A Review of David Rieff’s ‘In Praise of Forgetting’
[F]ar too often collective historical memory as understood and deployed by communities, peoples, and nations [â€¦] has led to war rather than to peace, to rancor and resentment (which increasingly appears to be the defining emotion of our age) rather than reconciliation, and to the determination to exact revenge rather than commit to the hard work of forgiveness (p.Â 39).
The belief that it is always better to remember than to forget is ingrained in most societies, such that it has essentially become an unquestioned truism. We take it for granted that societies piecing themselves back together in the wake of war or great injustice have a moral obligation to remember these traumatic events for all time, and rarely entertain the possibility that forgetting has the potential to play an equally productive role. Historians are particularly guilty of this, despite having more reason than most to know better.
In Praise of Forgetting by American journalist, intellectual and policy analyst David Rieff, challenges this consensus. Reflecting its author’s interest in international conflict and humanitarian concerns, the book explores the potentially damaging impact on societies of excessive or inappropriate remembrance, and asserts that, in some situations, forgetting may be the more moral course of action.
The underrated power of forgetting
In Praise of Forgetting is presented as an extended essay, with Rieff’s central argument unfolding gradually across its eight closely interlinked chapters. These chapters form a unitary whole, rather than discrete subsections of the book, and this structure contributes greatly to its overall focus and rhetorical strength.‘[there are situations in which] it is possible that whereas forgetting does an injustice to the past, remembering does an injustice to the present.’ (p. 121)
The author introduces his theme by drawing an important distinction between the ways in which societies handle ‘the memory of a victory’ and ‘the memory of a defeat’. The latter, which he also terms ‘the memory of wounds’ after a statement by Polish poet and diplomat Czesław Miłosz, is often felt more keenly, proves to have more staying power in collective memory, and is far likelier to cause harm to other nations or ethnic groups. Though this harm can take many forms, and is not usually lethal, in certain contexts, ‘killing and dying are exactly the stakes’, and it is in those parts of the world that it is most important to understand the untapped potential of forgetting (p. 126).
Rieff stresses that this is not the case every time, and that for the most part a focus on remembrance and justice is entirely proper, or at least ‘harmless’ (p. 117). His objection is that, particularly in recent decades, this approach is viewed not as one option among many, but the only morally and politically acceptable one. The idea of remembrance at all costs is venerated and pursued almost blindly, even in cases where another tack might be a more effective way to secure peace.
Preserving the peace‘remembrance may be the ally of justice, but […] it is no reliable friend to peace, whereas forgetting can and at times has played such a role.’ (p. 122)
This securing of peace is Rieff’s main concern throughout the book; indeed, the whole text could be seen as an essay on conflict resolution. Rieff spends much of the text discussing and refuting other thinkers’ approaches to peacekeeping, particularly those advocating remembrance and justice as moral imperatives, to be prioritized at almost any cost. Rieff engages with a great many of these figures, including historians such as Yosef Yerushalmi and Timothy Garton-Ash, but reserves a particular ire for George Santayana, the intellectual most famous for the ‘far too celebrated and […] demonstrably false’ phrase: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (p. 58). Such sentiments, Rieff insists, have led to the uncritical, and utterly ahistorical, assumption that collective remembrance is the best guarantor of peace and stability. If anything, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite is true: that a society’s refusal to let go of certain memories, and its use of commemoration to embed them more firmly in national identity, can do more harm than good.‘at numerous times and in numerous places, remembrance has provided the toxic adhesive that was needed to cement old grudges and conflicting martyrologies.’ (p. 87)
Rieff applies this argument to a range of conflicts throughout the modern world, including Northern Ireland, Israel, the former Yugoslavia and the USA following the Civil War. In each of these areas, the bitterness already generated by the original conflict was reproduced and perpetuated through acts of remembrance, sometimes long after the original grievances have become irrelevant. More controversially, he also includes the post-9/11 United States in this list, warning that the immense sense of grief and loss that the attacks inflicted on the nation should not obscure the political aspect of its commemorations.
The most productive choice, he explains, will of course vary considerably in different situations. In some circumstances, such as post-Franco Spain in the 1970s, an initial agreement to suspend any quest for justice or retribution may be the best way to allow all parties to move on; the quest can be revisited in the future, if there remains any desire for it. In others (he mentions in passing South Africa’s ‘truth and reconciliation commissions’), an immediate and frank confrontation with the past may be in everyone’s best interests. In all situations, however, the approach taken should be the likeliest to minimize harm and achieve some sort of peace. Only if injustices or sacrifices can be mourned without endangering this should remembrance be the primary focus. By making remembrance the overriding priority, rather than peace, the politicians, advocacy groups, intellectuals and populations involved in these ‘memory wars’ risk prolonging the conflict—if, indeed, that is not in fact their aim.
Time heals all ills‘even the work of mourning, essential as it is, must eventually end if life is to go on.’ (p. 133)
As Rieff makes clear, moreover, these memory warriors are in any case struggling in vain against the inevitable. A recurrent theme in the book is oblivion: the transience of all conflicts, grievances, crimes and, ultimately, even civilizations. Over time, everything will lose its ‘authority over our moral and political imaginations’ (pp. 19-20), and eventually be forgotten entirely. He illustrates this with various examples of wars that were the most devastating in history at the time, such as the Battle of Salamis in the fifth century BCE, or King Philip’s War in the 1670s, but which are now virtually absent from popular memory. Ultimately, he concludes, memories of all the acts of bloodshed mentioned above, even 9/11, will evaporate in the same way, for ‘there can be no reprieve from the reality that sooner or later every human accomplishment, like every human being, will be forgotten’ (p. 5). Given this, forgetting is obviously a more natural process—and a more complex one—than the moral outrage it is often depicted as, and in some cases is to be welcomed.
Manifesto for amnesia
If there is one criticism that might be made of this work, it is that its style sometimes overshadows its substance. The book is written in an elegant, elevated manner, and wears its erudition rather proudly on its sleeve. Its points are occasionally belaboured with more quotation from other historical, sociological or political works than is necessary to explain them, and its main arguments are repeated quite a few times across its 145 pages. While the extent of the author’s reading on the subject is certainly impressive, and it is interesting to learn how much intellectual support there is for the value of forgetting, this does make it a more challenging read.‘History is not a menu. You can’t have the solidarity that a national myth helps form and sustain without the self-absorption, nor can you have the pride without the fear.’ (p. 40)
It is, however, justified in part by the emotive nature of the subject matter. When dealing with a topic as delicate and subjective as individual or collective memory, particularly memories of trauma, it is appropriate that a text try to make emotional sense to the reader as well as rational sense. And Rieff’s argument certainly does resonate on an emotional level. He draws his illustrative material from poetry, philosophy and current affairs, as well as academic texts, and weaves it together with great rhetorical sophistication. This is a text aiming not only to inform, but to move, to incite discussion, to contribute to a society-wide debate about what is worth remembering, in what circumstances, and for how long.
In short, In Praise of Forgetting is not an academic text; it aspires to be something more important—or at least more influential—than that. It is described by its publisher as an essay on ‘moral philosophy’, and this seems a fitting way to describe a work of such broad societal scope. It is a powerfully argued and acutely relevant book, and recommends itself to all those interested in the workings of collective or communicated memory, or anyone with an opinion on the real-world conflicts with which Rieff engages. His proposed solution should not be as novel, or as urgent, as it is.