Book Review: Against Remembrance

Against Remembrance, Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2011
David Rieff
Reviewed by ABRAHAM J. PECK, University of Maine-Augusta

David Rieff is an angry and cynical human being-–as well he should be. After all, he and his mother, the late author, literary theorist, feminist, public intellectual and political activist, Susan Sontag, were in Bosnia during the horrendous 1395 day siege of Sarajevo, he as a journalist, she to stage Waiting for Godot.

Rieff also covered the horrors of Rwanda, Kosovo, the Congo and the Middle East conflict. But it was in Bosnia that his anger and cynicism were radicalized by the way in which the remembrance of long-dead events—the Serb defeat at Kosovo Polje in 1389 or the year 1453 when Orthodox Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottomans- fueled a collective national memory that led to outright genocide.

“I learned to hate but above all fear collective historical memory,” he writes in this brief but focused attack on the notion that history has anything to do with the way in which nations remember their collective past. “In its appropriation of history…collective memory made history seem like nothing so much as an arsenal full of the weapons needed to keep wars going or peace tenuous and cold” (viii).

When the French Catholic sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs lay dying of typhus in the Buchenwald concentration camp in March 1945, he could have never imagined that one day he would be mentioned in the same reverential way as his teachers, Emil Durkheim and Henri Bergson. He could never have imagined that his theory of collective memory would allow society to remember, understand, and even change the past.

In a sense the two primary vehicles of collective memory, history and commemoration, have become intense rivals. It is no longer necessary or important to write history “as it was.” In a world that struggles with enormous issues of national innocence and guilt, the moral significance of an historic event has become far more important than the causes and consequences of events as they occurred, one after the other. As Halbwachs wrote, “There are no recollections which can be said to be purely interior, that is, which can be preserved only within individual memory. Indeed, from the moment that a recollection reproduces a collective perception, it can itself only be collective” (On Collective Memory 1992, 169).

The French historian Pierre Nora has argued that ‘sites of memory’ replace a ‘real’ living memory which was with us for millennia but has now ceased to exist. For Nora, constructed history has replaced true memory. Sites of memory can vary. They may be places such as archives, museums, cathedrals, cemeteries and memorials; they may be concepts and practices such as generations, mottos, rituals and commemorations; and they may be objects such as commemorative monuments, manuals, texts and symbols. What is important is our realization that such sites are artificial and have been deliberately fabricated. They help us recall the past and give that past a collective meaning. They act as identity markers for nations, regions and social groups and in so doing help those institutions achieve certain goals such as nation building and identity formation. Nations always choose myth, Rieff argues, “codified in remembrance – over history” (20).

Yet, it has been the way in which we are asked to remember the greatest genocide in human history, the Holocaust/Shoah, which Rieff finds most misleading and wrong-headed. He quotes the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who wrote that “We must remember because remembering is a moral duty. We owe a debt to the victims… By remembering and telling, we prevent forgetfulness from killing the victims twice” (45). Elie Wiesel has argued in a similar fashion.

But it is the warning of the Harvard philosopher, George Santayana, that has become the trope of a generation committed to historical remembrance as a way of not repeating the past, of never again allowing the destruction of a people: “ Those who repeat the past are condemned to repeat it.” What if, asks Rieff, this is wrong: “What if memory of an instance of radical evileven if it is the Shoah itself- does nothing to protect society from future instances of radical evil? (45) And what if, he asks further, “collective national memory of a nation….is often actively dangerous?”(45) Instead of remembering, Rieff asks if we should not forget the past. Perhaps then we could live in a better world, free of historical remembering as a moral imperative- an imperative that has been twisted and molded to kill rather than protect.

The facts are all on Rieff’s side. The memory of Auschwitz, sixty years later, has not inoculated us against the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and the murder of one hundred seventy million men, women and children by their own governments. Our “never agains” have become agains and agains. Even the best example of the Americanization of Holocaust memory, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, cannot escape Rieff’s cynicism: “It is difficult to understand what the existence of these monuments [i.e., the Holocaust Museum] is supposed to further. I am well aware that it is supposed to be self-evident.

In 2010, I am no longer convinced that it is” (88).

Can one refute the cynicism and find some value in the notion of remembrance? It is in Jewish history that Rieff treads a much more careful path. Jews, after all, are a people of memory and it is a particular memory that has allowed the survival of a people for thousands of years.

Each and every Jewish generation is asked to believe that it was present at the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Each generation is asked to renew the covenantal relationship with God, a relationship that asks only that Jews be a “light unto the nations,” providing the example of morality and ethical practice towards others that would become the standard for human behavior.

This is the wisdom of the old Jewish tradition “to remember is the secret of redemption.” It may be the only antidote to memories that kill and the impossibility of totally forgetting.

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