Memory

David Rieff's memoir, Swimming in a Sea of Death, will be published by Granta in May.

Let grass grow and blood dry

Whether expressed in philosophical terms or as doggerel, from Santayana's insistence that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" to the Guy Fawkes Day injunction to "Remember, remember, the fifth of November", the conviction that memory is a species of morality is one of the more unassailable pieties of the age. To remember is to be responsible – whether to truth, history, or one's own feelings. And anything less, on this understanding, is a species of cowardice and self-destructive into the bargain.

This instauration of memory as public good – as one of the essential bona fides of the health of a society or an individual – transcends politics, and is as persuasive to those whose understanding is fundamentally social and historical as it is to those whose understanding is fundamentally private and psychological. Fascists and multiculturalists alike agree on what one French civil rights group, campaigning for the fuller acknowledgment of France's past involvement in the slave trade, calls "the duty of memory". It is assumed to be beyond dispute that memory can rally nations –
as in the motto of Quebec "je m'en souviens", "I remember" – and that memory can heal individuals – as in the psychological pop-culture commonplace that to be able to remember a traumatic experience is the necessary first step in coming to terms with it.

To be sure, this veneration of memory has its limits. You are thought, and rightly so, to be a fanatic or an egomaniac if you obsess about your country's past (whether to glorify or to vilify it) or your own childhood (happy or unhappy). But this is a matter of proportion rather than one of category. Serious psychologists may question both the accuracy and helpfulness of the supposed revelations of sexual abuse that have been the stock-in-trade of the so-called "recovered memory" movement, and there are not many people who witnessed what havoc the Serb nationalists' morbid obsession with the Battle of Kosovo Polje of 1389 wreaked on the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s who would have said such memorial thinking was anything but self-destructive. But few would be willing to say as a general rule that they were "against" memory, or thought that, as a general category, it was more of a destructive force than anything else.

What is less clear is why this is so. A strong case can be made that what ensures the health of societies and individuals alike is not their capacity for remembering but rather their capacity for forgetting. For on a certain level, to remember is to sail into that dangerous narrow channel in which one has to navigate between the Scylla of nostalgia and the Charybdis of grievance. About the former, one can say with the Cuban-American writer Orlando Ricardo Menes that "idyllic memories are a jewelled noose". And about the latter, surely Czeslaw Milosz had the last word when he speculated that "it is possible that the only memory is the memory of wounds".

To understand everything may be to forgive everything, as the old French adage instructs, but surely to remember everything would be to forgive nothing and be relieved of nothing. Imagine, for example, that one remembered – vividly, accurately – the physical pain one has suffered. In that case, to put it bluntly, how many women would bear a second child? Or imagine that the wrongs of past centuries could not, over the very long term, disappear from the collective memories of peoples. Of course, we know what happens then. Think of Ireland until very recently, where, as one Ulster poet put it, the country "got martyrs when it needed men". In short, why is memory viewed as a blessing when, indisputably, it is so often a curse?

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