I would like to tell you a story, a personal one, in which the personae dramatis are your narrator himself and his mother. It’s not a particularly grand story, but rather one of everyday conflict, the kind that every person and their parental unit has all too many similar.
The story begins with an extraordinary ability of mine: the ability to forget. This ability doesn’t encompass all kinds of forgetting—my long-term memory can be quite good on occasion, and my working memory also proves itself adequate for the purposes of test-taking, writing, and the like. It is in the ambiguous space between the two, the time after my attention switches to another topic and before I am forced to recall again, that my brain seems to be quite challenged.
It only takes me a handful of seconds to remember plenty of examples from even just the past few weeks, most in the realm of losing things: over break, I left my keys in the Bay Area because I put them in a drawer and forgot about it; just before break I had lost a water bottle, so I brought another back and proceeded to lose that one; I forgot where I locked my bike up over the break, and spent two days looking for it when I got back; and when someone asked where I finally found it, I told them the wrong location only to remember two days later I had found it in a different place. This might seem like a long list, but to me it’s actually rather short, and I’m pretty sure upon reflection a few days in the future I’d find I have forgotten multiple instances of similar forgetfulness. This might seem frustrating, and it can be—but often, I haven’t even noticed that I’ve lost or forgotten anything until much later. My attention shifts and stays so until slapped in the face with a reminder. Just a few days ago I spent a good 30 minutes organizing an allergy shot appointment for later in the afternoon, only to forget to take the necessary premedications, which I’ve taken for every appointment over the past year and a half. Somehow all of that thought was not enough of a slap to bring the topic to mind and keep it there.
You can imagine how deeply I felt Nietzsche’s undertaking of the concept of forgetfulness. For Nietzsche, forgetfulness is a strong and resolute human force. It is built into our minds not as a defect or shortcoming of the faculty of memory, but rather an active faculty of its own merit, one that plays a key role in the genealogy of morality and punishment that Neitzsche is attempting to describe. For if one is to understand how humans came to have a sense of morality, a conscience, one first has to understand how humans came to have the right to make promises—i.e., the ability to make promises and keep them in the first place.
Nietzsche makes a superficially obvious point: if one makes and keeps a promise, there must be the “continuance of something desired once,” a desire to do something that is unbroken from the time of the desire to the time of the action (58). He calls this the memory of the will. This ability isn’t something to be taken for granted, as there are many necessary cognitive abilities to be considered that only developed relatively recently on the scale of human evolution: the ability to “distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distance eventualities as if they belonged to the present,” etc.
Even once we developed these abilities, the force of forgetfulness fights back. Forgetfulness, Nietzsche argues, has its own distinct functionality, and is in fact a “robust form of health.” It allows us to flush our minds of the old and use the space we have for new and cognitively complex tasks. One only has to read once Borges’ story Funes the Memorious to cling tightly and gratefully to this ability.
Let me now return to the personae I introduced at the outset: my mother and I. You can imagine my habit of forgetfulness caused some amount of strife in our family, only because it correlated so heavily with my inability to follow through on promises. Not weighty, important promises; but if unsuccessfully asked to complete household chores after I finish my homework more than a handful of times, it would probably to any reasonable person like I was skirting responsibility. At 5:30 I would agree to set the table for dinner at 6:30 wholeheartedly intending to do it, only to get sucked into whatever project or assignment needed my attention and forget the whole thing happened.
I’m not arguing that I had no responsibility to begin with, but rather that the failure was negligence to adapt that a younger me would have to counteract and grow beyond over time. I now have better systems of checks and reminders, strategies to make sure I don’t simply let things flow out of my consciousness too liberally. I seemed to be too robustly healthy for my own good, and certainly for those around me.
Nietzsche might be on board with this practical solution, but it is not quite what he is concerned with. He wanted to know not how to retain memories in the face of forgetfulness, but how memories were created in a more indelible way. How something of a conscience, a moral tool that diligently remembers what is good to do and bad to do, came about. This is how memory is connected to the genealogy of punishment: for Nietzsche, the strongest and most comment mnemotechnic is pain. This is how we as humans remember the societal and religious decrees of “do’s” and “don’ts”—it was burned into our memory through bloody practices carried out over centuries. Personally, I find this is exactly why I do a much better job of remembering important promises than lower-stakes ones. While the latter can cause conflict when often repeated, the former is so painful to break out of forgetfulness even on the part of the negligent that one scarcely makes the same mistake twice.
This account is both a powerful explanation of the sociological history of humanity and punishment, but also a rather incisive and thoughtful analysis of human nature. Our bloody, gruesome histories that might otherwise be hard to justify or explain for Nietzsche follows directly from our innate cognitive abilities and our desire to live and function in (hierarchical) groups. Nietzsche looks not at what we wish morality and conscience were, or even what they are now, but out of what necessary conditions they arose. When seen with such clarity, it seems hard to view the unimaginable cruelty and suffering we humans inflicted and continue to inflict on each other in any other light.
For my part, I’m just glad I was allowed to remain forgetful. It is a virtue of my mother’s forgiveness (and perhaps forgetfulness of her own) to have avoided using this tact, however successful it would have been and may be for other parents, on my own memory and lack thereof.