"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).

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Collective Remembering, Forgetting, and Forgiving

I have for many years been fascinated with, and written numerous articles about, the questions of remembering and forgetting among Christians, especially between and among Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Too much of what still divides us is bad history badly "remembered." The remembering has very little to do with the past, and much to do with present politics, as Adam Phillips (also explored extensively on here) has so helpfully and rightly reminded us: "memories always have a future in mind."

The on-going problem is how we can overcome these dodgy so-called memories and find true healing. Some have suggested we need to engage in deliberate forgetting, an idea I explored in detail here, by discussing David Rieff's useful little book.

Since it remains an on-going problem, I remain on-goingly interested in books exploring these questions. Oxford University Press recently sent me some such books in exchange for reviewing manuscripts for them. Among the books I asked for were J.K. Olick et al, eds., The Collective Memory Reader (OUP, 2011), 528pp.

As you might imagine, it features very short (most are c. 3-4pp.) excerpts from a huge range of people, some well known--Freud, Burke, Marx, Durkheim, Benjamin, Blondel, Foucault, Ricoeur--alongside many others who were knew to me. The editors argue in their introduction that the study of collective memory really goes back to Maurice Halbwachs, whom I had not read previously, and who was first translated by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, whom I have read to great profit (see, inter alia, her Natural Symbols as well as Purity and Danger).

One of the other authors excerpted in this collection is Roger Bastide, whose The African Religions of Brazil argues that we need to be careful about assuming that we either remember or forget (for whatever motives) in anything like a straightforward manner. Instead, both the remembering and forgetting can be subject to individualized and idiosyncratic mutations that may or may not bleed into the supposedly collective memory.

The other book OUP sent me is Jeffrey Blustein's Forgiveness and Remembrance: Remembering Wrongdoing in Personal and Public Life (OUP, 2014). Blustein is a philosopher who teaches bioethics at the City University of New York.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Forgiveness and Remembrance examines the complex moral psychology of forgiving, remembering, and forgetting in personal and political contexts. It challenges a number of entrenched ideas that pervade standard philosophical approaches to interpersonal forgiveness and offers an original account of its moral psychology and the emotions involved in it. The volume also uses this account to illuminate the relationship of forgiveness to political reconciliation and restorative political practices in post-conflict societies.
Memory is another central concern that flows from this, since forgiveness is tied to memory and to emotions associated with the memory of injury and injustice. In its political function, memory of wrongdoing -- and of its victims -- is embodied in processes of memorialization, such as the creation of monuments, commemorative ceremonies, and museums. The book casts light on the underexplored relationship of memorialization to transitional justice and politically consequential interpersonal forgiveness. It examines the symbolism and the symbolic moral significance of memorialization as a political practice, reflects on its relationship to forgiveness, and, finally, argues that there are moral responsibilities associated with memorialization that belong to international actors as well as to states.

I'm only a little ways into the book, and hope to report more later. But for the time being, I wanted to draw it to your attention as one of the most philosophically rigorous and carefully argued books I have yet found in this whole complex of topics. Other works, including Rieff's, have only glanced at some of the serious challenges we face if we talk about learning to forget and forgive. Blustein faces these challenges head-on, and his book is much the richer for it, as I hope to show in a future note about it.

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