Yehuda Amichai, "Forgetting Someone"

Yehuda Amichai takes an everyday error—leaving a light on too long—and finds it apt for describing one of our hardest pains, that of having to forget someone.

Yehuda Amichai, "Forgetting Someone"

Re: Jonathan Katz, "Could photos of gun violence save lives?"

In "Could photos of gun violence save lives?", Jonathan Katz wrestles with the thorny question of whether releasing photos of those torn apart by guns would create the change in public opinion we need, or simply enable conspiracy theorists and ideologues.  I got a lot out of his reflection on the issue—very much appreciated how he described Susan Sontag wrestling with the same question—but it is this passage I want to share with you at the moment:

I have seen people get shot and bleed to death in front of me in my capacity as a foreign correspondent. And I’ve seen the unedited camera rolls of my photographer colleagues in war zones — pictures of children shredded by machine-gun fire and dying American soldiers holding their own shredded intestines like so much hamburger meat in their hands — both of us knowing full well that such images will never be seen by the public, at least for a generation, or in time for it to have any effect.

Some of us, even without seeing this sort of violence firsthand, know that "children shredded" and "intestines like so much hamburger meat" are unacceptable. That doesn't mean we're always as serious as we need to be. We're merely capable of being more serious when we must.

But as of now there's a significant part of the public, a public whose capacity for deliberation has been stunted by fascist strategies, tropes, and rhetoric, who can sense we want to be serious and will try to wear us out. Why not make idiotic claims about having only one door to defend in a potential mass shooting or rant about how Alexander Hamilton would gladly let any rando have an AR-15? The more we respond to this nonsense,  the more the greater issue is obfuscated, and then Ted Cruz can go back to doing what a sitting Senator does best: playing televised poker.

I myself have no answers about what an image closer to the truth of violence itself can achieve. I do know that a sense of shame is essential to any progress which we might make. We need those who would want to derail any talk about stronger gun laws to be ashamed for trying. This doesn't mean that they need to be converted to saving lives. It probably means that most of us unite in our condemnation of an obvious evil and the rhetoric protecting that evil. That we're willing to make people feel ashamed. But I can't tell you if the right photographs will help us get there.

Yehuda Amichai, "Forgetting Someone"

Yehuda Amichai takes an everyday error—leaving a light on too long—and finds it apt for describing one of our hardest pains, that of having to forget someone. He leads us to dwell on innocent carelessness, bringing to mind just how much anxiety and grief may accompany our smallest omissions. Seemingly insignificant mistakes eventually betray a functional self-image. Still, how exactly you discover your own hollowness requires some explanation.

Forgetting Someone (from The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai)
Yehuda Amichai (tr. Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell)

Forgetting someone is like
forgetting to turn off the light in the back yard
so it stays lit all the next day.

But then it's the light
that makes you remember.

He begins with a gentle accident. In the evening, you put on "the light in the back yard." But it slips your mind the following morning. So now it is light against light, a blaring sun washing over any other source.

Again, the accident is gentle. The image? Light so strong it blots out another of its kind. Amichai quietly builds a descending horror. I'm thinking of the light in the backyard during summer evenings. Friends talking, relaxing, and drinking. Nothing too important, thus the loveliest sort of event. The ease of believing you could spend your life this way, with these people, closely related to loving another and building a household with them.

Amichai has us imagine that love and joy while he voices a lament: "Forgetting someone is like / forgetting to turn off the light in the back yard / so it stays lit all the next day." The light stays on too long, failing to mean what it meant before. Someone may need to be forgotten, as they have moved on. Or another is being forgotten. Either way, there's a notable absence involved, one which can't help but feel vicious and cruel. You ultimately don't want to place blame, but that doesn't mean confusion, rage, and numbness are lacking.

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It took me a long time to learn to forget. To let go of the idea that someone was who I thought they were. When I put it way, I sound more selfish and single-minded than I was. I didn't demand someone conform to my specific idea. There was the simple pleasure of being with someone, with some mistaken assumptions about what they saw and valued. That's it. Since this is an innocent posture, what opposes it seems unnecessarily cruel. The trouble is that there actually is some innocence involved, and the temptation is to overreact on its behalf, to believe a larger injustice is at work.

A silent grief may be thought inauthentic, a shallow gesture toward maturity. Plenty of people screw up relationships, acting selfishly or callously, then pretend like they're better for walking away. Someone really grieving, though, won't bother reacting against this behavior. They are apt to be quieter. They just see the light—"the light / that makes you remember"—after a full day has passed. It is dark again. They remember what was, and why it has to be what was. This time, the light will be turned off. It is a necessary and responsible action, befitting one who has a home.