Friday, July 02, 2004


Remembering and Forgetting

In the second circle of Hell, Francesca da Rimini laments (Dante, Inferno 5.121-123), "There is no greater pain than remembering past happiness in the midst of present misery" (nessun maggiore dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / nella miseria), especially when there is no prospect of any future happiness on the horizon.

The commentators on this passage cite Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy) 2.4.2: "But this is what especially vexes me when I remember. For in every adversity of fortune it is the most unhappy kind of misfortune to have been happy once upon a time." (sed hoc est quod recolentem vehementius coquit. nam in omni adversitate fortunae infelicissimum est genus infortunii fuisse felicem.)

We might turn Francesca's statement on its head and say, "There is no greater pain than remembering past misery in the midst of present happiness". It makes your sunny day suddenly overcast. In Vergil's Aeneid, Dido asks Aeneas to describe the fall of Troy, and Aeneas says (2.3), "You're asking me, Queen, to renew an unspeakable sorrow" (infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem).

The ability to forget is a powerful medicine for our psychological health. In Funes, the Memorious, a story by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the hero remembers everything, and it is a curse for him rather than a blessing.

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