by Jeff Strabone
It would be easy to laugh off Jennifer Aniston's problems. She's rich, famous, and able to have her pick of nearly all the men of the world and all the scripts of Hollywood. And what she's famous for is being funny. Her television sitcom ran for ten years, her movie comedies are big money-makers, and, for what it's worth, there was even a hairstyle named after one of her characters. But something about her disturbs me deeply. To put it simply, Jennifer Aniston represents one of the worst traits of the human race: the inability to forget.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote important statements on forgetting, but I prefer the simplicity of Rodgers and Hart's 1935 classic 'It's Easy to Remember'. Imagine it in Frank Sinatra's 1957 recording on his Close to You LP, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle:
Your sweet expression,
The smile you gave me,
The way you looked when we met,
It's easy to remember, but so hard to forget.
I hear you whisper,
'I'll always love you.'
I know it's over and yet,
It's easy to remember, but so hard to forget.
It is hard to forget, and all the more so when we fight it. Who wants to forget the way a lover's skin tastes, or the sounds she made, once the relationship ends and those sensations are no longer possible? Perhaps one reason we resist forgetting lovers, the special ones at least, is that we come to believe that we were better people with that person than we could be otherwise. It's not so much about losing them as it is about losing all that we were when we loved them. Without that special object of our affection, we fear lapsing into a heap of selfishness again.
But what if we had stayed together? Wouldn't we change anyway? Wouldn't we eventually forget, to paraphrase another great song from the 30's, why we ever tolerated the way he held his knife or the way she insisted on dancing 'til three? Love, unlike television, should not go out on a high note. When it does, it creates the illusion that one's bliss would have known no vicissitudes and that it can never be matched. Only by forgetting can we make ourselves available to what may come next and what, however inconceivable, may be even better.
For all the claims about the value and necessity of forgetting, there is also a counter-tradition that says, 'Never forget', a phrase that has become an anti-genocide and anti- terrorism refrain. Google yielded 1,730,000 hits when I searched for 'never forget' and '9/11'. There is a lot invested in never forgetting—monuments, museums, foundations—with the hope that appropriate commemoration will somehow prevent repetition. I leave it to the reader to decide how well we are succeeding in that regard.
Despite the imperative of 'Never forget', most of what we do after a large-scale trauma is designed to make us forget the intensity of our suffering. The point of war crimes tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions is to enable societies to feel a sense of closure and to move on. Laws are written, courts convened, judgments passed, and justice served so that we can forget the screaming barbarity of having to endure acute injustice. Even without justice, forgetting brings relief. Could any New Yorker go on living here without forgetting what September 11, 2001 felt like? It would be debilitating to freak out every time an aeroplane flies overhead. I knew that I had begun forgetting when I noticed that I had stopped noticing the city's sirens.
Is it facile to talk about forgetting love affairs in the same breath as genocides and mass murder? Alain Resnais did it to profound effect in his impossibly great film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Written by Marguerite Duras, it is one of the few monuments to forgetting. In my own life, it was the film that showed me, a few heartbreaks ago, that what we must do in the event of emergency is to break the glass of memory.
In the film, Emmanuelle Riva's unnamed character says: 'Just as the illusion exists in love, the illusion you can never forget, so I was under the illusion I would never forget Hiroshima. Just like with love.' How sad she was, as an eighteen-year-old Française in love with a young German occupier, when her town was liberated and her lover shot dead. The only way to move on was to forget, just as she will inevitably forget her romantic encounter fourteen years later in Hiroshima: 'Sometimes we have to avoid thinking about the problems life presents. Otherwise we'd suffocate.'
In our era of modern psychology, we underestimate the value of forgetting, and not just forgetting but repression, too. Repression got a bad rap in the twentieth century, yet it is a valid strategy for dealing with the things one cannot change. Today, repression is a defense mechanism in need of a strong defense.
What is Jennifer Aniston's connection to all of this? She wears her inability to forget like a second skin, even when she's baring her first skin to the world. At this point, my primary association with her is that her husband, Brad Pitt, dumped her nearly four years ago and that she still talks about it. Even when posing for the January 2009 issue of GQ magazine with nothing but a smile and a necktie, she seems to be saying, Watch me smile through the pain of losing my husband to Angelina Jolie. It doesn't bother me one bit, as you can clearly see in the exaggerated smile I have forced upon my face.
Aniston filed for divorce in early 2005, yet the causes and circumstances are still fresh on her mind. GQ interviewer Mark Kirby tells us that when he asked her about a recent, fairly benign remark by Jolie,
It takes her seven days to fully answer. First she says, “Well, you know, that was definitely a confirmation for me of something that wasn't quite confirmed at the time. But listen…you sit there and you… No. No daggers through the heart. I laugh. Am I surprised? Well, how do I say this?” Then she goes off-the-record for several minutes. Finally, a week later, she calls to deliver an on-the-record statement that's brief but not without bite: “Considering the source, nothing surprises me.” She then spends a good deal of time talking about how hard she's finding it to talk about Jolie after years of silence, this despite having given her now infamous (if hilariously understated) “That was really uncool” comment to Vogue a few weeks earlier.
What is really uncool is clinging to heartbreak and suffering, but can we help it? Kierkegaard said in Either/Or that forgetting is an 'art that must be practiced beforehand'. On the same subject, Nietzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals that
it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration.
The case of Jennifer Aniston shows us the shortcomings of both statements, for no matter how much we practice Kierkegaard's 'art' and no matter how universal Nietzsche's 'ability' or 'capacity' may be, we may not have that capacity when we need it most. And if that happens, we will be helpless.
There seems to be little rhyme or reason to what we can forget and what we can't. What accounts for the difference? There are cases all around us, and in our own experience perhaps, of the things we most needed to forget and simply could not. Some people have walked away from the horrors of war with hardly a mental scratch while others have collapsed irrecoverably from a dashed romantic hope, and vice versa. As much as we need to forget some things and as hard as we try, there is no telling which things any one individual will be utterly unable to forget.
Who has more opportunity and resources to aid forgetting than Jennifer Aniston? Yet she is the case par excellence of the inability to forget. It's depressing to know that, when we need that capacity or art or whatever it is, it may not be there. Does each of us have a peculiar susceptibility that only wants the proper event to break us for good?
What will Jennifer Aniston's story turn out to be? Will it be a Humpty Dumpty narrative where all the Vince Vaughns and all the John Mayers cannot put Jen back together again? What makes the difference between recovering from one trauma and not another? Why do we remember some things and forget others?
The spectacle of Aniston's suffering raises all of these questions. We miss a valuable opportunity to reflect on our nature by mistaking her drama for a common tabloid row. Her case poses important questions, possibly unanswerable, that remind us of our own helplessness in the face of the unforgettable, however peculiar it may be.
The more I think about it, the scarier it gets. With all that we know about memory and forgetting, we have little control over either. I hope that Jennifer Aniston gets over her lost love and finds a new one. If the tabloids and gossip magazines are to be believed, she's clearly trying but to no avail thus far. If she prevails, by finding a new love and forgetting the old—which can be measured by the Billy Bob test, i.e., never griping about one's past husband—it may simply be her good fortune and nothing more. Trying has not made the difference, and that's what's really scary. Some things we just don't get over and some things we do. As much as we need the gift of comedy, perhaps Jennifer Aniston's greatest gift to the world will prove to be the example of her suffering and what it can teach us about ourselves.