"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, March 5, 2016

On Learning to Forget

As I noted last summer, I have become more and more fascinated not just with the uses and abuses of memory--in the context of, e.g., the "Crusades," which have become an all-purpose stick with which certain Orthodox Christians and certain Muslims try to beat the Catholic Church--but also with the question of forgetting. Our last century has, for justifiable reasons, been concerned to say "Never again!" by saying "Never forget!" And that is noble, commendable, important if we wish to guard against a repeat of, say, the Holocaust, Armenian Genocide, or Holodomor.

But sometimes it seems the only way forward is by not remembering. That is, the way forward is precisely through forgetting. The problem here, of course, is that most of us have been conditioned to think of forgetting as a morally reprobated activity, as a deplorable oversight, as a sin of omission--forgetting the dog in the car on a hot day, say, or failing to remember the dental appointment that morning at 9, or not remembering to buy a card for my spouse's birthday.

But as we ought to have learned by now from Freud, not all forms of remembering are healthful and helpful; and not all forms of forgetting are evidence of unhealthy repression or unconscious frustration. Certain forms of remembering are necessary, while certain others are not. Certain remembrances can help with healing with others can hinder it. This is as true for individuals as it is for Christians and their churches. Indeed, on this latter score, I think there are certain things that Christians can and must come to forget if we are ever to live together again as one body.

I've been thinking about these things for a while now, and continue to work on them for a lecture I'm to give in 2017. These thoughts have also been recently addressed in this fascinating article, which in turn put me in mind of Bradford Vivian's welcome and important book, Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again

The author of the article, David Rieff, has a book coming out in May: In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (Yale UP, 2016), 160pp.

About this book we are told:
The conventional wisdom about historical memory is summed up in George Santayana’s celebrated phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Today, the consensus that it is moral to remember, immoral to forget, is nearly absolute. And yet is this right?
David Rieff, an independent writer who has reported on bloody conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia, insists that things are not so simple. He poses hard questions about whether remembrance ever truly has, or indeed ever could, “inoculate” the present against repeating the crimes of the past. He argues that rubbing raw historical wounds—whether self-inflicted or imposed by outside forces—neither remedies injustice nor confers reconciliation. If he is right, then historical memory is not a moral imperative but rather a moral option—sometimes called for, sometimes not. Collective remembrance can be toxic. Sometimes, Rieff concludes, it may be more moral to forget.

Ranging widely across some of the defining conflicts of modern times—the Irish Troubles and the Easter Uprising of 1916, the white settlement of Australia, the American Civil War, the Balkan wars, the Holocaust, and 9/11—Rieff presents a pellucid examination of the uses and abuses of historical memory. His contentious, brilliant, and elegant essay is an indispensable work of moral philosophy.

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