The mythological titaness Mnemosyne embodied for the ancient Greeks the principle of Memory. Long before the invention of script, she was patroness of oral history and keeper of the memories of the past for future generations.
The myths surrounding Mnemosyne link the concepts of forgetting and remembering closely together. Mother of the nine Muses, Mnemosyne aided those who died by offering them a cup of forgetfulness in the Underworld. Drinking from this cup, they could forget the old life and move into the new unencumbered. Those who descended to consult the oracle in Mnemosyne’s temple were required to drink from two cups – first, from the cup of forgetfulness (to forget what they had witnessed) and then from the cup of memory (so they could recount what the oracle had revealed to them).
In New York City, finding an appropriate way to memorialise the victims of the tragedy at the devastated World Trade Centre site was a delicate and difficult task. Architect Michael Arad watched the twin towers fall, from his apartment window. In the days that followed he shared a moment of peace and reflection with other dazed New Yorkers by a fountain. Arad’s design for the memorial was born of those two moments. He envisioned two pools of flowing water amid a grove of trees. Healing and reflective, the pools would mark forever the footprints of the giant towers. The names of the lost would be engraved along the edges of the pools. It would be an oasis of peace in the wounded heart of his beloved city. Arad’s concept for the memorial resonated with the selection panel and his design was chosen from over 5000 entries. After a decade of controversy and raw emotion, Arad’s ‘Reflections of Absence’ memorial pools now flow in the footprints of the destroyed skyscrapers.
To borrow from Plato, the memorial at ground zero could well have been an “elixir not of memory, but of reminding”.
For many, especially those who lost loved ones on 9/11, the completion of the memorial provides a sense of closure. At long last, there is a tangible grave marker for the bereaved to visit. For others, the site is an invitation to politicians to exploit the tragic events for their own purposes.
Some say any memorial at the site prevents closure, and this design is a constant reminder of all that was lost at both the personal and national level on September 11, 2001. The waterfall conjures other images – those awful moments when the world watched as the giant towers collapsed. Huge fountains of dust and smoke raining down, showering the city below with unspeakable grief, are visually echoed in the mists of the falling water. Fountains of water streaming ever downward into two dark pools of polished black granite might represent endless tears flowing forever into the void left behind by a great tragedy. There are things about 9/11 that New Yorkers in particular would rather forget.
The mythology of Mnemosyne reminds us that in order to honour Memory, we sometimes need to forget aspects of what we have witnessed. Some things are better forgotten in the telling of the tale for future generations.
Overall, Michael Arad’s vision seems to strike the delicate balance the memorial site requires. The scars in the landscape at ground zero have been transformed into a newly-planted forest containing two great pools – a cup for forgetting and a cup for remembrance. Now, perhaps, the Muses can be reborn in the great metropolis that is New York City.
* Joanne Lock is an independent writer and media consultant based in Brisbane. To read more of her work, visit www.joannelock.com