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                                When there are no places left for us,
                             we’ll still talk in order to make things true:
                              not only the years before we were born,
                                   not only the names of our dead,
                                             but also this life.

                     Anne Michaels ‘What the Light Teaches’ (MP/WLT: 7/1–5)

In the preceding chapters, I seek to show the various reasons for my belief that, in
Fugitive Pieces, Michaels provides us with a substantial, ethical, imaginative alternative
to the reality of the Holocaust. This is not to say that she represents the event
idealistically or melodramatically, or even beautifully. While I argue strongly that
Michaels avoids doing what certain critics fear – that is, misrepresent the Holocaust – I
believe that their concern is not without foundation. Indeed, it is realised in incorrect
representations of the novel itself. I briefly make my point by using an example. There
is a quotation, presumably extracted from a review of the book, on the front cover of
my copy which claims that the novel is ‘extraordinarily magical’. 1 Such a
pronouncement is misleading. It not only puts the story on a pedestal, out of our
reach, it also presents the story as mysterious and enticing. The description does the
book a disservice because it perpetuates the concern I have mentioned above: that the
Holocaust can be aestheticised through fictional representation. It is my position in
this thesis that the stories of Jakob and Ben instead are rooted in the ordinary, in all
that is genuine and sincere. With the aid of empathic imagination, Michaels shows us
how the horrors of the Holocaust – inescapably ‘real’, and fatal with regard to millions
of people – affect Jakob and Ben. Jakob learns the true value of life while maintaining
the dead in memoriam, and his poetry and memoirs provide the legacy which Ben
inherits. Through Michaels’s emphasis on the value of writing, and its correlative –

    The source is acknowledged as Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times (see Michaels 1996).

reading – we can also inherit Jakob’s legacy. We too can take on and perpetuate the
author and her characters’ ongoing search for and discovery of meaning.

I begin this chapter by describing the manner in which Michaels unofficially responds
to three particular concerns. Steiner is troubled by the long-term effects of the
Holocaust in general, and Gubar sees her similar concern played out in the novel in
particular. By way of contrast, I show that Paul Bailey makes a more uplifting
suggestion with regard to the role that survivors can play in the aftermath of the
Holocaust. I present Michaels’s response to these concerns as valuable, effective and
beneficial. The attitude of critics such as Steiner, and of survivors who concur with
him and Gubar, seems imbued with an apparent hopelessness, a view of life divested of
meaning. Michaels’s primary desire while writing the book was to locate meaning. She
has been criticised for this, but I defend her intention. I then focus the discussion on
Michaels’s attitude, specifically in comparison to the abovementioned critics and
writers. I illustrate my case with a comparison of an extract from a survivor-poet’s
poem and from a poem by Michaels herself. Following this précis of the author’s
approach and attitude, I provide a chapter-by-chapter summary of the various
conclusions I have drawn from my study. This enables me to encapsulate Michaels’s
broader messages. Finally, after identifying what I see as Michaels’s primary objective –
that is, the three aspects of life which she seems to deem essential – I conclude the
chapter by reiterating the manner in which she provides this vital objective to us.

During the course of this thesis, I show that various critics and survivor-writers have
expressed concern not only about the manner in which the Holocaust can and should
be represented in writing, but also about the event’s ethical repercussions. I now
briefly explore the views of three critics, by way of further example, and seek to show

that Michaels’s unofficial response is inspirational. On the latter topic, Steiner voices
the following anguished concern: 2

        Genocide is the ultimate crime because it preempts on the future, because it tears up
        one of the roots from which history grows. There can be no meaningful forgiveness
        because there can be no repair. And this absence from our present needs, from our
        evolutionary hopes, … constitutes both the persistence of the Nazi action and the
        slow, sad vengeance of the unremembered dead. (1966/1969: 200)

Michaels may well agree with Steiner’s view of genocide, the effect of which Athos, in
his dedication of Bearing False Witness to his Biskupin colleagues, expresses thus:
‘Murder steals from a man his future. It steals from him his own death’ (FP: 120).
Furthermore, Jakob may concur with Steiner about the lack of possible ‘meaningful
forgiveness’, as he tells us of a Jewish parable which ends with the pronouncement that
‘the immoral act’ can never be erased, neither by ‘forgiveness’ nor by ‘confession’ (FP:
160). Even if forgiveness were possible, Jakob observes, it could not be given on behalf
of the dead (see FP: 160–161). Thus Michaels and Steiner seem to be in agreement.
However, I believe that their views diverge as to the possibility of repair. Whereas
Steiner sees no possibility, Michaels not only affirms the possibility, she bases Jakob
and Ben’s narratives on it. She acknowledges that evil deeds can poison the future; in
other words, she understands that it is possible for the ‘Nazi action’ (to use Steiner’s
terms) to persist. Nonetheless, her response is practical and simple: we must not allow
this to happen. Athos expresses the objective as follows: murder ‘must not [be allowed
to] steal from [man] his life’ (FP: 120). Moreover, Michaels strengthens the counter-
argument in her presentation of the power of memory. In contrast to Steiner’s belief,
the dead do not go ‘unremembered’, and Bella’s continued ‘presence’, evident in her
visits to Jakob in dreams and fantasies, is benevolent rather than vengeful. 3 A final
parallel, which further shows a difference between the two writers, is evident in the
imagery that Steiner and Michaels use. Michaels also figures history in organic, ‘earthy’

  His attitude is consistent with that which he displays when commenting on the culpability of people
who ‘let [Treblinka] be’ (Steiner 1966/1969: 192). (See also Chapter 3, Section 3d.)
  As I illustrate in the Introduction, Fugitive Pieces is significantly devoid of vengeance in any form.

terms. However, while Steiner sees genocide as doing damage to history, Michaels
presents history, in which genocide occurred, as the cause of damage. 4

With regard to the Holocaust in relation to the novel itself, Gubar articulates the
following concern:

         In terms of Judaism, the Shoah marks a rupture not only in the genealogies of
         particular families but [also] in the Jewish past. Jacob’s [sic] and Ben’s lack of
         knowledge about what happened to their parents and siblings reflects our own
         inability to know why or what happened “there” and “then”; their inability to
         construct a narrative constitutes a divide 5 … in cultural history. (2002: 271)

Certain other critics would applaud Gubar’s general suggestion. Grass speaks of
writing while ‘bearing in mind … that Auschwitz marks a rift, an unbridgeable gap in
the history of civilization’ (1999); Benjamin believes that ‘only for a redeemed
mankind has its past become citable in all its moments’ (1979: 256). 6 However, I
suggest that Gubar’s statements themselves can be challenged on a few counts. It is not
strictly true that Jakob and Ben do not know what happened to their relatives. Jakob
knows exactly what happened to his parents. Nevertheless, I do accept that it is his
lack of knowledge concerning Bella that deeply troubles the greater part of his life.
Also, Ben pieces together an admittedly indistinct picture of his parents’ past from his
own impressions and certain details provided by his mother. Yet his father’s silence,
too, has its own way of ‘speaking’, of revealing the depth of his traumatic experience,
and towards the end of the novel Ben discovers the brief existence of his siblings. Thus
I do not agree with Gubar’s parallel between Jakob and Ben, and us. It is thanks to
these two characters that we read of ‘what happened “there” and “then”’ (to use
Gubar’s terms). Furthermore, contrary to Gubar’s view, they are palpably able to

  I discuss this fully in Chapter 3, Section 3a.
  This and the ‘rupture’ mentioned slightly earlier in the quotation can be equated with Steiner’s image
of the uprooted ‘root’ of history (see above).
  To extend Benjamin’s point to the novel, the past is not citable in all its moments. Michaels’s research
has revealed a great deal, but there are details that she cannot know. Moreover, she does not intend to
present a ‘redeemed mankind’, or a tale of life lived ‘happily ever after’ (see Chapter 1). I believe that she
feels rather that humankind is redeemable.

construct a narrative. Finally, by the end of the novel, the clarity that Jakob has
gained, and the obscurity through which Ben is making his way, constitutes not a
‘divide in cultural history’ (to use Gubar’s terms) but a bridge 7 which crosses the
divide that has been caused by the Holocaust. Michaels shows us how it is possible for
‘cultural history’ to be reconstructed through narration. With the guidance of Jakob
and Ben’s writing, we can explore ‘how events we don’t live through ourselves shape
us’; we can make ‘that invisible connection … between history and personal life’
(Michaels, in Grossman 1998).

In contrast to Steiner and Gubar, Paul Bailey’s ‘concern’ is more optimistic. In the
introduction to Levi’s If This is a Man, Bailey comments that Levi ‘remind[s] us that
the scaffolding is worth saving’ (in Levi 1960/1993: 11). The ‘scaffolding’ is a metaphor
that Levi uses while describing an essential lesson that he learned from an ex-sergeant, 8
which is that ‘precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce them to
beasts’, he and his fellow inmates ‘must not become beasts’ (1960/1993: 47). In order to
survive, they ‘must force [them]selves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the
form of civilization’ (Levi 1960/1993: 47). The image is echoed in Athos’s description
of Jakob as a child: he is ‘like a building that’s burned out inside, with the outer walls
still standing’ (FP: 30). Bailey furthermore suggests that ‘we who weren’t interned
should endeavour to build things that are worthy of [the scaffolding’s] support’ (Levi
1960/1993: 11). In Fugitive Pieces, Michaels shows us that she is more than equal to the

In the above quotations it is notable that while Gubar’s tone is matter of fact and
Steiner’s is more emotional, neither of these writers has or presents an affirmative
point of view. Both hint at a meaninglessness that characterises life after the Holocaust.

  The ‘bridge’ is Michaels’s response to the ‘rupture’ and the ‘divide’ pointed out by Gubar. In a similar
way, I suggest, Steiner’s metaphor of destruction – the root that is pulled up – can be transformed into a
metaphor of reconstruction by figuring Fugitive Pieces as a seed that has been planted and nurtured by
  A man who fought in the First World War in the Austro-Hungarian army.

I suggest that, once again in contrast to these writers, Michaels’s point of view is
affirmative. I explore this point of view further below. To be exact, I believe that her
view became affirmative as she performed the extensive research and writing processes.
Throughout this thesis, I seek to emphasise that the novel, and the ideas contained
therein, is the result of many years of meticulous consideration, explication and
revision. In no manner can we view Fugitive Pieces as a superficial affirmation of life,
however well intentioned such an affirmation may be.

I now briefly explore Michaels’s search for meaning and the manner in which she
attained an affirmative outlook. As she told an interviewer, Michaels hoped that ‘if
[she] could enter into relationship with certain historical facts, maybe [she] could
wring some meaning out of them’ (Michaels, in York University 1997). This is exactly
what Cook and Vice indict her for doing (see Chapter 1 and Chapter 3, Section 3c).
Henighan      takes    a   more      extreme     approach      by    associating     Michaels     with
meaninglessness. 9 In contrast to these critics, I believe that Michaels has done nothing
wrong in her search for meaning. The case that I make for the existence of meaning in
Holocaust fiction in general 10 applies equally aptly to Michaels’s novel in particular. I
demonstrate that Michaels’s project is at once more courageous, more realistic and
wiser than Cook, Henighan and Vice will allow.

It seems to me that the attitudes of the advocators of silence, of those who would have
Holocaust fiction divested of metaphor, and of those who cannot find meaning in the
event are pervaded with a sense of defeat and dismay. Suffering weighs heavily on these
people, whether it has been personally experienced or indirectly apprehended. I
suggest that this sense is clearly represented in the following extract of the poem
‘Chorus of Comforters’ by survivor-poet Nelly Sachs:

  Henighan makes, but does not substantiate, the suggestion that one of the European translators of the
novel, who initially struggled with the process of translation, ‘realized that most of the book had no
meaning’, after which ‘the task became easier’ (2002: 150).
   See Chapter 1.

       We are gardeners who have no flowers.
       No herb may be transplanted
       From yesterday to tomorrow.
       The sage has faded in the cradles –
       Rosemary lost its scent facing the new dead –
       Even wormwood was only bitter yesterday.
       The blossoms of comfort are too small
       Not enough for the torment of a child’s tear. (in Langer 1995: 556)

Michaels counters this sense of defeat. In vivid contrast to Sachs’s view, exemplified in
the above extract, Michaels propounds the recuperative powers of writing and
memorialising in her poem ‘What the Light Teaches’, as follows:

       A writer buried his testimony
       in the garden, black type in black soil,
       trusting that someday earth would speak.
       All those years of war and uncertainty after,
       no one knew of the power of his incantation,
       calling quietly from its dark envelope.
       From his notebook grew orchids and weeds. (MP/WLT: 9/6–12)

I now briefly compare the extracts. Michaels’s writer has something to bury, while
Sachs’s gardeners do not. The writer ‘trust[s] that someday [the] earth would speak’,
unaware that for many years ‘the power of his incantation’ would not be known.
While Sachs points to an unbridgeable gap between ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’,
identified by Gubar as a ‘divide in cultural history’ (2002: 271, see also above),
Michaels ensures that her writer’s hope is not in vain. It is realised in Fugitive Pieces,
where Michaels gives Jakob the task of ensuring that the ‘incantation’ of her writer,
and the incantations of many others, are ‘recovered’ (FP: preface) and thus do not
remain unknown. Furthermore, through Jakob we learn that the writer’s ‘trust’ is
rewarded: it is ‘truth’ that is spoken ‘from the ground’ (FP: 143). Whereas the writer’s
notebooks are seen to generate growth, literally as well as figuratively, even if this
results partly in weeds, by contrast, the efforts of Sachs’s ‘gardeners’ are frustrated:
they cannot bring about comfort. The two poets also differ in terms of their outlook.
While Michaels stresses the importance of writing and reading as effective (and

necessary) methods of Holocaust remembrance (and in so doing asserts the importance
of her own role), Sachs seems to doubt the poet’s ability to render the Holocaust in a
meaningful manner. Although she identifies writing as instrumental in her own
survival, 11 Sachs also implies that survival is not the same as recovery or as consolation.
Being aware of the particular ‘burden’ survival can bestow, Michaels may well agree
with her. Nevertheless, in comparing the two extracts above, I seek to provide specific
focus for my contention that Michaels differs in attitude from many of the critics and
survivor-writers whose work I have consulted.

I come now to the chapter-specific synopsis of my thesis. In the Introduction, I
provide a description of each chapter’s contents with a view to introducing the issues
to the reader. My respective conclusions are the focus of the following summary. I
launch this thesis with a discussion, in Chapter 1, of the broad literary debate
concerning the representation of the Holocaust in writing. Michaels is opposed to the
critics and survivor-writers who advocate silence, as she clearly believes that to respect
the events one must engage with them in all their horror. While Jakob and Ben are
acutely aware of the various roles silence can play, neither of them considers it a valid
response to their experiences. In the concomitant argument on the efficacy of
testimony versus fictional representation, I propose that it is not incumbent on
Michaels, as a novelist, to adhere to the former’s restrictions. Rather it is her intention
(and to her credit that she is able) deliberately to combine details of testimony with
imaginative descriptions of her protagonists’ experiences and responses. A common
theme running through the genres of Holocaust testimony and Holocaust fiction –
which is clearly featured in the novel – is the act of witnessing, a process on which I
comment further below.

In Chapter 2 I focus on the stylistic issue which stems from the broad literary debate,
that is, the use of metaphor in Holocaust fiction. Critics such as Cook, Henighan and

     See Langer (1995: 557), and Chapter 1.

Vice find fault with Michaels’s writing style, with specific reference at times to her use
of metaphor. To refute these critics’ views, I demonstrate not only that Michaels’s use
of metaphor is far from indiscriminate, but also that her consistent writing style is
both suitable and effective. Furthermore, I counter the views of critics who feel that
Holocaust writing should be stripped of metaphor because it mystifies and ‘leads us
away’ from the events by illustrating that metaphor cannot be rejected. It is too firmly
entrenched in our method of representation. Critics such as Langer, Lodge and Young
believe, as do I with regard to the novel in particular, that metaphor instead
demystifies and ‘brings us closer’ to the Holocaust. In this chapter I also show
Michaels’s astute grasp of the ironies involved in the Nazis’ manipulation of their own
language, and deduce that metaphor cannot be destroyed, even by its most ambitious,
ruthless users.

The following chapter – Chapter 3 – is divided into sections, as each section deals with
a particular ‘metaphor of reality’ (Michaels, in Watson 1996). In Section 3a, I pay
attention to the notions of history and memory, and propose that Michaels presents
history as poisonous and memory as recuperative. Moreover, both have the potential
to affect the future. This leads me to Michaels’s assertion of the value of remembering
rather than simply recording, which ties up with her broader belief in the moral
nature of memory. I discuss this further below. As a result of my exploration of the
difference between sympathy and empathy, I deduce that Michaels’s treatment of
history and memory – as well as many other themes in the novel – is informed by her
method of ‘empathic identification’ (to use Gubar’s term) with regard to her
characters. In opposition to the claims of critics such as Cook and Henighan – who
accuse Michaels of using metaphors to ‘conceal’ the ‘truth’ – I argue that her
metaphors instead clarify the events of the Holocaust. Jakob finds out and writes
about, rather than obscures, what happens to his fellow Jews. Although he is a figment
of Michaels’s imagination, the details he provides in his memoirs concerning the fate of
the Jews are not. Thus we also become privy to the true horror of the Holocaust.

In Section 3b, I am concerned with language. Michaels shows us not only how the
Nazis manipulated language as a destructive force, and how she herself manipulates it
as a restorative force, but also how such dual powers infuse Jakob’s linguistic
education. Moreover, Michaels figures language as ‘home’, a place of refuge for those
who have no other. Here I highlight the differences, as well as the similarities, between
the poet Paul Celan and Jakob. While language seems to have brought Celan a certain
amount of consolation, for Jakob, language is not so much a place of refuge as a
medium of expression. The development of his narrative shows us that Jakob first sees
language as meaningless, while it represents Bella’s disappearance, and then believes
that language is full of meaning, when it represents his acceptance of Bella’s continued
absence, that is, her death. Although language is valuable as a means of expression for
her protagonist, it is internally that Michaels locates the capability of recovery, of
reconciliation with his past. I reach the conclusion that ‘home’ for Jakob is not
language; if anything, it is his own self. I return to such self-assertion below.

I deal with the notions of faith and despair in Section 3c. Jakob’s view of these notions
changes as he grows older. Whereas the child Jakob thinks that they must be similar,
the adult Jakob realises that though they are not the same, faith and despair can inhabit
the same place. Indeed, in the extreme situation of imminent death, one tends to assert
faith in life. Concomitantly, when one’s life is threatened by others, one tends to turn
within and aver selfhood. I seek to illustrate how such deductions lead Jakob to the
understanding that he has been attempting to deal with Bella’s disappearance and death
incorrectly. Moreover, I show how his relationship with Michaela enables him to
rectify the situation. In this section, I also present relevant instances of Michaels’s
personal experience which seem to inform that relationship. I conclude that in the
context of the correlation between faith and despair Michaels is semi-autobiographical.

In the final section of this chapter, Section 3d, I explore Michaels’s presentation of
time and space. One of her major theories is that time, like language, is dualistic. While
suggesting that temporal dualism is likewise evident in the powers of destruction and

restoration, Michaels places greater emphasis on the fact that two events can occur at
the same moment. Contrary to certain theorists, Michaels finds simultaneous events
both meaningful and related. I highlight what seems to be her vital point: that the link
between time and place should be witnessed. In this section, I also examine geology
(which is another of Michaels’s ‘metaphors of reality’) and the author’s related
proposal that humans tend to link ‘geological time’ with ‘human time’. Aided by the
theories of Bergson, I furthermore show how Michaels propounds the notion that time
is flexible. Put differently, we need not see it as progressing in a linear fashion. Finally,
in light of Michaels’s concomitant notion that time can be ‘vertical’, I demonstrate that
she achieves Bergson’s idea of ‘pure duration’.

In the above summary, I have highlighted certain notions to be discussed further.
Originating in ‘metaphors of reality’, the notions also supersede the metaphors in
terms of the role they play in Michaels’s project as a whole. They pervade the novel,
and are closely interlinked. Simply put, these notions are acts: the acts of witnessing, of
(empathic) remembering, of realising the ‘simultaneity’ of good and evil deeds, and of
averring faith in oneself and practising empathy with regard to other people. I now
focus on each act in turn.

At the beginning of both the novel and this thesis, we become aware that the role of
witness is paramount. The role is played by Jakob and Ben as narrators, by the author
as writer and by us as readers. Each of these characters and each of these people,
including ourselves, pays tribute to those who did not survive the Holocaust; each of
us ‘sees’ and comprehends the horror and does not turn away. Michaels furthermore
believes that, having seen the horror, we must remember it. While avoiding an
obsessive engagement with the past, Michaels urges an empathic kind of remembrance,
which we should enact on behalf of the sufferers of the Holocaust so that ‘their
experiences were not meaningless, that the camps were not an accident’ (Levi
1960/1993: 390). If we manage to remember the dead correctly, and if we pass on the

practice to the next generation, then perhaps we too will be remembered properly
when the time comes.

A corollary to this simple suggestion of Michaels’s is that our remembrance entails the
understanding that evil and good deeds have the power to affect the future, which is
both disturbing and encouraging. Additionally, the effect has greater significance in the
case of the good act. For Michaels, memory is ‘moral’ and therefore involves the
exercise of conscience, which is something that only people can perform. This leads
me to the last major proposal, in my view, that Michaels wishes to make. The proposal
is simply an avowal of the value of the individual identity, the corollary being that one
can affect the lives of others. When one is stripped of every thing, what remains is to
refuse to consent to be stripped of one’s own self. 12 And by practising empathy, one
can repair some of the damage that has been done to others.

In light of the above, I can summarise the author’s aim as follows: Michaels wishes to
convince us of the importance of remembrance with regard to the Holocaust. We need
to remember the survivors and those who did not survive, and we need to bear in
mind that both good and evil acts can be repeated. She explains that evil acts,
dangerous as they are, have no moral imperative. By contrast, good acts are driven by
such an imperative, and it is this that enhances their ability to benefit the future. Any
act – be it good or evil – can only be performed by individual people. In this way,
Michaels is averring selfhood. When we try to be ethical and make a good moral
choice, we are carrying out her wishes. She asks nothing more than that each of us
affirms our belief in ourselves, and that in making moral, empathic choices we attempt
to re-establish our faith in each other.

  Levi describes himself and the other camp inmates thus: ‘we are slaves, deprived of every right,
exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must
defend it with all our strength because it is the last – the power to refuse our consent’ (1960/1993: 47).

I come now to Michaels’s primary objective. I believe that the objective can be distilled
in three words which she uses in a line from one of her early poems: ‘a word is the
memory of its meaning’ (WO/WB: 19, emphasis added). The line predicts a significance
– of all three elements of life – which is given full voice in the novel. This is the essence
of Michaels’s message: through the process of remembering, we can retain meaning; we
can preserve it; and words or language – by extension, writing – constitute the medium
through which preservation is performed. When we open her book of poetry to a
certain page, we read that Michaels believes that ‘what we save, saves us’ (MP/WLT:
5/51). 13 There is little that could be more meaningful.

Having described and summarised Michaels’s aims, it remains for me to reiterate the
overall manner in which she presents them. With the exception of Wiesel, each of the
abovementioned writers and critics affirms in some way the need for Holocaust poetry
and/or prose, which implies an imaginative approach to the representation of that real
event. To a lesser or greater degree, these writers are all ‘creators’, and thus cannot
legitimately attempt to prevent Michaels from performing an equally creative act.
While being rooted in reality, Michaels’s task is not to make us relive the Holocaust, as
Celan could not help but do; her task is to bring the Holocaust to our attention and to
keep it in our minds. Furthermore, her task is to cast light on a dark place, to illustrate
how faith can arise out of despair and how trust in oneself is extremely difficult to
destroy. The manner in which she does all this is to provide us with an alternative.
Michaels uses the novel to tell us that while many people suffered during the
Holocaust, they did not all suffer the same thing, and neither were they affected in the
same way. I suggest that she is saying: ‘While this happened, that could also have
happened. And having happened, the event or the action, the experience and the
response, meant something.’ The narratives of Jakob and Ben are set during and
following an event which shapes their lives. This facilitates our awareness that,
occurring as it did in the past and on another continent, the event has relevance for us

   As I point out in Chapter 1, and Chapter 3, Section 3c, this idea is relevant in a variety of Michaels’s
fictional and poetic contexts.

now, wherever we are. It is owing to Fugitive Pieces that we know that ‘a man’s
experience of the war … never ends with the war’ (FP: preface). Michaels writes, and
we read, so that ‘the difference between murder and death’ never ‘erodes’ (FP: 54), and
‘the spirit [never] forgets the body’ (FP: 53), no matter how many years pass.