A non-partisan journal of the left.

Genetic Memories

Fri 31st Aug 2012

Doreen Carvajal writes in the New York Times (18 August 2012) about the possibility that our genes carry some memories of our ancestors' experiences and unfinished business'. The latter may account for our universal individual unease without apparent cause.

The theory is a rather attractive one reminiscent of Jung's ‘collective unconscious’ through which he sought to explain our human archetypes representing our modes of behaviour and cultural representations derived from those who came before us. 

Of course, I am simplifying a rather complex psychiatric discourse. But for the purposes of this essay, let us keep things simple. The French psychologist, Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger, argues that there is something called "ancestor syndrome" which, as explained by Carvajal, "links in a chain of generations, unconsciously affected by their sufferings or unfinished business until we acknowledge the past." 

I am intensely uncomfortable with this thesis which, to me, smacks of the age-old attempt to impose generational family norms on new generations thus retarding their development and their progress. I am with Larkin's dictum that "your parents f*ck you up" except I would extend that to families, faiths,societies and national norms. I would add, I fully subscribe to the fact that all that we are springs from our background and upbringing. It, therefore, behoves us all to face up to our origins, joy in what suits, change what is damaging and acknowledge that which we are emotionally attached to even if we know it to be wrong or outdated. 

I watched a discussion taking place in Ramallah between Palestinians my age (born in the 1940s) and much younger Palestinians including one very intelligent woman of 21 who made me feel awfully old and tired but wonderfully optimistic. They were also Palestinians of widely differing backgrounds: Israeli citizens, Gazans, Diasporans and Palestinian Territories inhabitants. Those my age were churning out the old failed formulae of ‘liberation’ and ‘statehood’. The younger ones were talking about ‘human rights’, ‘personal freedoms’, ‘economic viability’ and ‘national dignity’ within a one state solution.

I found myself emotionally, though reluctantly, in tune with the older Palestinian men (and they were all men) whilst intellectually enthusiastically agreeing with the younger Palestinians (who happened to be mainly women). I resolved the issue by deferring the matter to the younger generation whose turn it was to take over. We have had our chance which we have muffed on a grand scale. Time to step aside and hand the next generation the baton - preferably without the ghastly ‘genetic memories’ that may get in the way. Unless, that is, we adopt the same motto as the Jews: ‘Never again’. Perhaps the younger generation will do that and, therefore, will go forth with determination, strength tinged with compassion, compromise and humanity. 

Dina Wardi, the Israeli psychotherapist, worked with Holocaust survivors' children and found that these children had a tremendous and ‘compulsive ambition to achieve’ because of their parents' experiences. Carvajal argues similarly that her Spanish Andalusian ancestors' forced conversion to Christianity was resisted through a secret Jewish identity being passed from one generation to the next in order to maintain ‘ancestor memory’. This means that ancestral stories, secret or overt, will have a strong impact on the succeeding generations - for good or for ill.

However, it does cause one to doubt the concept of ‘genetic memories’ as being simply the transfer of stories down the generations. The reality may be a mixture of both. Just as Darwin has shown the reality of physical evolution over the generations whereby, for example, the result of learning how to keep our bodies warm has led to us having less body hair, one wonders if our ancestors' experiences, transmitted by word of mouth, also have an impact on mental and 'unconscious' adaptation to make us what we are. 

Otherwise, how do we account for all our endless national memories including those unreal and nostalgic ones that appear to bear little relationship to reality - both as it is and as it was? Once, collapsing in the street, I regained consciousness and felt a hand holding mine and a Palestinian woman's voice comforting me. As I was stretchered onto an ambulance, I saw, or I thought that I saw, with the periphery of my tearful vision, undulating low level white dwellings descending down the side of a terraced mountain, olive trees as far as the eye could see and I fancied that I smelt the citrus trees that I could not see. I even felt the scorching heat of the Palestinian summer sun.

I squeezed the hand that held mine and whispered,”Palestine". The hand squeezed mine in return and gently said to my family: "He is delirious. It'll pass..." Delirious indeed! Even in my hypnagogic state, as I recognised my son's tremulous voice saying soothing things about arriving at the hospital soon, I tearfully thought that my Palestinian identity had by then become a delirium since it no longer had real expression. Were my ‘genetic memories’ at work? Had I read too many stories? Were these just images from my father's and my three aunts' endless evocative stories of our Palestinian lives before Israel? Or were they, indeed, pure delirium prompted by intimations of mortality? And I said to my frightened son, "Soon. Soon. In Palestine".

Or, like Carvajal's aunt dreaming of Andalusia, was I dreaming of those halcyon days that I certainly never lived through? And I join Carvajal quoting T. S. Eliot: "And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time."We could do this together. So, I also join in with those younger Palestinians, who have jettisoned their ancestor memories and those younger Israelis many of whom have jettisoned their Zionist ancestor memories and both of whom have asked for their right to live in peace and harmony together as Jews, Christians and Muslims - nationals of one secular, democratic and peaceful state. Let us both go back where we started and know each other as well as the landscape for the first time - in equity, peace and cooperation. 

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