Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting

Eco and Carrière’s bibliophilic discussion in This is not the End of the Book takes us through an astonishing array of different topics. What I found particularly striking in my own reading of the text is the section dealing with memory and filtering (which Grant also touched on in his presentation today). In Eco’s conceptuatlization, memory serves a double function:

On the one hand to preserve certain data, and on the other to allow information that does not serve us and could possibly encumber our brains to sink into oblivion. A culture unable to filter the heritage it receives from previous centuries brings to mind Borges’ Funes the Memorious, in which the title character is endowed with the ability to remember everything. That is the exact opposite of culture. Culture is essentially a graveyard for books and other lost objects” (63).

For Eco, then, memory and culture isn’t merely the accumlation of human endeavors; there is also a complimentary erasure and forgetting that takes place. To preserve everything produced or created in an unfiltered manner would constitute an Eco-ian anti-culture, a force that is detrimental to the health of a particular societyor, if the internet can be classified as a “global phenomenon,” the health of global culture.


As I was re-aquainting myself with some of Plato’s writing (otherwise known as “productive procrastination”), I noticed an interesting parallel between Eco’s notion of culture and Plato’s ideal city-state. In Book II of his Republic, Plato states:

Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in the use must be discarded” (16).

Plato’s ideal isn’t just based on improvement or addition; it is also through the process of a purposeful and necessary discarding that Plato’s republic can come into existence. The culture that survives, that comes through, has its foundations in that which should only exist as lacunae, and the result is that Plato’s ideal republic is also an Eco-ian “graveyard for books and other lost objects.”


However, the trail doesn’t end here. Centuries later, Walter Benjamin takes up the convoluted relationship between the culturally victorious and the defeated, lost, and forgotten. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin writes:

“Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures . . . They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries” (997).

The treasures of culture, carried along with the victors of history, are haunted by those people and objects who have remained anonymous or been forgotten, and these cultural treasures, paradoxically, act as testaments to that which they efface.


Here, we find ourselves in familiar territory as Benjamin gestures towards the dual movement of remembering and forgetting that Eco mentions above, but a question remains: what do we make of the unfiltered material that Eco seems to abhor so much? Will it lead to the collapse of culture, or does it signal a refusal to perpetuate what Benjamin calls the “triumphal procession?”








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