"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).

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Eternal Memory?

Eastern Christians, especially those of the Byzantine tradition, very commonly remember their dead, both personally and liturgically, by singing "Eternal Memory!"

That prayerful phrase admits of wider usage than we may perhaps consider, especially when weighed down by the crushing weight of personal grief. What of, e.g., the memories of the destruction of an entire people, as in the Armenian genocide, the Nazi-orchestrated Holocaust, the Soviet destruction of many Christians--especially Catholics--or the Holodomor? What are the risks of forgetting those? Do we need to be reminded not to forget? Must we pray that all memories are eternal, never forgotten in order never to be repeated?

Two recent essays suggest we need such a reminder. Anne Applebaum, author of such important books as, Gulag: A History and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, has an essay in Commentary, "Russia and the Great Forgetting," which I commend to your attention.

And Daniel Gross has an essay in The New Yorker, "A Historian Who Fled the Nazis and Still Wants Us to Read Hitler." Both Gross and Applebaum, in their ways, remind us of the potentially great socio-political costs to the forgetting of recent totalitarian pasts in Russia and Germany.

The questions of memory and forgetting have come to preoccupy my thinking a great deal over the last year and more, especially in the contexts of Orthodox-Catholic relations, and Orthodox-Muslim relations. In such contexts as those, one often finds the same issue raised against the West by both: the Crusades. If you read the regular public utterances of ISIS, e.g., you see language of "the Crusaders" invoked with some regularity.

Such invocations, of course, are not brought about by people with actual personal recollections of living through the Crusades 800 to 1000 years ago and more now. These are culturally and religiously traduced "memories" designed and used for present political purposes on a broad level and, at the same time, often used on a more individual level for certain psychological reasons. This is the question that especially interests me: what is going on--at both an individual, and often unconscious, level and at a broad cultural level--when people make such invocations? What does that process tell us about them and about their psychological state, and about their political agendas?

One person who has done fascinating work in this regard is the sociologist and psychoanalyst Jeffrey Prager, whose 1998 book Presenting the Past: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering I have briefly discussed previously on here. It is a deeply suggestive one that carefully explores some of these questions by means of a case-study of one of his early analysands. The work he has been doing in this book and elsewhere has opened up vast and rich terrain for scholars of, say, Orthodox-Catholic and Orthodox-Muslim relations (to say nothing of the Crusades) as well as the phenomenon of modern ethno-nationalism and the various founding myths of nation-states.

Prager cites recent psychological research that has shown the alarmingly malleable quality of memory and the fact that it can be, and often is, manipulated to serve our agendas both individual and cultural. He cites the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, whose emerging research in the early 1990s I remember (!) reading as an undergraduate in psychology then. In works such as Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial, she has shown repeatedly that even so-called eye-witness recollections are often far from reliable. Her work should give us all pause and force a great deal more humility and circumspection in those who insist that their recollected version is the only correct one.

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