To remember, or not to remember: that is the question

Much ado about memory studies these days – an exciting discipline whose boundaries are still being established. A new book published by Palgrave-Macmillan explores the relationship between remembering and forgetting today and its political and social consequences.

The recent past is readily overlooked in many countries in the interests of a political “reconciliation” that tramples roughshod over the human rights abuses of past regimes. Public Memory, Public Media and the Politics of Justice (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012) asks how the construction, representation and distortion of public memory affect the way we treat other people. How is policy-making influenced by the way the mass media cover contentious issues such as the ongoing conflict between Russia and Chechnya? Or the claims of indigenous people in Peru to know what really happened during the war against the Shining Path, or South Africa’s post-apartheid attempts to build a new nation?

There are plenty of other examples. In 1998 author and journalist Philip Gourevitch published an extraordinary account of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide called We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was included in The Guardian newspaper’s list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books. Gourevitch has continued to explore the tensions between writing and memorialising history. In “Telling Stories About the Stories We Tell: An Interview with Philip Gourevitch” by Cécile Alduy (Boston Review Online, September 19, 2012) he expounds on coming to terms with the past and the slippery notion of reconciliation:

“What really interests me ultimately is not to record the past, so much as how people live with the past and get on with it. There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust – the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking – the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory.”

Gourevitch takes a similar line to the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose novels explore the insidious effects of remembering and forgetting on the lives of individuals. Implicitly Zweig is critiquing the broader society of which he was part, which is where Gourevitch finds an echo:

“One of the things I’m interested in is how a measure of forgetting can also be helpful — societally or politically — in getting from a state of violent destruction to one of habitable coexistence. I’m not talking about reconciliation, whatever exactly that is. I mean a condition where you’ve reckoned with the demons adequately to hold them enough at bay that you can have security and act for the future instead of simply reacting to the past.”

In the contexts of Angola and Liberia, Argentina and Chile, Syria and Iraq, Myanmar and Cambodia, Poland and Spain – deliberately to name just a few countries – these are timely questions. What ought nations to remember or forget? What ought they to do to enable such remembering and forgetting? And how ought they to respond to the demands that arise from public memory?

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

One thought on “To remember, or not to remember: that is the question”

  1. I’ve been wondering about this “fetishization” of memory (good word, there), and I’m glad to see someone talking about it. I feel like the ways we’re allowed to remember are increasingly narrow and carefully policed, like we’re obsessed with a commemorative orthodoxy that assumes all parts of the past are equally precious, and must be preserved, and to forget is to betray. It gets a bit overwhelming, especially when it comes to violence– of course, I’m talking mostly about Canada here, and our current obsession with detailed recitations/re-enactments of the military past, which is obviously quite different than truth&reconciliation or more recent traumas.

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