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To Forgive and Forget: The limits of forgiveness

It may be easier to say “I forgive you” than it is to forget past wrongs. Does an apology necessitate complete forgiveness, or does the pain cut too deep for any form of absolution?

According to James Bradley, critic and author of the recently released novel, Clade, some things are unforgiveable.

Clade takes place over several decades, focusing on the Leith family as they deal with a world afflicted by the effects of climate change, along with their family dynamics. Bradley, speaking with David Vann and Sarah Armstrong at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival, said that he attempted to connect climate change to a more personal experience.

The impact of global climate change on the world is something Bradley believes we, as a species, are responsible for. He declares an anxiety from wondering how to ask for forgiveness from his own children in 15 years from now, when the global situation worsens. This anxiety formed his inspiration for writing Clade.

Circumstances, such as climate change, can be very severe and unforgiveable by some. However, David Vann, author and University of Warwick creative writing professor, believes “children have a huge capacity to forgive”.

His new book, Aquarium, tells the story of twelve-year-old Caitlyn and the tumultuous relationships between herself, her long lost grandfather, and her mother, Sheri.

Vann said that Sheri and her father’s reunion serves as a test of forgiveness for them. The grandfather abandoned his daughter Sheri at a young age, and he is seeking her forgiveness. But Sheri tries to keep Caitlyn and her grandfather apart, effectively punishing him vicariously through her own daughter.

The willingness to forgive may take longer, depending on the situation. Sometimes forgiveness might not occur at all.

Author Sarah Armstrong believes that any form of forgiveness between her novel’s characters in His Other House, would happen after the book has ended.

The adulterous main character, Quinn, falls in love with another woman in the midst of dealing with problems in his marriage. The result of Quinn’s cheating is the pregnancies of both his wife and his lover.

Armstrong said that she set out to write a lead male character that was likeable and identifiable, showing that otherwise good people often hurt others.

Perhaps it is human nature to constantly upset, disappoint, and hurt others, hence—as Vann points out—our similarity to characters in Ancient Greek narratives. Nothing changes.

“We act unconsciously and out of control,” Vann said, pushing the point that we are archetypal figures who make the same mistakes and always ask for forgiveness.

Knowing this helped Vann to reconcile with his mother, with whom he had had an uneasy relationship for years.

But forgiveness through reconciliation need not deny events.

Bradley expressed his own suspicion at the word ‘forgiveness’. He believed that it, like ‘closure’, seems to imply that the past has been dealt with and can be forgotten.

“Understanding the situation is not the same as absolving,” he said.

Vann and Armstrong agreed with Bradley when he suggested that literature should provide a way of thinking through the matter of forgiving and (hopefully not) forgetting.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

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