"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, July 11, 2016

David Rieff on the Duty to Forget (II)

As I noted previously, among its several virtues, David Rieff's new and important book, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, forces us to overcome any romantic or idealistic claims that enforced historical remembrance of certain, especially traumatic, events, in itself makes the world a better place.

The notion of collective memory comes in for unrelenting criticism from Rieff, and in my view this is wholly justified. He disputes flatly the idea that there is such a thing as collective memory as genuine memory of actual events which the collective itself experienced directly. (This is a problem I have long wondered about in all the papal calls for the "healing of memories," especially among and between Christians. How can the "memories" of, say, the entire Greek Orthodox Church be healed apart from healing each person one at a time if, that is, they have such "memories" in the first place--rather than having "acquired" them as part of their national identity kits?) This is indeed Rieff's point also: collective "memory" is an instrumentalist notion packaged into national identities and political ideologies; as such it is tendentious, narcissistic, unambiguous, unequivocal, and one-dimensional. It privileges power over truth; it does not scruple over historical accuracy, or acknowledge any ambiguity. This is what makes collective memory so useful to politicians and convincing in the hands of nationalist ideologues, and precisely what makes it so dangerous also.

Instead of an almost unquestioning insistence on remembrance, whose utility is assumed but almost never demonstrated, Rieff spends considerable time arguing that certain memories for a time may be useful in trying to prod people to repentance and reconciliation, but these cases will likely be short-lived and can only be determined on a case-by-base basis. There is, then, no room for blanket insistence on wide-spread collective remembrance by everyone forever.

Equally Rieff is not a one-sided polemicist in the other direction, insisting on blanket and widespread forgetting. He recognizes that remembering may have its place, and may be of limited use to some people.

Its utility, however, is in fact likely to be highly limited, and time-bound. Wide-spread insistence on collective remembrance has little if any demonstrable track record in making the world a better place. Collective remembrance in and of itself gives us no clues, no tools, no guidelines, as to how to prevent a future recurrence of, say, a genocide or other traumatic or violent event.

What might work better, then? Here Rieff turns to both forgiveness and especially forgetting. According to Rieff, both have considerable virtues and both have advantages that collective remembrance does not.

Forgetting, says Rieff:
  • is more mature
  • is more likely to bring peace
  • is no more likely to ensure repetition of a traumatic, violence event than enforced remembrance is to prevent it

We insist (and legally so in some cases--e.g., France's Gayssot Act and later legislation mandating memory and criminalizing denial of, e.g., the Holocaust) on a "duty to remember," notes Rieff before asking: Why not a duty to forget? Would that not be socially useful also?

Related to a duty to forget is the question of forgiveness. Rieff does not give this as much attention, and in our final installment we will look at this in more detail before teasing out some of the implications of all this for both Christian and Muslim "memories" of such as, e.g, the Fourth Crusade.


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