal we really do love them; repetitively giving out indicators which simulate or even falsify our giving them what we cannot give them in the first place.

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If we are truly truthful in to our lovers we should tell them – “my heart is not really mine to give”, or “I do not want to give you promises which I know I cannot fulfil”. That is why Lacan claims that only liars can truly answer the demand of their lovers with a straight face – “my love is yours!”.

Let us briefly conclude that the very familiar indicators of love that we so gladly enjoy in our romantic comedies and novels, are exactly the ones that make us forget or ignore what makes love so singular. These indicators are beautiful lies which stimulate our desire; unattainable fantasies which aspire to fill in an ‘un-fillable’ void. We must remember that, quite on the contrary, love is exactly the acceptance of this void, the forfeit of the words that will explain and promise what is to come; it is the movement from the desire-of-a-‘thing’, to the love-of-the-‘subject’.

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Salvador Dali, Tristan and Isolde, 1944

 

* Please see Lacan, Jacques. Écrits, “The Signification of the Phallus”.