What music reminds you of your grandparents

Forget your youth! Why we need a new culture of remembrance

Yes, I know: Starting a text on the subject of youth with two ninety-year-olds is - as boys would say today - a little "weird". Let's try anyway: It's about my grandparents. They have been happily married for 65 years. And they amaze their 30-year-old grandson, who himself has already fallen out of the ten to 15 years of rush hour in life, which is called youth, over and over again. For example, by how they remember their youth.

Of course there are the aerial bombs, the air raid shelters, there is hunger, need and misery. The youth were short, shorter than today, you had to grow up quickly. But there are also the bright sides that my grandparents can sum up with the bottom line that their youth was beautiful in spite of everything. How come

Scientists describe the effect of making the depressing smaller and the happy larger when remembering as "productive forgetting". Nietzsche and Freud already pointed out the importance of this form of mental hygiene. In our brain we delete or compress unpleasant memories like on a hard drive to make room for new things. My grandparents are undoubtedly relieved that the horror of World War II could not be documented with a smartphone at the time.

Analog memorabilia

Grandma and Grandpa only remember analogously. But looking back on their long life, they too are already sitting in front of a mountain of photos that are almost overwhelmed. Interestingly enough, the oldest, yellowed pictures torn on the sides are the happiest. They are often so small that you need a magnifying glass to look at them. The coarse-grained blurring of such photos is itself a form of productive forgetting. Because not every skin problem or kilo too much has to torment you retrospectively years later.

In addition to pictures, there is something else that affects the quality of my grandparents' memories: letters. Real letters written in pencil on paper. They come from the post-war period, when grandpa, like many of his generation, had to leave the country looking for work and ended up in Switzerland. From then on, the young, still unmarried love had to be kept simmering by letter. Today my grandparents read from it - in fact, he reads and she listens. Because she sees badly and he hears badly - by the way, a secret of the success of long marriages, as is commonly believed.

These letters, too, are wrapped in a productive veil of oblivion. They are not love letters in the narrower sense, and certainly not slippery ones. Every sentence is carefully considered and carried by a loving sobriety, which means that they can still be read today without shame. They describe the arduous but hopeful everyday life of the two and convey the longings of an entire generation in a compressed, vivid way. The handwriting alone tells a lot. Is she calm, prudent? Or in a hurry?

Analog correspondence is not only nice for my grandparents. They are of immense importance, especially for historical research. Literary studies, for example, are already struggling to run out of letters for posthumous research into a writer's estate. Even with Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, you feel compelled to collect a lot of unromantic emails, hard drives and websites. In the future, political parties may not only shred hard drives, but also all cell phones. But this is another story.

How do we want to remember?

I wonder how we will one day remember our youth. Apart from a few "Do you want to go with me?" And "I love you so much" notes from earlier school days, there are hardly any letters left. Instead, there are thousands and thousands of SMS and chat histories, sheer unmanageable amounts of data that can be found either somewhere in the bowels of the Internet, on old computers or in a mountain of discarded Nokias, Motorolas and Ericssons. I recently inspected this electronic waste. Even if you wanted to look, a charger is missing here, a battery there and all PIN codes in general (we'd better keep quiet about the PUK code).

Not only because of the probably extremely embarrassing content, but also because of the sheer volume, I will probably never want to go through all of this again. Safe: each medium creates its own aesthetic. I noticed postings by the author Stefanie Sargnagel on Instagram. She actually rummaged through old cell phones and unexpectedly found poetic text messages from a deceased friend that can be shown. The huge, bland-gray pixel font of old cell phones has something for itself, but isn't an incredible amount of individuality lost due to the dwindling handwriting?

I feel the same way with my thousands of photos and videos that were accumulated over the ten years of the smartphone era and that did not find their way into the photo album as in the more analog years before that. Who or what will ever sort them out? And who were they actually made for?

Today we tend to document less and less for ourselves and our closest loved ones and more and more for others. The narcissism and envy machines, which social media turn out to be despite their good sides, have really messed up our traditional culture of remembrance. Influencers and those who want to become one stage their lives as the only advertising brochure. In doing so, they consciously or unconsciously provide that ego-aesthetic that ultimately all "normal people" believe they have to follow. The fact that the Internet never forgets and that young people now more than ever have to fear never getting rid of old "sins" has become another pressing problem.

New culture of forgetting

Now when I watch my grandparents rummage through their fuzzy scraps of memory, I think of my little nephew too. He's only been in this world for three years. But they are more meticulously documented than a whole lifetime in the past. Not everyone realizes how important it is today to handle such data responsibly.

Someday it will be like in the movie The Final Cut expire? That our life is recorded by a chip in the brain, only to be cut down to a digestible short version by a pitiful cutter? Hardly likely. But we will all have to develop a new culture of remembering and, above all, of forgetting. If you trust it, this can be done with intelligent software that helps you sort. There are also more and more companies that specialize in deleting unpleasant content on the Internet.

But we can also change our documentation behavior: there is already a first return of the analog, for example with the reappearance of Polaroid cameras or photo books. Maybe we should just write a letter by hand every now and then or consciously take a photo just for ourselves.

In any case, young people, who are always playing with identities and a time of trying things out, should be protected from our obsession with documentation. It can also be forgotten to a certain extent. (Stefan Weiss, March 7, 2021)