At a time when diverse Muslim sects are still fighting wars that date to over a millennium ago, when supposedly serious American thinkers are demanding reparations for crimes committed over a century ago, and when Palestinians would rather refight yesterday’s losing war than to provide for their own prosperity, it is worthwhile to take a deep breath and ponder David Rieff’s point: sometimes it’s better to forget the past.
Rieff argues his point cogently in a long essay from the Guardian. His new book In Praise of Forgetting will be published in May.
Since today is Sunday and many people will be attending services at the Church of the Liberal Pieties, it is important to debunk what Rieff calls an “unassailable” piety, the one that extols the virtue of remembering the past.
Rieff expresses it well:
… most decent people still endorse George Santayana’s celebrated dictum: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The consequence of this is that remembrance as a species of morality has become one of the more unassailable pieties of the age. Today, most societies all but venerate the imperative to remember. We have been taught to believe that the remembering of the past and its corollary, the memorialising of collective historical memory, has become one of humanity’s highest moral obligations.
He continues and asks the salient question:
But what if this is wrong, if not always, then at least part of the time? What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?
Some people—you know who you are?—continue to fight the last war. They are not merely remembering the past; they are mired in it. They continue looking backwards, as though they could change present reality by rewriting the past. It’s better than working.
Rieff explains that political leaders of all stripes have been prone to this form of grievance mongering. They use it to unify their nations. All political leaders need to do so. Thus, the goal is worthy, while the means of achieving it are sometimes not:
Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past. This is not simply a matter of inaccuracy, wilful or otherwise, of the type one encounters in the many contemporary television miniseries that attempt to re-create a past historical era – Showtime’s The Tudors, say, or HBO’s Rome. When states, political parties, and social groups appeal to collective historical memory, their motives are far from trivial. Until well into the second half of the 20th century, the goal of such appeals was almost invariably to foster national unity. It would be comforting to believe that damnable regimes have been more given to this practice than decent ones. But the reality is that such efforts to mobilise and manipulate collective memory or manufacture it have been made by regimes and political parties of virtually every type.
One recalls that after the Cultural Revolution in China, after the arrest of the Gang of Four, the leaders of that nation closed the book on the horrors of the immediate past. It set about to revive a nation that had been destroyed by Communism.
Had Deng Xiaoping and his co-leaders chosen to belabor the past, to settle scores, to punish all of the Red Guards, the process would have so thoroughly consumed the people that nothing else would have gotten done.
Rieff states it well:
These are the cases in which it is possible that whereas forgetting does an injustice to the past, remembering does an injustice to the present. On such occasions, when collective memory condemns communities to feel the pain of their historical wounds and the bitterness of their historical grievances it is not the duty to remember but a duty to forget that should be honoured.
Were anyone to ask me where this cult to memory originated, I would suggest that one of its intellectual sources must have been Sigmund Freud. Didn’t the famed Viennese neurologist teach us that people suffer in the present because they have forgotten past traumas? Haven’t we all seen movies—like Suddenly, Last Summer—where recalling a forgotten trauma produces instant cure? Don’t we all believe that the work of psychotherapy involves excavating the past, finding the root cause to our problems and reconstructing a more complete life narrative?
I have discussed some of these points in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst. Therein I also expressed some of my own objections to Santayana’s dictum. After all, many trauma victims are suffering because they cannot forget what happened to them.
The Freudian fiction is just that—a fiction. It does not represent what really happens when people suffer traumas or when they fall ill. Even in those cases where a trauma causes people to change their behaviors and their routines, the key to treatment is restoring and recovering behavior and routines, not recalling or reliving the past.
Today’s most effective treatments, cognitive and behavioral therapies, do not rely on a consciousness of the past or on recovered traumas. As you surely know, some recovered memory treatments have not only been proven to be useless, but they have been shown to have induced people to recall traumas that never happened.
In a world where people are being taught that they can solve all of their problems by remembering the past, they are being seduced into a medical condition called “Hyperthymesia.”
Rieff explains it:
Hyperthymesia is a rare medical condition that has been defined as being marked by “unusual autobiographical remembering”. The medical journal Neurocase: The Neural Basis of Cognition identifies its two main characteristics: first that a person spends “an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past”, and second that the person “has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from [his or her] personal past”.
To the sceptical eye, the contemporary elevation of remembrance and the deprecation of forgetting, these can come to seem like nothing so much as hyperthymesia writ large. Remembrance, however important a role it may play in the life of groups, and whatever moral and ethical demands it responds to, carries risks that at times also have an existential character. During wars or social and political crises, the danger is not what the American historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi called the “terror of forgetting”, but rather the terror of remembering too well, too vividly.
It is certainly not easy to forget, to let bygones be bygones. After all, the dead cry out for justice and many people believe that they can only solve today’s problems by punishing those who perpetrated the crimes of the past.
Many people who are obsessed by settling scores, by punishing perpetrators and their descendants, by reading history into a guilt narrative are not going to be doing very much else. In order for people to get along, to live in peace and harmony, they need to put the past to rest, to draw a line on it.
Rieff shows how difficult this is by recalling the Edict of Nantes. Surely, you remember it:
A good place to start might be the Edict of Nantes, issued by Henri IV in 1598 to bring to an end to the wars of religion in France. Henri quite simply forbade all his subjects, Catholic and Protestant alike, to remember. “The memory of all things that took place on one side or the other from March 1585 [forward] …” the edict decreed, “and in all of the preceding troubles, will remain extinguished, and treated as something that did not take place.” Would it have worked? Could such bitterness really have been assuaged by royal fiat? Since Henri was assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic opposed to the edict, which itself was eventually repealed, we can never know. But is it not conceivable that were our societies to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that they now do on remembering, then peace in some of the worst places in the world might actually be a step closer?