Thursday, May 26, 2016

Forget about It

I offered the same opinion myself in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, so I find David Rieff’s argument very persuasive. So much so that I have posted about it before.

In his new book, In Praise of Forgetting, Rieff essays to free us from the notion, made famous by George Santayana, that if we forget the past we are condemned to repeat it. By implication, if we remember the past we are freed from the curse that would make us repeat it.

Beyond the fact, as Rieff argues, that our memory of the past is mostly mythmaking, it is also true, as I have argued, that the past never really repeats itself in exactly the same way. Thus, being preoccupied with the past must in fact blind you to the present.

Generations of psychotherapists, from various schools of psychotherapy, have happily sold the notion that recovering or reinterpreting or reconstructing the past will free you from its burdens. The truth, however, is that getting mired in the past is more likely to make you dysfunctional in the present. It will blind you to the specific details of today’s reality and make the situation more difficult to deal with.

Besides, just because have figured out how not to make the same mistake again in no way prevents you from making a different, even worse mistake. Knowing what not to do does not tell you what to do.

In the meantime, a few words from Rieff:

I truly don’t understand—I’m not being disingenuous or rhetorical—I don’t understand how people got it into their heads that [knowing about] the crimes of the past provides some kind of prophylactic against crimes committed in the present. I see literally no basis for that. I think this is an exercise in mass wishful thinking. If we’re talking about intervention, if the idea is if there’s a genocide and if you remember the genocides of the past you’ll know to intervene in the present—that’s very nice, but in fact we don’t really know how to intervene. We don’t know what to do! The one time we’ve actually intervened in modern times on that basis, after in 2005 the UN passed this Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which in very limited and specific cases authorized international intervention to stop mass atrocities and genocide and such things, was Libya [in 2011]. It seems to me that intervention there made things exponentially worse, as I think even a lot of the people who supported it at the time would now admit. And nobody knows what to do with Syria.


Ares Olympus said...

I'm not sure what to make of this. And it does seem that we're all very good at forgetting most things, and most negative things.

Like economic boom and bust cycles, we forget the busts when things are going well. And now with modern mega-bailouts, investors convince themselves that we're all "too big to fail" so there's no more risk.

On the other side, it's easy to see hypervigilance is a bad state to hold for years and decades, and past traumas can lead people to misinterpret the present, and see enemies in the present who don't exist, and even create new enemies because you act aggressively towards someone who threatens you.

I might imagine conservatives are more vigilant about interpreting the present through the past, and you might even define conservativism in such a way that assumes "the way things have always been" is better than some new fangled world that doesn't have a framework to interpret and avoid predictable problems.

And perhaps this is also what "future shock" is about, the idea that things are changing so fast that we have no basis to discern wisdom from foolishness. The more your lifestyle looks nothing like your ancestors, the more vulnerable you are to not being able to predict what's good and what's not.

Anyway, myself I do like journal writing, and I do think it helps me "deprocess" experience in a way that I can let go. And 99% of the time I don't look back at what I've written, but in times of change or confusion, I've looked back, and sometimes surprised to see how my thinking has changed, and other times surprised to see the same struggles I have now existed long ago, so maybe that tells me I'm not working hard enough in some areas?

And losing my parents and older brother, I look back at times, and I do have various narratives about how their lives were successful and how they were tragic, and I do know these are all flawed reconstructions.

Trump talked about taking his brother's advice, who died from alcoholism, to never drink, and perhaps he should "lighten up" and not worry so much about that slippery slope. On the other hand, if there's nothing really lost in this abstention, the choice honors his brother's tragic death.

Lastly, I think what psychologists would say on the value of memory is that it allows you to see possible patterns, like a woman who keeps dating abusive men, over and over. Perhaps all men are abusive, or that's one interpretation of such an experience, or perhaps there's something in her that is unconsciously choosing that. So its true every new relationship is different, but she can still use her new awareness, and when she finds she's backing down to intimidation and control of her boyfriend, that's a sign she needs to take a new stand, try something else besides appeasement to protect the relationship, or whatever.

There's no safety in interpreting anything, but once you create a model, however imperfect, you can compare it to direct experience and see where it fails and where it works, and keep refining.

Myself, I'm not even against the idea of reincarnation, and when you see the breadth of foolishness in the world, sometimes its easier to explain this to say some people have "young souls" and are really simply new to the world, while others have been here so many times, we can avoid some fundamental errors, and learn very different things from living. And that might not be "memory" directly, but it would imply something never forgets, whether souls, or some collective unconscious of Jung?

Shaun F said...

I can only apply this in a personal responsibility context. What I get would be to say "If we can recognize the errors of our past ways, we will have a greater propensity not to commit them."

For example, I used to be attracted to a certain type of woman. Many years later, I realized/ and became able to see my poor judgement associated with my choices. I was able to "see" and break a certain pattern. The end result is better decision making. Good decision making takes past experience, present, and future into consideration.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
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Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

There is no wisdom in forgetting. It's passive and, if intentionally chosen, akin to cowardice.

Where does Rieff get this idea of a "prophylactic" effect, or that "wishful thinking" he speaks of?

Possibility exists in forgiveness, not ignorance and denial.

I've given this much thought, having re-read the quotes here thrice and skimmed the source links. I cannot subscribe to Rieff's theory. And I cannot subscribe to Obama's "wrong side of history" nonsense, either. History is one of the humanities because it teaches us how to be human.

Yes, we choose in the present, but we hope those choices are considered in light of those who have gone before us. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Repeating history is a choice, not an excuse or reason.

Please tell me what my feeble mind is missing.