"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).

Friday, August 2, 2019

Forgetful Remembrance of Ireland's Troubles

Back in 2016 I began exploring several new works treating the theme of forgetting as an unexplored category for how we treat controversial, divisive pasts, particularly between Eastern and Western Christians. I continue to read in the area for an article I'm working on.

Two weeks ago, on a tiny lake in northern Indiana while my kids spent the day swimming and playing, I sat on the deck and began reading a very dense but fascinating new work by Guy Beiner, Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster (Oxford University Press, 2018), 736pp. If you have any interest in Irish history, or the history of religio-political conflict, of British imperialism, and of historiography, this book will give you depth and detail in abundance. It is the very impressive fruit of serious and wide-ranging research into all kinds of out-of-the-way places and sources.

Being no expert in Irish history, I will not essay comments on the book's treatment of it. Let me, rather, note that the book's introduction alone is worth the price and effort of slogging through the whole thing. The author has given a wonderful summary of a large body of literature in memory studies, cognitive psychology and neurology, and historiography. Much of this he picks up again in his concluding chapter, "Rites of Oblivion."

The book breaks new and important ground between the heavy emphasis found in much of Western culture since at least 1945 on social remembering (of, e.g., the Holocaust), and the more recent, and still developing, awareness of the importance of forgetting both as an important phenomenon in its own right, but also as part and parcel of how human remembering works. Its use of the category of "social forgetting" shows how, in situations of longstanding and complex conflict such as that of Northern Ireland, politically mandated forgetting of, say, "The Troubles" does not always or even usually result in total obliteration of any and all memories of those events. Instead, what one finds is that officially or publicly "forgotten" events may not be discussed openly by those in power, but unofficially, in, say, families, or cultural societies or historical associations, they may be kept alive in varying forms. Thus socially and politically one may pretend to "forget" while, sotto voce as it were, one does not. The relationship between these two phenomena has not been well studied, and so, as the author says in his preface, that is what he seeks to do: "Studies of cultural and social memory have too often made sweeping claims that have not been fully substantiated. It is therefore necessary to lay out the nuts and bolts of remembrance in order to closely examine the mechanics of how social forgetting actually works" (xvii). Thus his book is situated somewhere between les lieux d'oubli and les lieux de mémoire.

The irony of any requests or still more demands--especially those enforced by the power of the state--for forgetting is, of course, that it makes remembering more likely. But curiously, Beiner notes, "the request to disregard does not" have the same effect. As he puts it, reviewing a number of recent studies, including those of juries in courtrooms, a "conscious effort to forget produces an altered form of memory, and this 'forgetful memory' needs to be better understood" (18).

Forgetting of all kinds, Beiner notes, is still given short shrift in many places, and it is often badly understood, too. Later in the book Beiner distinguishes, based on what he has observed in Ulster historiography since 1798, different kinds of forgetting: troubled forgetting, partial forgetting, nonconformist remembering that forgets differently from others around it, and a kind of "restored forgetting" brought to bear once the prevailing politics shifts again and something that was for a time officially remembered must now be suppressed in the interests of, say, an "amnesty" after a long period of political violence and a fragile social peace that feels victims must "forgive and forget." These and other types of forgetting are similar to what Mary Douglas (in an essay in Shifting Contexts) called "selective remembering, misremembering, and disremembering."

Many people assume that forgetting is bad, remembering good, and there is a straightforward connection between them. But in some ways, at least as far as human memory is concerned, remembering is the problem or, better, the aberration: we spend most of our time forgetting most things. Think, e.g., just over the last 12 hours of your life: can you give an hour-by-hour, or even more minute-by-minute recounting of everything you saw, thought, smelled, heard, and did? Would not most of us recollect only in broad outline: "Well, I was in a meeting this morning until 11:30, and then I had lunch, and then I did some paperwork at my desk for a couple hours, took tea about 3pm, and knocked off around 5 to drive home?" In other words, we forget much more of the details of a given day than we remember, and this is not only normal but necessary for if we remembered every detail out memory would soon approach saturation and exhaustion.

If attempts to enforce forgetting are problematic, so too are those demanding remembrance of an event, for it is becoming clear in the literature that "constructions of memory are not uniform and cannot be simply imposed from above and passively adopted by subservient communities" (23). Practices of social forgetting are similarly complex and incompletely successful. They may and often do come at some cost: "Practices of disremembering bury secrets" (30), with all the well-known psychic sequelae that follow from keeping traumatic secrets.

This is perhaps especially clear in the partition of states, the formation of new states, or civil war between factions within a state (see, e.g., the el pacto del olvido decreed in the 1977 Amnesty Law after Franco left office in Spain). Much of that violence is forcibly buried, resulting in disremembering in the very peculiar ways we see--what Vamik Volkan, to whom I have so often returned, calls narratives of "chosen trauma" and "chosen glory." Here ostensibly (or even genuinely) traumatic pasts get traduced for present felt purposes. Much of these dynamics and developments are still only just now being understood, and so as Beiner comes to the end of his very long and dense book, he notes that "the history of these dynamics of generating, repressing, and regenerating social forgetting has been mostly missed by conventional historiography."

There is much in Forgetful Remembrance that needs to be brought to bear on Christian ideas of forgetting, especially of major conflicts in ecclesial history--e.g., the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, or the Union of Brest, or the pseudo-sobor of 1946. It is clear that exhortations to remember such events as these have left Christians unable to move towards that "healing of memories" so often called for by the late Pope John Paul II. But it is equally clear that simply calling for all such events to be forgotten will not work either. Instead, I think we need to explore that "thin line between an inner duty to remember and a right to be outwardly forgotten" which Beiner calls "social forgetting," for it "offers another way to approach this dilemma" by seeing that "the desire for willful forgetting produces rites of oblivion, which are in effect forms of unofficial remembrance that are discreetly performed alongside social memory in defiance of state prohibitions and social taboos" (626).

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