In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies Paperback – 2 Jun 2017
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"This controversial book is a must-read for anyone concerned with ethics, politics and the human situation today. Drawing on his experience as a war correspondent and bringing to bear an impressive grasp of history, David Rieff explores the role of memory in the defining events of recent times, including the origins and aftermath of war and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, the malign inheritance of apartheid in South Africa, and the supreme crime of the Holocaust." - JOHN GRAY, author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
"For those who grew up with 'Never again' as the call to justice, David Rieff's sober and erudite essay shocks with its counterintuitive moral questioning: What exactly is gained--and lost--by remembering? His assessment that paths to peace can be found only if nations and groups find ways to forget the past may be disputed by many, but honest thinkers will agree that we are at the dangerous fulcrum of being both unforgiving and unforgiven." - SUSAN D. MOELLER, author of Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat and Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death
About the Author
David Rieff is the author of many books, including, most recently, The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the 21st Century. He lives in New York City.
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Top customer reviews
Rieff believes that actions taken in Spain and South Africa have brought closure to the crimes committed under Franco and Apartheid. I have reservations about this. Relatives tell me Apartheid attitudes are still around in many parts of South Africa, and memories are still raw in parts of Spain.
The author distinguishes justice and remembrance. The former he argues is best forgotten in many cases. Others believe that past crimes must be punished whenever feasible. The question is will this make peace fragile and unstable? Another question is should we expect victims and their relatives to forget? There is psychological evidence that suggests we may have to remember the past, that is to say we have no choice.. Should some things be forgotten while others should not? If so, which? Do we owe it to those who suffered to seek retribution? The questions permit of no easy answers.
There are sound arguments on both sides. Similar questions have, for example, been asked many times about the Great War. It would spoil your enjoyment to reveal those arguments in a review so get Rieff's excellent and provocative book and read them for yourself.
A provocative about the ethics of forgetting. Highly recommended.
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In the first part of the book, Rieff is fairly pessimistic, or at least fatalistic, about history becoming a useful building block of a peaceful world. The issue for him seems to be this: How can we find meaning and purpose, a basis for ethics, morality, and community, in the face of the meaninglessness of history and the illusion of permanence (the latter masking the former)? Rieff’s discussion of historical theory in the first third of the book is built on three major pillars: 1. Everything and everyone will be forgotten. History is therefore meaningless. 2. In attempting to preserve the past we inevitably distort it. 3. Collective memory changes, based on what is important and necessary at the time. It is therefore unreliable, though perhaps necessary, and is easily manipulated for political purposes. His argument about the meaninglessness of history will sound overly reductive to anyone who has actually studied historical methodology. On page 30, for example, he gets excited that the most obvious possible definition of “nation” is the one that holds sway today. Indeed, there is very little in his discussion in the first part of the book that will be new to historians or to non-historians well read in historical theory. Still, one has to keep Rieff’s audience (an educated but non-specialist readership) and his intention in mind. In later sections of the book, he acknowledges that scholarly history, if pursued with the ideal of objective understanding rather than the creation of identity or the nursing of grievances, can give valuable insights into the past. But for the most part, human societies—and certainly their governments—seem rarely to be interested in critical thinking about the past, preferring the comforts of mythology and the righteousness of being victims. Or, as Rieff puts it, “when in history has the mystical ever played second fiddle to the critical?” (p. 138)
It may seem odd to say this about a short book, but perhaps Rieff protests too much. The case could actually be made much more succinctly than he makes it. It could also have been expanded into a much longer discussion. So perhaps the problem is not the length but the organization. There is an important argument at the heart of this book, but it is not tightly organized or argued. He throws a lot into the book’s few pages—in particular, a lot of references to other writers, sometimes in a way that makes it seem that he just wants to drop as many names as possible—without ensuring that everything tightly coheres. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the writing is too often disjointed, marred by convoluted sentences that wander down too many subordinate paths. Here’s an example: “For if, despite the consoling fictions offered up by a Kantian perspective that illusion, identified as such or not, today dominates the moral imagination of so many of the most scrupulous and ethically conscientious among us, truth and morality can at times be incommensurable, then the same can and must be said about reality and necessity” (p. 8). Here’s another: “The Greek crisis alone, but also the rise of populist parties on both the left (Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and others) and on the right (the Front National in France and the Danish People’s Party, for example), the inability of European governments to agree on how to craft a common policy on the resettlement of the latest wave of migrants, and the cultural, political, and economic panic, whether justified or not (probably both, in my view), that the refugee crisis has caused offer ample evidence that the era in which serious thinkers such as Garton Ash and Jürgen Habermas could continue to believe that the humane vision of statesmen such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak, and Emile Noël for Europe and its vocation in the world still enjoyed a preponderance of support from the European public may well be ending, if it has not ended already” (pp. 48-49). Seriously? Look, it’s not that I can’t figure out what he’s saying. Doing big-time graduate degrees, I read plenty of very complicated work. It’s just the sheer, tortuous long-windedness of some of Rieff’s sentences that really disrupts the flow of the narrative. If you’re going to write a 150-word sentence, make it a good one. Whatever happened to clarity?
The argument begins to settle down, gain momentum, and therefore become more convincing toward the end of chapter 3. This is one of the most thoughtful, and thought-provoking, sections of the book. To be clear, Rieff does not aim to diminish, or even encourage the forgetting of, the sacrifices made by so many in the past. But he asks that readers consider “what if, at least 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?” (pp. 57-58) His discussion is inevitably colored by his observation of numerous conflicts and their aftermath, which has convinced him that collective memory is more likely to prolong hurt and resentment than to bring peace (or justice), and that sometimes, nations have to forget their wounds and move on. This includes cataclysmic events like 9/11, he says, the wounds of which are fresh right now, but the memory of which will ultimately, someday, be lost, or else transformed into something not very much like history but a lot like mythology. This is the reason he is at pains in the first part of the book to remind his readers that nothing lasts—not nations, not traditions, not memory (real memory, which he argues can only reside in individuals, not groups).
In Praise of Forgetting is a long essay converted into a short book. It might be an important book—or at the very least it asks important questions—but it is not a particularly well-executed one. Taken as a whole it is a choppy and frustrating narrative, but this is not to say that Rieff goes nowhere with it. His overarching question about weighing the dangers of forgetting against those of manipulating the past for destructive and divisive ends is well worth asking. And he makes many good points along the way. The margins of my copy of the book are filled with comments, questions, and check marks. (Given the intensity of the moral and intellectual questions surrounding the current refugee crisis, I was particularly struck by how Rieff uses the crisis to raise important questions about issues of identity and community, and the role of history and memory in creating and reinforcing them: “And however politically incorrect it may be to point this out, if memory is an essential element to building a European identity, then the arrival of masses of people who share none of these memories, and, more to the point, bring with them extra-European memories of their own, will unquestionably make the project [Timothy] Garton Ash espouses [i.e., memory playing a fundamental role in creating a European identity] at the very least a great deal more difficult in the near and medium term, and may perhaps force a radical rethinking by Europeans of the role of memory in the definition of what it means to be European in the twenty-first century” [p. 37].)
In the end, Rieff seems dismissive of human rationality, or at least of the willingness of humans, individually or as communities, to use reason, as opposed to mysticism, uncritical group identification, and a victim mentality. Part of his point, though, is that the certainty of group memory (always manipulated) will inevitably trump the contingency and ambivalence of reason. Regrettably, modern history offers little evidence to suggest otherwise.
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