"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).

Monday, June 13, 2016

On the Difficulty of Living Together (I)

This book's slender size is deceptive insofar as On the Difficulty of Living Together: Memory, Politics, and History, by the contemporary Spanish philosopher Manuel Cruz, is an at times dense and at others diffuse set of arguments about the relationship between memory, history, identity, and the politics of the future. This latter point really distinguishes this book, in my view, from other recent treatments of historical memory and forgetting insofar as the author insists that all too often debates about historical memory are so caught up in the past, or with preserving a particular version of the past, as to ignore entirely the question of what kind of future we want to have.

The author takes issue with a number of arguments as to why historical memory is said to be important. The act of remembering, he insists, cannot be an end in itself. Nor can it be simply a prophylaxis against future repetition of past horrors such as the Holocaust. As he puts it toward the end of the book, merely insisting something must not be allowed to happen again "leaves out the unavoidable matter of the necessary means" (73). In other words, to say "Never again!" to, eg., the Armenian Genocide tells us nothing as to how we may avoid such a thing from happening a second time.

Memory itself is not some neutral, innocent, or harmless repository of "what truly happened." It is shifting, not to say shifty, and always in the service of a narrative, an identity, and a politics. In that regard, memory is a tool of power, and here he quotes Goethe approvingly: "Writing history is a way of getting rid of the past" (21).

The author attempts something of a "small typology of memory" (44), noting five types of defenders of memory: those who insist memory has value in itself; those who see the past as legitimizing the present (e.g., defenders of modern European nation-states); those who link memory and justice; those who associate memory with necessary mourning; and those who use memory as a tool of criticism, denunciation, and a challenge to conscience.

One point the author returns to several times, albeit with great sensitivity given the tremendous controversy that would surely attend a more explicit argument, is that memories of historical injustices, and especially their victims, must not be always and everywhere assumed to be "absolute innocents" (51). To such people we must not extend what he calls an "excess of empathy" (55), allowing some past horror to excuse them of present responsibility. Part of his concern here--though he is less than forthright on this point--seems to be how often victims become victimizers. If victims are treated as untouchables, as moral innocents whose past suffering guarantees them immunity from present and future criticism, then politics will reach an impasse.

Cruz wants to put into question an over-reliance on historical memory insofar as it provides the resources for a settled, homogeneous identity in the present. He insists that "memory is, itself, a setting for conflict. Therefore it cannot be used to defend a harmonious and unitary image of identity" (65).

As I noted above, the real concern of this book is that "it may be more urgent for us to be able to reopen debate about the future" and so asking ourselves about the possibilities and prospects of "living better" (67). Cruz's project may be summed up nicely thus: "a future without any idea of the past is inane...[and] a past with no idea of the future is inert" (68).

In the end, Cruz insists that today more than ever we need the historian, for "he has the authority to reclaim forgetting," which is a way of "draining history" (95). Why should we want to forget, and to drain history? We need to forget certain things because they weigh us down from pursuing a better future.

As I continue to think this through, I will, in future installments, test out some of these ideas via a case-study method, using well-known examples of historically contested events among Eastern Christians.

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