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Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Faculty of Oblivion

. shut temporarily the doors and windows of consciousness; to protect us from the noise and agitation with which our lower organs work for or against one another; to introduce a little quiet into our consciousness so as to make room for the nobler functions and functionaries of our organism which do the governing and planning. This concierge maintains order and etiquette in the household of the psyche; which immediately suggests that there can be no happiness, no serenity, no hope, no pride, no present, without oblivion... -- Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

Of those old familiar tunes that beckon seductively as Chapels-of-Ease along the winding path up Cemetery Hill, none is more insidious than the wordless song of that beautiful and helpful concierge, the faculty of oblivion, humming to herself without affect as she cheerfully performs for us that service we remain forever doomed to fail to do for ourselves, the work of forgetting.

File:Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin 019.jpg

The Soap Bubble: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, c. 1739 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The Laundress: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, c. 1735 (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)




These two beautiful Chardins, alongside FN's thoughts on "oblivion" / "forgetting" -- something Heidegger also talks about, as in "Complete measureless oblivion, i.e, concealment, wold exclude the least ground of the essence of man, because oblivion would allow no disclosure and would deny unconcealedness its essential foundation." (What is his German word for "oblivion" I wonder.?


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed green of leaves in left
foreground, no sound of wave in channel

system of coordinates, this
“principle” connected

to talk of velocity, bodies
in a field, processes

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
wingspan of tern flapping toward ridge

Robb said...

Ahhh, yes. Right in my wheelhouse yet again, Tom. I always forget about "the work of forgetting," so I'm glad she's on the job. And I'm glad you're on your job, delivering delights such as this to us.

TC said...


One of the most serious charges that Heidegger levels against the entire history of Western philosophy in Sein und Zeit is Seinsvergessenheit or the oblivion of Being. He suggests this oblivion of Being is very evident in metaphysics, paradoxically so, in his view, because the subject matter of metaphysics is Being. How can Being be forgetful of Being? (Paraphrasing thus, one feels a bit like the CGI robo-Heidegger in the video.)

Nietzsche on the other hand finds oblivion a useful, even necessary helper: " Oblivion is not merely a vis inertiae, as is often claimed, but an active screening device, responsible for the fact that what we experience and digest psychologically does not, in the state of digestion, emerge into consciousness any more than what we ingest physically does. The role of this active oblivion is that of a concierge..."

His account of its work parallels in an interesting way the proposition of Francis Crick (the DNA guy) that dreams perform a psychic cleaning function.


Forgetfulness and dreams, what more do we need?

Maybe a mental picture of Nietzsche and Heidegger in our wheelhouse?

~otto~ said...

There were a couple reasons I chose this pic as my avatar. First, Nietzsche had a pretty great mustache, especially after her lost his mind. Second, I feel the way he looks all the time. He was a smart man, said a lot of very quotable things. A lot of other smart people said some equally quotable things that contradict some of his assertions. Thinking about this shit can make a person go mad. But it is good to ponder, helps one live a fuller life.

Much of what Nietzsche said is over my head. But much of what I think I grasp doesn't do much to help me enjoy my life. God might be dead, but whether god is dead or not, doesn't matter to me. Or at least that statement doesn't. Unless that statement just means we have lost any sense of objective truth. I'm okay with that. That's probably true, but how can I be objective? Ugh, this is the circle of insanity.

If I must have a mental picture of a philosopher in my wheelhouse, I'll go with Buddha for now: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

That agrees with my common sense. So does this: "With our thoughts we make the world." And I also like that this chubby dude doesn't just paint everything happy. Life is suffering. The end. Now, to navigate through that suffering.

One last quote: "No one saves us but ourselves, no one can and no one may."

Yeah, that sounds about right to me. We are all going to die. No escape. We can be upset about that or we can accept it and try enjoy the time we have on this earth. The sun is out. The trees are fully green. I hear children playing in the park.

~otto~ said...

(Here's the link to the pic of my avatar)

Curtis Roberts said...

For me Chardin has always seemed to paint and express silent moments. This is equally true in the pure still-lifes and the paintings that contain figures.

Therefore, to see these paintings paired and linked with these words (yours and Nietzsche’s), words that aren’t silent by nature (even if you don’t read them aloud you say them in your head), but which describe “the wordless song”, “a little quiet”, “the work of forgetting” and protection from “the noise and agitation” is fascinating.

Reading your prose poem and the Nietzsche passage in conjunction with the paintings, the first thing that came to mind were Henry Green’s words in Pack My Bag about the difference between poetry and prose: “Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go.”

There is so much more to say and discover in The Faculty Of Oblivion. It’s a wonderful achievement and I think it shows the potential of ekphrasis to open up worlds unthought of and unknown. It deserves much more than my quick analysis and expression of appreciation. I think I’ll be with this for a long time.

TC said...


I totally and completely agree that the chubby dude was speaking the truth, straight up, about where we stand in this infinite game in which there will never be any winners and the only point is to keep on playing as long as one can, then leave with the game still going and nobody noticing you are gone. "Life is suffering. The end. Now, to navigate through that suffering."

I love that furious Nietzche avatar of yours glowering at me like a cartoon figure of fulminating intellect. I pretty much sip Teutonic Thought with a long, long straw. Tend to go against the grain in my thinking (and have paid the price!). When heavy comes my way I automatically want to be light, and then again, the reverse is also the case. But I like the fact Nietzsche will at least work in a metaphor now and then; and as you can see it was for the figure of the concierge that I consulted him here. I like a metaphor now and then, speaking of tending to go against the grain. Heidegger on the other hand, these days, mostly makes me want to reach for a cool Moose Drool. If only.


Thanks very much for your great eye, again.

I went straight to Chardin for the figuration here, as I suppose one might have gone to Dürer had the theme been melancholy.

The astonishing decision to paint everyday scenes involving common household situations and the modest parties thereunto in moments of reflection seems to have been encouraged by Chardin's audience, in any case it was a lucky one. The "kitchen" paintings seem to me historical in a way some of his "historical painter" contemporaries weren't. And the light, and the disposition of forms and masses, the "quiet" palette, the unsentimental regard toward the children and the governesses, the harmonies, the sweetness, the... well, everything. I love it all.

Of course here the ekphrastic element is the soul of the thing.

I love that beautiful Green sentence about the web of insinuations, it is indeed itself proof of what it proposes.

Curtis, your keen notice helps me take heart to keep on with this strange crawl out on this rather frail limb.


Thanks Tom for further thoughts on H. Keep crawling out on that frail limb. . . . .

aditya said...


The faculty of oblivion is an astonishingly brilliant title for the prose poem.

Of what all I have read of Nietzsche, he comes across as a fine man albeit a little self contradictory at times. And these words, yours and Nietzsche's, come as a pleasant start to an otherwise very boring day at the hostel sans the food and company.


Yes. I agree with your quoted Buddha statement. This could be a fine outlook towards life.

In absentia, Tom?? The faculty of oblivion has been a tad too benign with me lately.

Hope you doing fine ..