The full quote by Varlam Shalamov is the following: “A human being survives by his ability to forget. Memory is always ready to blot out the bad and retain only the good.” In this statement, Shalamov noticed that it is typical for human beings to hold on to the good memories even in the midst of negative experiences.
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Knowing the biography of the author, it is possible to conclude that he spoke from relevant experience. In total, Shalamov spent about twenty years of his life as a prisoner in Soviet labor camps, exposed to the worst treatment that dehumanized the imprisoned individuals and reduced them to conditions very similar to those Private Tamura goes through in Fires on the Plain (“Varlam Shalamov” par. 3). Many other writers have noticed that the events Shalamov described in his stories about prison-camps are shockingly realistic; the author had the unique capacity to share his experiences from the past with the readers in an intuitive manner that could make anyone feel the heavy, helpless, and bitter life Shalamov was forced to lead for decades (Power par. 4).
In that way, the author, of all people, had the experience of analyzing his memories and finding out how they worked. Therefore, his observation that the ability to forget is what helps people recover from the most painful experiences can be considered as valid and reliable.
At the same time, remembering Rivers’ patients from Pat Barker’s Regeneration, one may make the opposite observation. The soldiers sent to therapists such as Rivers and Yealland in Regeneration had one problem in common—they were unable to forget the traumatic and frightening experiences that had affected them in the past. One may conclude that forgetting pain is not a natural ability of humans because in many cases, the people who have gone through negative experiences tend to fixate on them and bring their painful past into their future, letting it affect their decisions and reactions. Soldiers who have been traumatized by the horrors of wars are not the only example. A demonstration of the same phenomenon in everyday life can be found among all the people who have been hurt by their loved ones—relationship partners, for example. Such individuals tend to hold on to the pains of the past, carrying them along into new relationships as fears, warnings, and limitations. In most cases, their fixation on negative past experiences may produce an adverse influence on their present and future. This occurrence could be used as an argument against the statement made by Shalamov.
To refute this argument, one may notice that the fixations of the people who have had negative experiences in personal relationships, or those of the soldiers suffering from the painful memories of the war, are usually seen in psychology as problems that require treatment, especially in the cases when their response to their memories begin to interfere with the everyday lives of the affected individuals (disrupting their careers, ruining relationships with partners and family members, and causing social isolation). In other words, being unable to forget the negative experiences from the past and move on is seen as an abnormality that needs professional help. Therapists like Rivers work with soldiers suffering from PTSD, and other types of psychological trauma are addressed via a variety of therapies. Individuals are considered healed when they no longer feel pain in thinking of their past and can continue leading a happy and healthy life, free from horrific nightmares, panic attacks, depression, and phobias.
In that way, the initial statement made by Shalamov seems very appropriate—the memory of human beings works as an ultimate and powerful filter of the negativity that allows people to go through scary and traumatic experiences and block them out. In fact, psychologists who work specifically with soldiers suffering from PTSD have a term, “coping confidence,” that refers to one’s belief that he or she can cope with a stressful situation should they be exposed to one (U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs par. 17). Coping confidence is likely to occur when one is exposed to multiple stressful events. Gaining this kind of confidence, one works out the ability to block out more traumatic memories or approach them from a point of view that initially prevents them from producing severe damage to one’s psyche.
It is likely that throughout his lengthy imprisonment in the Soviet labor camps (his second term lasted as long as seventeen years), Shalamov eventually succeeded at curing himself from the traumatic and stressful effects of the kind of memories that are difficult to let go and also worked out the coping confidence that allowed him to survive imprisonment, return to normal life after being released, and even share his memories without falling into depression from reliving his depressing and horrific past.
In addition, the act of forgetting itself is not always as straightforward as it sounds. Saying that the prisoners of concentration and labor camps or soldiers could forget their past and move on with their lives does not mean that these people cannot remember the events they have been through. For instance, a Holocaust survivor who had spent a year in a German concentration camp, writer Elie Wiesel, wrote, “I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them” (9). This statement concerned his traumatic past and his decision to write a book describing it. Wiesel, just like Shalamov, forgot his past in a manner that did not erase it from the author’s memory, but made it more available and tolerable for him to revisit and depict in a novel.
In fact, the individuals who decide to communicate their horrific past instead of burying it in their memory seem to demonstrate a special type of psychological resilience and a rare ability to recover from stress, but still preserve a very clear image of the scary events, and even have the ability to translate such into words in a way that is effective enough for readers unfamiliar with this type of traumatic experience to still comprehend it and feel a fraction of it that is powerful and impressive. It is possible that the strategy that helps these brilliant authors deal with their past is the capacity to remember the better times. However, one needs to be a truly unbreakable optimist to find something good to hold on to in the experience of surviving in a labor camp.
Power, Chris. A brief survey of the short story: Varlam Shalamov. 015. Web.
U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Effects of disasters: Risk and resilience factors. 2015. Web.
Varlam Shalamov. 2016. Web.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Marion Wiesel. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2008. Print.