Forgetting usually takes a transitive form. Unlike intransitive verbs — “to stand,” “to wait,” “to live” — which don’t take objects, “to forget” often describes an action done unto something, so the verb precedes the forgotten thing. In most cases, but not always, the verb without an object becomes meaningless.
I say this because I’m not American and began to learn English at age eight or nine. The acquisition of a second language requires certain punctiliousness, and it’s a consequence of this exercise that words become rigid, static. Their proper usage is determined by rules that parcel sentences into subject and verb and catalogue verbs as either transitive or intransitive, this being important to determine the need for an object.
Since learning these rules, I have moved to Texas and chosen to become an American citizen. I also learned, somewhere along the line, that these rules don’t always apply, that the things that happen in real life are not restrained by syntax. Still, certain phrases sound foreign to me. “Never forget,” for example, lacks an object.
I was 10 when the hijackers flew the planes into the two towers. There were other planes, too, flown into other places — one that blew a hole on the side of the Pentagon and another that crashed in Pennsylvania — but the image that remains in my mind is of the two towers, collapsing to the ground in a roar of smoke and dust and debris.
Ours was a private school in a wealthy neighborhood of São Paulo, which is probably the reason we were told about the attacks, on the off chance a student’s parents had boarded a U.S.-bound flight the night before. There was confusion, not so much of the existential sort that surfaced elsewhere on the globe — who? why? what does it all mean? — but of a more basic nature: What is the Pentagon? Where is the World Trade Center? Will we have to spend Christmas at home instead of abroad?
Last Tuesday, the events of that day — rather, a certain attitude about the events of that day — were the subject of chatter on TV, of commentary on blogs, of posts on Facebook. “Never forget” was said often, as was “we will always remember” (in which “to remember” also adopted the intransitive form). Tuesday was, I knew, September 11, it having come after Monday, September 10, but though I tried, I failed to internalize the date, to conjure around it the proper associations. I could not, in short, remember.
“To remember,” in the intransitive form, is not a matter of knowing the factual details of the event, of knowing the number of minutes between the attacks (17, 34, 30) and the number of people killed (2,977) or of knowing that the New York medical examiner’s office classified all deaths, save those of the hijackers, as homicides, including in this category those 200 or so people whose lives ended in the manner captured by that one photograph of the falling man.
It’s not a matter of understanding, though understanding is important, and also elusive. It’s because generals thought they understood that they initially sent fewer than 10,000 soldiers into Afghanistan, and it’s because they didn’t that the number has since grown to 90,000. It’s partially because we wanted to understand better that a number of courses on international security are now taught at Yale.
I know the details and I understand them to a degree. That I can’t remember is a matter of syntax. “To remember,” to me, remains a transitive verb. It describes an action done unto something, a recalling of a past thing. On September 11, 2001, I was a Brazilian boy. The recollection I have is of the absurdity inherent in planes flying into buildings. When Americans speak of remembering, their words are deep and heavy. My own words feel shallow.
When the phrase “never forget” first came into use, the implicit object was the Holocaust. In that instance, as with this one, the meaning in the words was too large for the vessels, so the verb acquired its intransitive form. To remember 9/11 is a visceral thing, an experience that transcends facts and understanding. The verb in “we will always remember” carries meaning irrespective of its object and stands on its own for people whose questions on Sept. 11, 2001, were unrelated to Christmas vacations. In its intransitive form, remembering has the power to bring together a nation.
I will never forget 9/11. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.