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In Praise of Forgetting:
Historical Memory and Its Ironies
by David Rieff
A great Irish historian once said that it would help heal his society if the Irish were to erect a monument to amnesia and then forget where they put it. Then the Irish wouldn't have to fight over every commemoration that rolls around, the most recent being the centenary of the Easter Rising in 1916, which left behind hundreds of dead and memories embittered to this day.
Ireland might not be the only country, in fact, where there is too much remembering and not enough forgetting.
The American writer David Rieff has written an astringent, eloquent and sometimes moving essay on the virtues of forgetting. He is the son of the writer and human-rights activist Susan Sontag, and, while he never mentions her, we know from an agonising essay he wrote on his mother's desperate battle with cancer that her struggle must have been an episode in his life that might have taught him how good it is to forget.
In taking the side of forgetting, Rieff is swimming against the tide of piety that repeats George Santayana's old saw that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It is equally true, Rieff argues, that those who can't forget the past will be imprisoned by it.
The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit maintains there is an 'ethics of memory', a moral duty to remember great crimes such as the Holocaust. Rieff replies that there is an 'ethics of forgetting', a duty not to drag past quarrels into the future, to let bygones be bygones.
Rieff's argument is at its best as a plea for political moderation, rather than moral absolutism, when societies have to face up to painful legacies in their past. This has been a burning issue in South Africa's exit from apartheid, Spain's transition to democracy and Chile's reckoning with the crimes of General Pinochet. Absolutist advocates of the duty of remembering want past crimes to be punished no matter what, while those on the side of forgetting plead that justice will jeopardise peace and a stable transition.
'Remembrance may be the ally of justice,' Rieff writes, but it is 'no reliable friend of peace.' He points out that Spain managed the transition from dictatorship in the late 1970s thanks to el pacto del olvido, an agreement to forget the crimes of the Franco regime for the sake of the peaceful introduction of democracy. In Chile, likewise, President Patricio Aylwin chose to inch his way towards democratic rule rather than put Pinochet on trial for his crimes.
Rieff does not always choose forgetting over remembering. He would obviously welcome the recent conviction of Radovan Karadzic for his part in the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. He concedes that justice is a good thing, especially in this case, but it is only justice, not healing, not even closure, since some Bosnian Serbs will continue to deny the findings of the court in the Hague till their dying day. In other cases - Germany after the Second World War, for example, where the judicial pursuit of every Nazi official still lodged in the bureaucracy would have brought the whole society to a juddering halt - it is far better to let sleeping dogs lie.
Rieff's essay is a frontal attack on what he takes to be the moral absolutism of the modern human-rights movement and its axiomatic belief that remembering - and the justice that goes with it - is always better than forgetting, and the impunity that usually accompanies it.
The prudence, caution and moderation of Rieff's argument is likeable, as is his insistence on the need for political judgment in balancing the claims of remembering and forgetting. He understands the profound insight in John Kenneth Galbraith's remark: 'Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.' Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Rieff argues, remember too much and forget too little to make peace with each other.
This much seems clear, but elsewhere Rieff's case remains equivocal. He never gives us reliable guidance about how we balance the ethics of memory and the ethics of forgetting. Sometimes, he claims that remembering is just futile, since nothing remains in memory or in history forever. Sometimes, he argues that the duty of memory depends on context. If so, he leaves us without guidelines to help us decide in which contexts we should remember and in which to forget.
He is also the son of Philip Rieff, one of the great intellectual historians of psychoanalysis, so it is strange that his account of the psychology of memory seems so pre-Freudian, so rationalist in its emphasis on will and choice. What if forgetting and remembering, as Freud told us, have precious little to do with the will? What if you really have no choice in the matter? What if memory and forgetting both do their work whatever ethics tells you that you ought to do?
While reading his essay, I chanced upon a photograph of a young boy, perhaps six or seven years old, leaping over a pile of rubble in a cavernous and debris-strewn street in the old city of Aleppo, during its recent bombardment by Russian and Syrian aircraft. His city has been under shellfire all his conscious life. If peace ever comes, you have to wonder what burden of toxic memory he will carry within him for the rest of his days. What will memory make him do? Will it drive him towards vengeance, and if so towards whom? Will it drive him into exile and a life of forgetting his shattered origins?
Rieff's book construes memory and forgetting as an exercise of political judgment, but for that little boy in the midst of death and chaos, Syria is not a place where you make choices. It is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. He does not know whether his blithe resilience will carry him through to a safe waking state. All he can do is run, feel his own strength and perhaps hope that one day he will actually have a choice between forgetting and remembering. Anyone who wants Syria to return to peace, order and some bare minimum of justice, will fervently hope that he is able to forget because in forgetting, there might just possibly be some forgiving.
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