DEATH BY BEHEADING AND A BOOK REVIEW OF “FORGETTING: MYTHS, PERILS AND COMPENSATIONS”

Charlotte Corday was executed by guillotine.

The death penalty in the United States is frequently criticized and whether you are for or against the ultimate penalty largely depends upon your level of education; the more educated you are, the less inclined you are to support it. (Source: 8 bar room discussions divided evenly between university bars and blue collar joints located in industrial areas). But even the states with the most draconian sentencing policies existing today (e.g., Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, etc.- you get the drift) pale when compared to the ease at which the guillotine was used by the French- particularly during that period known as the “The Terror” (aka “The Reign of Terror”) that occurred from 1793-1794. In particular, a prosecutor named Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, who carried out the dirty work for Robespierre who helped start a revolution to purge France of all those who were deemed a threat to national security. Tinville prosecuted legions of suspected enemies of the movement on dubious grounds and sent them to their violent beheadings, often within days- there was no due process. Tinville showed no mercy to anyone. The new “Revolutionary Tribunal” rounded up and sentenced to death (by guillotine) over 1,370 men and women for fictitious acts of treason. Moments before their death, they were permitted to write farewell letters to family members or those close to them. Of significance, almost all of them wanted to be remembered as honest and innocent- they would include personal items such as a lock of  their hair or a portrait as “a token of their memory”. A compelling accounting of Charlotte Corday’s last few days before her violent execution is provided in this book. When the revolution was defeated, Tinville would be arrested and executed by guillotine and write his own farewell letter. The point made is that people did not want to die a “second death” by not being remembered; photography and portraits would play into this emotional outlook on death as well.

In this book, “Forgetting: Myths, Perils, and Compensations”, translated from Dutch to English, author Douwe Draaisma writes about why such condemned people want to be remembered, and he looks at such topics as repressed memories (or rather, why they don’t really exist), why dreams cannot be fully remembered, why a colleague might subconsciously steal another’s work and claim it as his own (“unconscious plagiarism”), total recall, the impact of photographs on the memory process (the picture becomes the memory), why someone cannot remember faces, and other interesting aspects of the memory process (or lack thereof).

Draaisma discusses why a child’s “first memories”, as depicted in biographical memoirs, or other “historical” accounts, are largely unauthentic and “the product of literary craftsmanship and in that sense far removed from a child’s experience”. A child doesn’t really begin to have memories until they are between three and four years old. A child has to “experience” something before he can recall it, and also be able to use language to describe the experience before it can be a memory. Sometimes, “What we call forgetting is in fact the loss of memories that have never been recalled”

The author spends a fair amount of time on dreams. He says that dream images “are rarely experienced more than once, so repetition, which is generally a powerful strategy for remembering things, does not occur” (except in recurring dreams that are memorable). He analyzes Freud’s theories about dreams and other topics related to repressed memories. Once again, Freud is characterized as a sexist and fraud.

He debunks myths like “we only use 10% of our brain” and that “women are better at multitasking because they have more connections between the two halves of their brains”. He explains why the theory of “absolute memory” is so improbable because every day we lose an average of almost 100,000 brain cells, some 30 million a year, although the brain consists of over a billion cells: A brain is not a machine; it is an organ with all the frailties of decay and rot attached.

The author’s writing about these subjects is entertaining and educational and not recondite. I can recommend this book.

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