"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).

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

David Rieff on the Duty to Forget (I)

As it happened, I was sitting out toward dusk on perhaps the loveliest summer evening so far, finishing the reading of David Rieff's powerful and important book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies before coming in to the news of the death of Elie Wiesel, whose efforts to ensure perpetual remembrance of the Holocaust come in for critical scrutiny in Rieff's book.

Rieff's book is one of several to have emerged stressing the importance of forgetting--indeed, the moral imperative and duty to forget, at least some conflicts at least some of the time--as I have noted on here in drawing attention to Manuel Cruz's book, inter alia. Though this work--as I noted here--does not deal much with Christian approaches to history and memory, nor to conflicts involving Christians, I have been engaged for some time in thinking with authors such as Rieff to see how useful their work could be to the on-going project of Catholic-Orthodox healing of memories as well as to Christian-Muslim relations in the context of (entirely bogus) "memories" of the "Crusades."

Rieff's book is a subtle, careful work that does indeed make the case for forgetting, but not in a simplistic manner. He recognizes the importance of memory and remembering, but severely puts to the question any notion that collective memory is a coherent and tangible reality instead of a political cipher, a metaphor, and, on balance, a rather dangerous tool of identity always in service of some agenda or other.

Moreover, he asks--as Cruz did--whether and where all this emphasis on remembering has made the world a better place. Did insistence on not forgetting the Armenian genocide of 1915 prevent the Ukrainian terror-famine of 1932-33, the Holocaust of 1939-45, or more recent genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, the Balkans in the 1990s, and elsewhere? Has insistence on remembering the Holocaust solved the problem of anti-Semitism? Have no Jews anywhere been killed since 1945, or at least 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel in part as a way of saying "Never forget!" and "Never again!" to the Holocaust?


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