When talking about witnessing we must be clear what we are describing. In his poem ‘Elegy’, Borges writes:
to have seen the things that men see,
death, the sluggish dawn, the plains,
and the delicate stars,
and to have seen nothing, or almost nothing
except the face of a girl from Buenos Aires
a face that does not want you to remember it.
(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Elegy’ (tr. Donald A. Yates), Labyrinths, p. 287.)
The conflict between what the witness cannot forget and what the witnessed wants to be forgotten highlights three basic processes of witnessing: firstly, a reception of something (an image, a sound, a smell) that has left some form of imprint in the mind; secondly, a presentation (a making-present) to the self of the impression (memory); and finally, a re-presentation of that memory to an other (here, the reader). Of these, only the last might be said to be voluntary; Borges has not only remembered the face that did not want to be remembered but he has told his readers about it. Or has he? We still know nothing about that face, only his remembering it. We might compare this ‘witness report’ with that of Borges’s fellow Argentine, the novelist Juan José Saer, whose novel The Witness (1983) plays with the standard accounts of the colonisation of the New World by having a sixteenth century Spaniard caught and kept prisoner by an Indian tribe solely so that he can be released and act as witness to the tribe’s existence and destruction, to tell their story to the world.
This allows us to reduce the main aspects of witnessing to two: seeing and saying. In this sense we might call to mind the witness as used in law courts, where a witness who has seen but will not say what they have seen is of little use. The witness is carrying something that is wanted by the other; we might define the ‘active’ witness by saying that it is the desirability of their information that makes of them a witness. We also need to expand the notion of witnessing from merely ‘seeing’ to include the other senses. Borges has already provided guidance for this in his use of fragments that go beyond the visual in his short piece ‘The Witness’: the tolling of bells, the voice of Macedonio Fernández, the smell of sulphur. Listening, here, can be thought of as a carrying which may be borne but which may also be unburdened by passing on. In the latter process this carrying becomes a carrying-out – the completion of a task – and witnessing moves from a passive to an active role, as in the witness before the Law.
Witnessing, then, can be a productive force in that it results in the transference of a thing presented to a thing re-presented (this use of the word ‘transference’ serves to remind us that psychoanalysis is a form of witnessing: a kind of double witnessing, where the analyst witnesses the analysand witnessing themselves). Writing is an example of this, the transference from the witnessed to the represented. Something is inevitably lost in the process, as Roland Barthes observes in ‘From Speech to Writing’, an essay prefacing a series of interviews with him that have been transcribed: ‘This inscription, what does it cost us? What do we lose? What do we win?’ Jacques Roubard, in trying to weigh the benefits and dangers of writing, also stresses the notion of transference from one place or state to another:
Once set down on paper, each fragment of memory … becomes, in fact, inaccessible to me. This probably doesn’t mean that the record of memory, located under my skull, in the neurons, has disappeared, but everything happens as if a transference had occurred, something in the nature of a translation, with the result that ever since, the words composing the black lines of my transcription interpose themselves between the record of memory and myself, and in the long run completely supplant it.
(Jacques Roubard, The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, tr. Dominic Di Bernardi (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992 ), pp. 197-198.)
Roubard’s friend Georges Perec concurs: ‘The work of writing is always done in relation to something that no longer exists, which may be fixed for a moment in writing, like a trace, but which has vanished.’ We are back to the notion of forgetting and we can see here how writing, along with other methods of recording, is a vital tool in allowing us the possibility to forget.