On Boston and Forgetting

Sigmund Freud has a very short piece titled “A Noted upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad'” where he discusses a technological metaphor for memory and the subconscious. The Mystic Writing Pad was this notepad type thing that was composed of a clear plastic sheet, a piece of paper under it and a piece of some wax/clay thing under it that would allow for imprints to reflect back to the user. Allowing for these notes to be kept for as long as the user desires, the sheet of plastic and paper can be lifted up to erase the notes they once held. Freud makes the parallel to memory and the subconscious through the ability of the wax to hold the messages once on the surface while mixing and matching all the things that had once been imprinted onto it from the user’s experience.

Currently, Boston’s Mystic Writing Pad is one which has the events of the past week firmly collected and archived, displaying the events boldly. The emotions and the events are writ large for Boston, but I really hope that both the city and the inhabitants of this country can go forward and collectively lift the paper from the pad and try to forget.

I’ve been trying to write a piece on the bombings and the subsequent search of Boston for some time now and I have had a lot of trouble. I am not a Bostonian. I grew up about 45 minutes south of the city. My uncle lived in Cambridge for most of my life and now lives about 20 minutes north of Boston. I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years in undergrad living with a friend of mine in Wakefield, another semi-suburb of the city and worked in South Boston as an intern. I have a ton of memories of the city and I haven’t really been able to make much sense of what has been going on.

It isn’t all that easy for me to say it, but Boston needs to forget.

This is not a very new thought. Forgetting is seen by many as a negative object. The assumption is that we are losing something when we forget it, but we must understand that it can also be a positive and productive process. We must be able to replace the ever-consistent response to tragedy of “Never Forget,” with an understanding that forgetting may be better off than constantly remembering. Some can never forget. They will be constantly reminded by the events or will have such trauma imprinted upon them physically and psychologically that it will stay with them forever. I understand that. I understand that my distance from this allows for me to even broach this subject and suggest that we forget.

Forgetting might allow us to see what will follow this more rationally. Maybe we will be able to react in a way that doesn’t view these actions and people as ordinary. We got caught up in this idea that terrorists were the norm after 9/11 and while these are completely different events that need to be handled in completely different ways, I am terrified of the differences not being understood, leading to similarities in the responses.

It is in the attempt to forget that Freud’s metaphor runs straight into the ground, just as many metaphors used eventually do. They lose their ground somewhere. They can only go so far. The wax that sits behind the screen of paper is one which is imprinted permanently upon the experience. Memory doesn’t fade, it just becomes jumbled with the multitude of other imprints upon our memory, when we discuss the Mystic Writing Pad. But we should not take this dead end as a dead end to forgetting. We should acknowledge the labor that is required in forgetting, just as there is labor in erasing the totality of the Mystic Writing Pad. The user is required to melt down the wax, or knead it until the marks of the stylus of experience no longer show. Forgetting is difficult at times, especially when in temporal proximity to the event itself.

I honestly don’t know if forgetting would help at all. I don’t know if this piece of writing matters in any way, shape or form either. I’m just starting to think that there is something to trying something different. And, honestly, what is more different from “Never Forget,” than “Work to Forget”? How about we give it a try.

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