Never forget? Actually, sometimes we should, argues David Rieff. Lasting peace is impossible without letting go of some past wrongs.
David Rieff has seen a lot of things he would probably prefer to forget. As a journalist he has covered war crimes and the macho interventionists who tried to stop them, extreme poverty and the struggle against starvation. More than a few times, in places like Rwanda, the Balkans and Sudan, he has heard people exclaim with conviction and emotion that the atrocities in these killing fields will never be forgotten.
But memory is anything but permanent. And Mr. Rieff believes that the impermanence of memory is often a good thing, since forgetting can facilitate conflict resolution. In 2011 he began to make this argument in “Against Remembrance.” Now, in this book-length essay, “In Praise of Forgetting,” he takes “another bite at the apple of memory and forgetting.”
In the “Use and Abuse of History for Life,” Friedrich Nietzsche argued against the mania for remembrance because it undermined the productive dream that one could create something truly new. Mr. Rieff picks up on the 19th-century philosopher’s notion that “life in any true sense is impossible without forgetfulness.” Likewise, he argues that authentic, lasting peace is impossible without some forgetting. The memory of past wrongs inspires efforts to somehow make up for them in the present, and under the rubric of “justice” people wind up perpetuating cycles of suffering and violence.
IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING
By David Rieff Yale, 145 pages, $25
But whereas Nietzsche had deep suspicions about the pedantic, vitality-killing work of graybeard historians, Mr. Rieff is mostly concerned with collective memory, not the academic discipline of history. By collective memory he means beliefs that groups of people have about the past—a felt connection that owes at least as much to myth as it does to what really happened. Although he concedes that there is something “ethically impoverished about forgetting the sacrifices and the sufferings of those who came before,” he concludes that “in some places and on some historical occasions, the human and societal cost of the moral demand to remember is too high to be worth paying.”
Sometimes it is easy to see this, as when modern Serbian nationalists massacred Muslims to avenge a 14th-century defeat, or when some vague memory of Confederate glory inspired the killing of African-Americans in church. Memory doesn’t only heal; it kills.
In making this case, the author believes that he is bucking conventional wisdom. But that’s just self-congratulation. Sure, all around us we hear the injunction to remember the past so as not to repeat its mistakes or to ensure that the sacrifices of heroes or martyrs will not be in vain. But we are also surrounded by techniques of forgetting that are supposed to allow us to “move on,” “get over it” or just relieve some of the suffering that comes from particularly traumatic connections to the past.
Mr. Rieff knows all this, and his praise of forgetting is qualified by commitments to memory that can provide a nourishing connectivity and not just the perpetuation of resentment and the desire for revenge. For example, he notes that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions had a “morally emancipatory effect” without stimulating the need for retribution.
“When it is possible, by all means let societies remember,” Mr. Rieff writes, “but when it is not possible . . . give forgetting a chance.” And who could disagree? Mr. Rieff wants to open a space for forgetting because he has seen that collective memory can feed an intransigent idealism energized by hostility against those who aren’t part of the collective. He prefers the “short memory” that John Kenneth Galbraith called essential for politics.
Effective politics depends on compromises that often seem like a betrayal of the past to those who want to keep alive the connection to collective wounds as the core of a group’s identity. Increasingly, groups that see their identities bound up with memories of victimization seize upon what Max Weber called a “theodicy of disprivilege”—the belief that salvation comes to those who’ve suffered most. Who has endured more, Jews or Palestinians? Or is it African-Americans? The sordid competition among groups for beatitude through traumatization has become a fact of American cultural life.
But how much forgetting is enough? The American taste for amnesia and reinvention doesn’t get enough attention in this book. Instead, Mr. Rieff wrestles primarily with thinkers in the Jewish tradition for whom remembrance is a central concern of ethics, identity and justice. He awkwardly writes that “the issue of the Jewish people’s in at least some way unique relation to memory is especially acute.” (Though that unique relation doesn’t prevent the commemoration of the Holocaust, Mr. Rieff notes, from falling into political manipulation and kitsch.)
You don’t have to be Jewish (but being a Freudian helps) to wonder how to weigh the suffering that this relation to memory has caused against the consolation it has provided. When does a “unique relation to memory” make you stronger? When is it simply neurotic, creating more suffering for you and others? Mr. Rieff doesn’t say.
Near the end of his slim book, Mr. Rieff quotes Leon Wieseltier, whose book “Kaddish” is a magisterial meditation on memory, identity and mourning: “Memory has become our mysticism, so great that it is the generation of authenticity that it confers.” Mr. Rieff knows that this authenticity is often unearned and that the mysticism can be used to legitimate the worst forms of violence. But Mr. Wieseltier is also concerned with forms of memory—like shiva, the official seven-day mourning period following a death, and study in honor of the dead—that express love and inspire reverence. These are not practices of remembrance that Mr. Rieff, or any one of us, would want to lightly forget.
Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."