One of the many good memories I will carry with me into 2013 was hearing the author Salley Vickers speak in Winchester last November. Her debut novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel–which I talked about in my last post–remains a close and trusted friend, one of those few books I can always turn to when I need to walk a little taller or to remind myself who I am.
Not that it is a book about heroism or achievement or courage in adversity. It’s a book about the power of quietness–the quietness of Julia Garnet herself, and the quietness of the forces that start to work on her when she arrives in Venice. The power is shown the more clearly when Miss Garnet’s friend Vera Kessel visits from London, untouched by the few weeks’ transformation that Miss Garnet has experienced, and full of the cynicism of the lifelong communist and the certainties of ignorance.
Agnès Morel, the eponymous cleaner, arguably needs inner transformation more than most. A foundling raised by nuns, she becomes pregnant at 15 and spends many years dealing with the emotional fall-out, both of the pregnancy and of giving up her baby for adoption. At 20 she runs away to Chartres, where she makes a new life as a waitress, a childminder and a cleaner.
In one way Agnès, like most of Miss Vickers’ protagonists, is Everyman. We all have past experiences that we need to leave behind in order to move on. There’s nothing sinister in this; it’s called ‘life’. But it isn’t easy–and we are starting to make it harder for ourselves and our fellows.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, in his excellent but disturbing book, Delete, explains why: “Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however …. forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.” (p2)
Professor Mayer-Schönberger points to the case of Stacy Snyder, a trainee teacher denied her teaching certificate and her career by her university, because of an “inappropriate” photo she had posted of herself some time previously on MySpace, captioned ‘Drunken Pirate’. He cites the case of Canadian psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar, who was refused entry to the USA for life in 2006, when an overzealous border guard searched the internet and unearthed an academic article in which Feldmar mentioned he had taken LSD in the 1960s.
A generation or two ago, Mayer-Schönberger observes, a person could turn his or her back on the failures of their past life, move to a new place, and make a genuine endeavour to start afresh. Now we are followed around by the uncurated virtual cuttings file of our past.
The problem with cuttings files–indeed, with facts–is how easily they can mislead. Mayer-Schönberger refers to them as “digital collages”:
“They are not like one, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of snapshots taken over our lifetime, superimposed over each other, but without the perspective of time. How can we grasp a sense of a person that way? How can we hope to understand how a person evolved over the years, adjusting his views, adapting to his (changing) environment? How can we pretend to know who that person is today, and how his values, his thinking, his character have evolved, when all that we are shown is a timeless collage of personal facts thrown together?” (p. 124)
In the Chartres of Salley Vickers’ novel, even without Facebook or MySpace, Agnès Morel has just this problem. In coming to Chartres she left behind (or did she bring it with her?) the legacy of her troubled teen years, including her pregnancy, the loss of her baby, and a spell in a secure unit – together with all the rumour and innuendo inevitably spawned by such experiences.
The measure of Agnès’ character is not what she did or didn’t do in her teens. It is what she has made of her life since: the quietness, the humility, the dignity with which she has carved out a niche in the community of Chartres, among neighbours who each have their own baggage, their own pasts, and are dealing with them or emerging from them (or simmering in them) in their own very different ways.
There are some very well drawn object lessons among these characters and their experiences. The characters themselves, whilst in no way caricatures, each manage to embody a specific human characteristic–Hope, Restoration, Intelligence, Compassion, Guilt, Intellectualism, Confusion–all touched by the balm of Agnès’ own multifaceted character. (I’ll say more about them in a separate post to avoid spoilers.)
But while Agnès has been making a whole of her present, and bringing order and peace to the pasts of those around her, the miasma of her own past has calcified into pointed slivers of isolated fact. The trouble comes through that unloveliest of all human qualities: Self-Righteousness.
Self-Righteousness’s name in The Cleaner of Chartres is Madame Beck. She is the apotheosis of the university administrator who refused Stacy Snyder her teacher’s certificate; of the border guard who barred Andrew Feldmar from the USA; of the Pharisees who abused Jesus for healing on the Sabbath; of Shylock baying for justice and his bond; of every so-called friend who keeps a ruthless tally of gifts given and favours owed and slights overlooked; of anyone who has ever made another person feel miserable or inadequate just because they know they are right. She lives her life in strident, uncompromising black and white, admitting no shade of grey, but missing out too on any variation of colour.
We will all have encountered her, I suspect, but one of the most chilling things about her is the fact that, to herself at least, she seems perfectly reasonable. Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan warned against “our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. Madame Beck takes this habit to its unlovely conclusion; since reading the book I have caught myself, more than once, stopping to ask myself whether I am condemning others merely for their otherness.
At a point of some turmoil in the novel, Abbé Paul, the Dean, gently reminds Agnès of something we could all do to remember: “People are desperate to probe mysteries which for the most part are best left unprobed. It is the modern curse: this demented drive to explain every blessed thing. Not everything can be explained. Nor should be, I think…. I often wonder if happiness isn’t knowing what should and what should not be explained.” Yes indeed. And it is telling that some aspects of Agnès’ past, including what we might think are some fairly crucial details, are never properly explained to the reader.
Madame Beck would be outraged at such suppression of facts on the part of an author. Like an overzealous journalistic vigilante, she would demand “full disclosure” in the interests of “transparency and honesty”. But she, with her unimaginative binary approach to life, is the human equivalent of the digital solutions which Viktor Mayer-Schönberger sets out in Delete to the problem of digital memory.
His conclusions, which take up one third of the book, are detailed and thorough and consider several ways in which our shared digital memory can be managed–ways such as information expiry dates, consent to share, and reciprocity. But all his approaches miss the point. Not for the first time, mankind has created a problem through technology which it cannot hope to solve through technology alone. None of his proposals would have solved Andrew Feldman’s problem when he was refused entry to the USA. That could only have been achieved through a combination of wisdom and common sense on the part of the border guard, and of an institutional tolerance and respect for that wisdom on the part of his employer. The real problem of digital memory will only ever be solved by a growth in human capacity to sift, evaluate and discard information. Even when evidence of past inadequacies is held up in front of our face, we need to remind ourselves that some things, however clearly captured for posterity, simply don’t matter. We need to remember how to forget.
Unlike Professor Mayer-Schönberger, the fiction writer can–as Salley Vickers does–draw on the deep well of greatness in humanity to suggest a route through the labyrinth of forgetting. She rejects the binary approach of Madame Beck, which would bludgeon the “facts” of one’s past into pigeon-holes of right and wrong. Instead she lets her characters (in the words of Philip Yancey) “remember their past in order to forget it”. With insight and compassion, she allows them to make the decisions we all have to make, far more than we acknowledge–not between right and wrong, but between right and right.