Wednesday, April 9

a shared understanding

"The rest I leave to silence," says the watchman at the outset of Aeschylus's Agamemnon. And then he adds, in a translation English audiences might take to be directed at the very presence of an audience: "The house itself, could it take voice, might speak aloud and plain. I speak to those who understand, but if they fail, I have forgotten everything."

What paradoxes of time arise here! If the listeners (in that watchman's future) will not understand, then he (the one whose job it is to pass on signs) has already forgotten what he knew. This seems an odd forgetting, a consequence of something that happens after it—a forgetting caused not by the forgetter's incapacity but by an incapacity in potential co-rememberers. It argues, by implication, for an odd kind of memory—a memory contingent on its seconding in others, cognition needing recognition, according needing recording. Such memory is collective memory, contingent on comparison, confirmation, consensuality—something prefixed with a with. The co-knower, the receiver, is needed to keep the signaller's art and meaning from atrophy.

The memory the watchman speaks of, then, is not only contingent (on his speaking being heard and understood, a theme which will arise again and again in this play) but also expedient. For a shared understanding is a less dangerous one, and some threats make forgetting safer, for the understander who must otherwise stand it all alone...

The watchman is speaking about the perennial condition of art (the muses' mother was Mnemosyne, memory). If we don't participate with the watchman, with the reader and conveyer of signs, he will forget the art of relaying, relating: and he will forget for all of us.

-- Heather McHugh Broken English: Poetry and Partiality