In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies

Front cover of 'In praise of forgetting'In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies
by David Rieff
Yale University Press  145pp   £14.99


This slim book is an extended assault on the often catastrophic consequences of collective memory. Against the current mantra that nations, like individuals, need to face up to traumatic pasts, Rieff terms much remembrance toxic. As rankling recall incites retaliatory vengeance, he feels past atrocities are best forgotten. Most collective memories falsify history to justify current political agendas. Exorcising them would help peoples immured in habitual recrimination to overcome inherited animus.

Rieff does not mention the most famed sagas of civic oblivion: the Athenian decree of public amnesia following the defeat of the oligarchy in 403 bc, and England’s 1660 and 1690 Acts of Oblivion, which mandated forgetting wrongs suffered during the wars of succession. Hobbes pronounced forgetting the basis of a just state; amnesia the cornerstone of the social contract, ‘the evil past’ disregarded for the sake of ‘the good to follow’.

Many since have sought to banish baneful recall. But Rieff discusses no instances of effectual therapeutic forgetting beyond Ulster and the since-revoked Spanish edict to forget the civil war, neither of which has stilled haunted memories. George H.W. Bush’s 1989 invocation to forget the festering wounds of Vietnam, for ‘no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory’, has been no more successful. Nor does Rieff suggest how such forgetting should be instigated, or mention the most common remedy: the iconoclastic obliteration of offensive structures and symbols to make ‘utterly extinct and destroy all shrines’, in a 1547 Tudor injunction, ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. So, too, ISIS destroys to obviate sacrilege. 

Moreover, Rieff so qualifies his plea to forget — excluding living and virtuous and safely remote memory — that it becomes self-negating. Meanwhile he neglects needs for collective memory and the drawbacks of expunging it. The social contract requires assurance of multigenerational durability:  Burke’s partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn. To break ‘the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth’ by consigning a hated legacy to oblivion incurred Richard von Weizsäcker’s Bundestag warning, two centuries after Burke, that those ‘who do not wish to remember inhumanity become susceptible to new infection’. Contrary to Rieff’s view, that memories are only personal and that collective memory is just a politicised metaphor, memories are socially created. Individual recall is intimately bound up with family, community and national memory. All are crucial to our being. Whether we laud, lament or try to forget the past, it is with us always.

Rieff enlists like-minded allies, ranging from Ecclesiastes to Einstein, but often they seem to mean something different from, even opposite to, his gloss. Checking sources is an ordeal without references, a bibliography or an index. Several quotes checked led back only to Rieff. Yale’s high standards have slipped here.

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