“It is precipitated not by a mechanical breakdown but by the descent of an emotional block . Its gravest form , which science has come to call fugue, embraces three classically dramatic phases. The first of these is a brief interval of complete dissociation, closely resembling somnambulism. This is eventually followed by a period of lighened oblivion, in which only certain facts and events remain beyond the reach of the victim. The final stage, which may occur spontaneously or as a result of psychiatric manipulatin, is a return to full-functioning consciousness. But, whatever its pattern, an attack of functional amnesia is seldom susceptible to either a ready or a reassuring explanation.”
This is a passage from Berton Rouechés classic article on the fugue, Lost, which was published in 1954 in the New Yorker. Historians have long been fascinated by collective memory, following in the trail first marked out by Maurice Hallwachs in The Collective Frameworks of Memory (1925). We have less of a sense of collective amnesia. That a society could go on a fugue seems an overegging of what has always seemed half concept, half metaphor. Yet surely we see things that seem fugue-like, where the desire to forget leads to mass dissociation.
In Roeché’s essay, a subject he calls Uhlan (a significant last name choice – an Uhlan is a cavalry lanceman, and in the folk memory, a very savage soldier) one day is looking through books at a kiosk when he feels something is different. And then he feels that he doesn’t know his own name or where he is. Roeché was well known for his novelistic sense of the causes and effects of disease – for writing medical histories with such a flair that not only was he read by the New Yorker popular audience, but by doctors seeking to understand the feelings and behaviors of their patients. Uhlen it appears was bereft of his mother from the age of six, and preferred to stay with his aunt than his father. He lost touch with his father at 19.
In Hallwachs’ model of family memory, poor Uhlan was lost before he lost his memory. His account shows a man subject to crippling panic attacks and a sort of overwhelming restlessness. At the time he went into his fugue, he was feeling imprisoned by his job and responsibilities. Previously, he had been able to withdraw from such things, but this time he had family responsibilities that seemed to shut down his escape route. Responsibilities depend, crucially, on memory. The routine is laced with memory reminders - the alarm clock going off, the hour you have to arrive at work, the bills you have to pay, the appointments you must meet. All of these have collective counterparts. As routines break down, as language stops fitting the situation at hand, as plagues bring down thousands a day, as the police shoot people in cold blood and are caught on cameras, as we look in horror at monuments to slavers and genocide, our memories seem to conspire against us - the us who had, at one time, dominance in the mainstream. With that mainstream's race and gender, its favorite tv programs and movies, its notion of a good time.
Collectively, humans have always needed the escape hatch. In the fugue state, there is an overwhelming restlessness. It takes on an almost organic quality. To go somewhere is imperative. And this, too, has a collective correlate I think. The collective fugue state crystalizes around issues – escape roots – the more violent the better. There is a sense that the issues have to be resolved, that they define sides, that nobody could not be burdened with the issue. It is, even, irresponsible to question the issue.
In Roeché’s essay, Uhlan eventually wakes up in a bed in Bellevue and remembers who he is. But the collective awakening from fugues is usually bloodier.
Maybe we are in one now.