Pen Ultimate / Blanking Out the Past

Our lives seem to be an attempt to restore lost knowledge, which may have left its traces underneath a now-blank slate.

Now, with Yom Kippur over, we can turn a new page in our lives with a clear conscience. Not only because this was the resolution we made on New Year's eve, but also because in the Jewish tradition, merciful God, who is "a forgiver" when it comes to Israel and Judah (he is called "salchan" and "machlan" in the Yom Kippur prayers, a Hebrew word form used to denote a profession or an occupation), actually erases the past. All our prejudices and all our previous convictions are null and void from now on, the notebook is open, the hand is poised to write, and the pages are blank. Tabula rasa.

This Latin phrase itself is an allusion to an illusion: Tabula rasa is not, as commonly believed, a blank slate. Literally, it means a slate that has been erased, having formerly had words inscribed on its waxen surface. In pre-paper days, a writer only had a few such slates, and he had to scrape off his old words and ideas from them to make room for the new ones. Hence the illusion of "turning" a new, clean, page in our lives.

Many books have been written, many movies have been made, about people trying to run away from their past, changing their appearances, names, occupations, countries, even continents. The past has shown itself over time to be an indelible, untiring, invincible hunter, always breathing down the fugitive's neck, forever tapping on his shoulder.

Was there ever a moment in our lives when we really were a blank page? The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) thought so. He wrote in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" that that is the way we are born: "Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience."

Locke was taking aim at theories involving innate ideas, and preached empiricism. Nowadays, with the genome code being cracked, we know that no human mind is really blank, as it is imprinted via the genes of its progenitors, which are the soil in which ideas, feelings, beliefs and tastes are then planted and nourished. Admittedly, it is a giant leap from genes to ideas, but by now we know that even newborn children's minds are not like open notebooks, full of blank pages.

Rabbi Simlai, a third-century scholar of the Gemara, is quoted as saying: "The embryo in the womb is like a wound scroll, his hands on his ears, his legs folded on his thighs, his heels on his buttocks and his head between his knees ... and there are no better days in the life of man than those, in which he is being taught all the Torah, and when he is due to the world's air, there comes an angel, gives him a smack on his lips, and makes him forget all the Torah."

This is one of a few Jewish midrashim that see the beginning of life on this earth as the erasing of a slate. All human life hence seems to be an attempt to restore lost, but nevertheless innate, knowledge, which may have left its traces underneath a now-blank slate. Like Michelangelo, who frees the sculpture from within the block of marble in his study.

All this does not deter us from yearning for the moment at which we will turn a new page, and it will be white, devoid of any blemish, promising a better future (although how we will be able to tell whether it is indeed better, after having erased and forgotten the past, is a mystery that has yet to be fathomed).

The only human species that does not like its pages blank is that of writers. They have filled thousands of pages about the horror of the blank page, describing how they sit there at their desks with the white, empty pages staring at them, both inviting and forbidding at the same time.

What is it in the blank page that makes writers helpless, frustrated, enraged - and at a loss for words? Is it the physical fact that Nature abhors a vacuum, and that the empty page "demands" to be filled and, ideally, fulfilled?

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the empty page is the deeply ingrained awareness that there is no such thing as a truly blank page, just as there are no free lunches. The past, which cannot be erased and does not allow us to open a really blank new page - that same past winks at us from underneath the surface of the white paper (or the empty screen). All the things that are written and that we have read but forgotten, all things written that we have not read and yet somehow remember, all those things we ourselves have written and forgotten, and those things that we have written and since bitterly regretted - all these swirl before our eyes, and the page is full and overflowing.

But until we have written (or typed) the first letter, we can still delude ourselves that there is such a thing - there it is, in front of us! - as a new, virgin, unsullied page. Only if we remember that this is a wish that will be forever unrequited, can we write on this page, and with respect to our lives, something truly new.