“Never forget!” So goes one of the easiest moral imperatives of 20th century liberalism. For the Western world the Holocaust is proof of the undeniable morality of deliberate remembrance and a reason to believe that cultivating memory is a duty. We’ve come to believe that forgetting Hitler’s victims is another species of denial and this amnesia victimizes the six million slaughtered again—the great crime pardoned for lack of an interested jury.
“Never forget” is also a claim about the future. Forgetting human evil on this scale, along with the factors the allowed it to happen, denies future generations a species of wisdom borne of bitter experience (and probably knowable no other way). Who could really believe Auschwitz without the experience of it? But because it happened, we understand deeply the human capacity for evil. And so the duty to remember is often tethered to the “never again” imperative—forgetting will allow it to happen again but remembering puts us on guard. Remembering the Holocaust is ultimately an effort at self-understanding because this grotesque episode in history involves millions of accomplices whose souls were no more disposed to genocide than any of those who now seek to remember.
As to the question of whether remembering has actually functioned in this way, the answer is exceedingly complicated. At the heart of David Rieff’s provocative new book, In Praise of Forgetting, is a challenge to the universalistic “Kantian” reasoning behind the imperative to remember. Rieff works primarily out of his experiences as a journalist covering wars fueled by old stories of victimhood—stories that kept alive a shared sense of suffering and injustice that inspired revenge. “Collective” memory contributed to the genocidal motives that turned the Balkans into such an intractable and bloody mess during the 1990s. “Collective” memory created hatreds for people who had no hand, or whose great, great grandparents had no hand, in ancient abuses—real or imagined.
The richness of Rieff’s reflections is suggested by category distinctions that he makes. For instance, Rieff works hard to distinguish history from memory and then to separate out real memory from “collective memory.” As best I can tell, by “history” he means the enterprise of taking empirical evidence about the past that historians or others examine and interpret with the objective of telling truthful stories about the past. At any rate, “history is hard,” Rieff claims, and it is not in the service of politics—it is governed by the rules of historical research and the warranted interpretation of evidence. History supports no teleological interpretation—certainly not the story of progress. He finds no inherent meaning in history (no arc to history) and he seems to suggest that any larger conception of purpose or historical meaning is properly found in religion.
Collective memory is the political use of history, including distortions, imaginative creations, and myth-making. The word “memory” is particularly important to Rieff because it must be very individualized. “Quite simply,” he writes, “the world does not have memories; nor do nations; nor do groups of people. Individuals remember, full stop.” The complexity or the purposes of individual memory do not occupy the author much in this book, but one wonders about whether one has a duty to remember events in her life or how therapeutic selective forgetting might be. Even more important, how does the individual organize, link, and interpret memories and what might that tell us about the human use or need of memory?
For Rieff the individualistic nature of real memory is important to stress because it exposes memory’s transience and it forces one to acknowledge that the claims to “collective memory” can be nothing more than a metaphor. Memories may be 10 years old or, at the outside, 100 years old, but after that they simply do not exist. Memories—painful or joyful—expire with the person, lost forever. Even the person will be lost to memory in a few generations, turned, at most, into a datum of history. Unfortunately, humans tend to think that what they experienced so vividly—the attack on Pearl Harbor or the attacks on 9/11—are so powerful, so cosmically important, that they will live in people’s memory forevermore. We often insist that we memorialize these events and we teach the young about them so that what is overwhelmingly important to us will not be extinguished upon our deaths.
We can make our remembrance more permanent, perhaps, by dedicating public space to memorials, leaving a more stable declaration about specific sacrifice, pain, or heroism. These marble monuments become places where we can feel the intensity of remembering. We are moved, inspired; we cry. But, all of this is prelude to even the grandest monuments’ becoming meaningless artifacts. Mute and powerless, they can only testify to the transience of all things human. Monuments speak, as it were, only if the event is fresh in living memory; the meaning of the event is contested; or if the society has devoted considerable energy to the act of transmission that makes the events memorialized part of an ongoing, unfinished enterprise.
And so institutional structures (nations particularly) carry out the task of teaching the young to be morally earnest about the tragedies and heroes of times past. Collective identity ultimately rests on such acts of transmission, allowing groups of people to have shared touchstones of collective meaning. In this fashion we learn who we are and who we are not, and we learn what and whom to admire, who to hate or fear, and we develop some sense of piety toward ancestors. Presumably, the desire we have to teach children to “remember” those long since dead, is connected with the hope—largely the vain hope—that we too will not be forgotten.
The production and transmission of collective memory is both necessary for the functioning of a nation and deeply problematic in terms of the complexity of the historical past. What is remembered? How is it remembered, and why? Rieff notes that King Philip’s War (1675-76) in Plymouth Colony—the bloodiest war, on a per capita basis, in American history—could no more be forgotten by the people in the region for the next 100 years than one could forget the murder of one’s mother 50 years ago by your neighbor. But it is equally understandable that, except for those among us most sensitive to injustice, today this story is a curiosity of history and not part of our collective memory.
Collective memory simplifies, distorts, and yet clarifies the past for every nation, every group, every society. Consider the way the Nanjing massacre (1937) is incorporated into national narratives. Hardly a soul living remembers those awful months in this city on the Yangtze River, and yet the way Nanjing is remembered has national and international implications. The Chinese government—which is largely responsible for the creation of collective memory in China—uses this story to produce fear, suspicion, and hatred of the Japanese. The events of the catastrophe are important in themselves, but more than that, the refusal by today’s Japanese to accept the “truth” of history encourages the Chinese to hand down to the next generation a sense of grievance, and to place a certain amount of blame on the next generation of Japanese. To remember, as the Chinese government wants its people to remember, is to realize that being Chinese means inheriting moral outrage. The political goal of memory here is to prevent it from becoming “history.”
Those who traffic in collective memory are “Kantian” absolutists, Rieff argues. They lack an appreciation of the moral complexity of human reality. The moral imperative to remember old injustices and demand justice for crimes past makes it impossible to think of other moral claims. But demands for justice ought not, he says, override all other goods.
On this I agree with Rieff, whose meditation brings us to challenge the easy moralizing that makes our judgments about the past simple, declarative, and, most of all, satisfying. Too many people adopt a moral posture that allows them to condemn without effort; to feel as though they are participating in bending the arc of history toward justice; and to feel good about themselves for being better than their ancestors without having to take a single moral, social, or intellectual risk. Rieff explores the most sentimental versions of this under the title “kitsch morality”—a most interesting concept worthy of much deeper analysis.
And yet if Rieff exposes a “Kantian” moral reasoning that is overly reductive, he produces an equally reductive analysis. One can see it in his emphasis on individualism: memory is only possible for individuals, he insists; responsibility is an individual’s and not transmitted to another person. Rieff’s understanding of human nature is simplistically universalistic and it distorts the historical dimension of our being.
Perhaps the quickest way of exposing the problem is to consider Rieff on George Santayana’s statement that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Few people who quote this aphorism understand it in context, but even so, for someone exploring historical memory to mischaracterize Santayana so crudely is surprising. Rieff calls Santayana’s assertion a “false injunction” that has become “conventional wisdom today, and the conviction that memory is a species of morality that now stands as one of [the] more unassailable pieties of our age.”
But what did Santayana mean? The famous sentence is embedded in a not-so-famous paragraph:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.
This has nothing to do with the two most common interpretations of Santayana’s aphorism, which are: 1) the past is a catalogue of case studies, the study of which yields principles to avoid past mistakes; or 2) remembering previous abuses teaches us to be vigilant.
Rather, Santayana is in the middle of a supple argument about poetry, art, culture, and the development or evolution of “civilization.” Humans are historical creatures and when they lack or lose the ability to retain culture they become like “children or barbarians”—people for whom the immediacy of every event requires them to start over again each generation. Language, of course, is the most obvious way that cultural retentiveness hands down something useable to later generations. So also does literature, when retained as part of a cultural patrimony or when borrowed from other cultures, provide deep spiritual and intellectual resources to create, to see farther, to understand differently.
The relationship between retentiveness and progress is obvious to most people—scientific discovery or even scientific error, when passed down, provide the means by which later generations engage in discovery. Science is a cumulative enterprise over thousands of years—you couldn’t plop Einstein down in the 16th century and expect him to develop his theory of general relativity. Retentiveness made this possible. And it is here that Rieff’s argument about the virtues of forgetting is philosophically thin, even though his specific arguments are often penetrating and persuasive.
Without an understanding that the past is, in some ways, with us, or a recognition that the individual is constituted not only by his immediate relationships and context, but by historical forces that he will never comprehend, the question of memory, collective memory, and history will remain elusive. Among the many reasons that we study history is to understand historical contingency and the meaning of that fact on our lives. We grasp the constitutive power of the past (which includes the parts of the past that are too opaque to be called history), its ability to shape the horizon of options in which we live, and its part in making the framework of our very identities. Our spiritual freedom is real enough—even frightening—but it is not the freedom of infinite possibilities. It is, rather, freedom found within linguistic, cultural, social frames that empower us to be humans without making us gods.
We never shake free of the past, even if studying history can give us a degree of understanding and hence control over how the past shapes us. We tell stories about our lives, we construct or manage memories, we even do the hard work of history, because these are necessary to human life (as opposed to the survival of homo sapiens). Losing or rejecting (by refusing to pass it down) our cultural inheritance may produce a raw wonder at existence itself—though I doubt it—but it more likely means that we live amid technological abundance that we take to be among the natural things of our environment without possessing any sense of purpose, meaning, or place in the cosmos. Shakespeare and the Holocaust alike become opaque and we would search them in vain to recognize something important about ourselves.
And so remembering, retention, passing down, are not optional activities for human beings—we remember or we cease being human. The real question that Rieff’s book raises but cannot answer is how to remember well.