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You Must Remember This

Do our memorials to the dead do more harm than good?

Photograph by Adrian Skenderovic from the series “Mummies”.

The duty to remember—especially to remember victims lost to political evil—has become one of the most commanding mantras of our culture. Yet it is astonishing how recently this imperative became so authoritative. Kings have raised monuments to their own alleged greatness for millennia, but commemoration of the dead of the wars of nations reached its apogee only in the early twentieth century with the end of World War I and now-familiar invocations of the heroism and self-sacrifice of soldiers for the sake of the nation’s political fortunes.

In a more recent shift, only some decades after World War II did people conclude that if nations keep causing wars, it is better to identify with the innocent victims of the political contention, or with their mangled bodies and ruined psyches, than with the combatants. World War II was initially memorialized the way modern people had memorialized wars before: by consecrating a cult of heroes. Until the 1980s very few memorials to the events, and indeed no histories of them, alluded to the innocents who had found themselves in the way of the clash of nations, or to the Jews who were the obsessive quarry of one of them. Now it would be obtuse to think about World War II without placing the persecution and victimhood of the Holocaust at its moral center.

This new age of honoring the innocent goes along with another shift toward dwelling on physical and psychic injury. In an illuminating article in The New Yorker in 2004, Malcolm Gladwell recalled that in the 1950s, Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit dramatized the story of a man who witnesses horrific events as an American soldier in World War II but comes home as if nothing had happened. Even though the protagonist of the novel had himself engaged in horrendous brutality, Gladwell observed, for him “the final truth of the war, and he had greeted it with relief, greeted it eagerly, [was] the simple fact that it was incomprehensible and had to be forgotten. Things just happen.” Indeed, Gladwell concluded from this one survivor’s response: “They happen and they happen again, and anybody who tries to make sense out of it goes out of his mind.”

This nonchalant response to violence now seems almost unintelligible—a fact Gladwell illustrated by comparing Wilson’s book to Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, a novel from 40 years later, in which a Vietnam war veteran is haunted by memories and disabled by regrets. Something drastic had happened: At some point a few decades ago, it became publicly meaningful to dwell on wounds and “trauma.” A new type of memory had taken hold. Testimonies were recorded, monuments erected, museums built, and curricula updated.

In his new book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, David Rieff doesn’t explain why this happened, but he doubts that it is entirely a good thing. As his title implies, he wants to undercut the imperative of remembering and to counsel the uses of forgetting. Some of his arguments reflect a pessimism in the technical sense—if nothing matters it is hardly worth remembering it—but most turn on the point that memorializing evil may compound it, for it is those who cherish their own wounds who are likeliest to inflict new ones on others. A journalist who has frequented global hotspots and an analyst of humanitarian policy (as well as curator of the collected and posthumous writings of his mother, Susan Sontag), Rieff advances his argument in spare prose, with implacable tenacity, and vast knowledge. Yet to reckon with whether to forget or to remember, it may be necessary to figure out why we began to place so much emphasis on victims and injuries.

Rieff begins with a cynical wisdom that may prove too much, and he constantly returns to it, showing how deep a streak of pessimism runs in his thinking. Like all individuals, Rieff says, all states and civilizations will die sooner or later, and preserving memory is hardly desirable right now if it is not possible in the long run. From the affirmation in Ecclesiastes that memory provides no immunity from the shipwreck of time to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s portrait in “Ozymandias” of a sneering king’s ambition to eternal dominion reduced to broken statuary, oblivion wins over preservation in the end. In Rieff’s words: “Sooner or later every human accomplishment, like every human being, will be forgotten.” And if so, why not speed up the process?

Yale University Press, 160 pp., $25

Rieff’s first argument for forgetting, therefore, is that the most successful memorialization merely postpones its own failure by a bit. “Game, set, and match to Shelley,” Rieff remarks—and he could have added that Shelley was playing small ball. After all, our sun will go out in five billion years, and—since perhaps the heroes of a latter-day Interstellar will successfully transplant the species—one day the universe might contract back in a big crunch and cancel itself out. What of all our grand plans then? As philosopher Samuel Scheffler has shown in his wonderful Death and the Afterlife, the prospect of our personal demise does not reduce existence to insignificance, but the extinction of the species—and by extension, of the universe—certainly might.

The relevance of these morbid thoughts to the question of whether to cherish the memory of humanity’s fallen heroes or murdered victims, however, is dubious for the reasons Rieff himself acknowledges: “We have no other practical choice than to try to live our lives and contribute to our societies as if Ecclesiastes were wrong. … Remembrance is emphatically not meaningless except in the cognitively and probably ethically useless framework of eternity.” As philosophers since the ancients have known, it is helpful to put our exaggerated self-regard and our passionate overinvestments in trivialities in their place by minimizing their significance. But there is no way to live a personal or collective life from the perspective of the eventual oblivion of everything. In his enormous act of self-memorialization in the pages of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust’s narrator is certainly not above Rieff’s insight into inevitable obsolescence. “No doubt my books too, like my fleshly being, would in the end one day die,” he reflects. “We accept the thought that in ten years we ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist. Eternal duration is promised no more to men’s works than to men.” Even so, he writes his masterpiece.

Rieff extends his indictment by dwelling repeatedly on the distortions—if not outright falsehoods—of memory, contrasting it with history. As a great sage once noted, memories may be beautiful, and yet the likelihood is that time has rewritten every line. After excursions into contemporary Australian and Irish commemoration of a lost past that never was, Rieff cites the example of the Scottish kilt, which supposedly preserves immemorial tradition but actually dates from the modern age. But his central and most convincing argument is that memory either of national honor or innocent death, far from affording reconciliation, is as likely—if not more likely—to exacerbate historical violence in the very act of canonizing it. If that were true, it would indeed wreak havoc with our default assumption that the dead and suffering demand our persistent cognizance.

Rieff’s penchant for morbidity is his most fascinating moral stance, but it is when he puts it on hold and consents to argue with the rest of us about shorter-term outcomes that he is even more compelling. And he is self-evidently right that remembering one’s nation’s heroes or innocent victims often amounts to “palliating the culture of grievance” and thus gathering kindling for new historical fires. “Far too often collective historical memory ... has led to war rather than peace, to rancor and ressentiment (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,” Rieff wisely observes. Yet at most this proves the need for a politics that isolates cases when memory promotes peace and prompts understanding rather than stokes war and irritates relationships.

Rieff powerfully cites his experience as a reporter in the Bosnian wars of the 1990s as evidence that memory mostly functions to awaken slumbering enmity and boost its intensity. After the universalist ideology of the Cold War era departed, Yugoslavs remembered their long-ago particularity in epic, folktale, and song, and suddenly “ancient ethnic hatreds” became the watchword of the region—though their basis in real history was flimsy. Even today, for all the counterprogramming (including international criminal courts throwing the book at genocidal killers), the region remains marked by the effects of ethnic autonomy and cleansing driven by “memory.”

It is also true that we have learned since the 1990s that the intervention of self-appointed humanists, driven by memories of just how grim the clash of peoples can become, often makes things worse rather than better. After the ur-experience of the Holocaust, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda taught the calamity of “standing idly by.” But intervention, most recently in Libya in defense of the civilians of Benghazi, has proved almost as calamitous. Responding to the memory of the Holocaust by saving strangers from slaughter, however honorable in itself, has given the phrase “never again” a new meaning. “Enough,” President Obama reportedly told his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, recently in the face of her entreaties to help Syrians facing expulsion and extinction. Power’s celebrated book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide had criticized America’s historical failure to stop genocide around the world, as if intervention would come from heaven. In an immortal comment, Obama registered the limits of the memorialization of horror in the face of our proven capacity to do little more than worsen it: “I’ve already read your book.

Yet to say that memory is inevitably counterproductive is obviously to go too far. For this very reason, Rieff understands that most of his own short book has to be directed against optimists. They not only claim that life itself matters in spite of its inevitable individual and collective end, but also that there is an “ethics” that explains how to save the beneficent uses of memory from its baleful abuses. In particular, Rieff grapples with Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit and Bulgarian-French moralist Tzvetan Todorov, both of whom have outlined this seemingly reasonable program.

Their visions are utopian, Rieff responds; they understate the risk of the pain that memory causes, while overstating the likelihood that memory will promote good ends. Margalit, for example, has counseled the collective preservation of the memory of great crimes like the Holocaust on the cosmopolitan grounds that they also remind a global audience what kind of world to build to prevent their repetition. For Rieff, Margalit is engaged in a “pipe dream.” Contemporary beliefs in the powers of memory to abet reconciliation of onetime enemies and prevent future massacres, Rieff judges, make “the Renaissance alchemists who believed they could turn base metals into gold seem almost modest by comparison.” Probably so, but surely the consequence is not blanket forgetting either. That memory is not a miracle cure does not mean that the waters of blessed Lethe, the river in Hades that cleansed worthy people of their troubling pasts, should be bottled for the living.

At times, Rieff flirts with Friedrich Nietzsche’s radical position that memory—especially memory driven by resentment—is harmful to our vitality, and that it is more manful not simply to enjoy the inevitable violence of human life but also to forget any troublesome memories that might impede the next round. (For Nietzsche, it is the “mark of strong, complete natures” to embrace “the power to forget.”) It is not clear how Rieff, who witnessed the Bosnian slaughterhouse, and who has spent his career reflecting on that very un-Nietzschean project of contemporary humanitarian aid, can in the end do more than warn that memory does not unfailingly help, and sometimes hurts. But it all depends on the circumstances.

Rieff’s contrarian assault on memory turns out, then, to be distinctly moderate and to deal with likely results rather than hard and fast rules. For example, Rieff is very clear that he wants wrongdoers of historical crimes to be brought to justice where possible—“I am not prescribing moral Alzheimer’s here,” he acknowledges—only he wants to show how ludicrous it is to insist on premising peace on such accountability and demanding expiation and reconciliation every time. He therefore wonders whether “forgetting without the preamble of forgiveness or the promise of justice has a value,” and whether “a decent measure of communal forgetting is actually the sine qua non of a peaceful and decent society.” Sometimes, sometimes not. At best, however, he raises a possibility that shifts the burden onto those who demand remembrance to take care to promote better rather than worse outcomes.

I recently served on a committee that resolved to remove the seal of Harvard Law School, which honored a slaveholder, a fact that only became widely known recently when it was publicized by student activists. A colleague on the committee dissented and argued for keeping the seal in order to make an uncomfortable reminder of slavery omnipresent. No one in the majority had the temerity to recommend forgetting that crime; rather, the committee concluded that there is not one proper way—let alone one guaranteed method—to provoke people to confront the tainted origins of so many of our institutions. Rieff includes a sobering reminder that for a long time American memory cherished the Confederate South’s “lost cause” and incited new violence, but it would be remarkable to conclude from this example that people should strive to forget the whole sordid episode rather than to debate with one another about how to remember it most justifiably.

Where Rieff is most thought-provoking in the end is in intuiting a monumental change in our culture, and sounding the alarm about where this change has been leading. Rieff has not worked out how an inspiring politics would make use of the past and keep faith with its victims. Yet In Praise of Forgetting matters because it demands more clarity about why after World War II the memory of national victory gave way to the memory of humanity’s wounds, and why this form of dwelling on the past somehow became so peremptory—in many quarters, a kind of implacable orthodoxy. For, quite apart from the sins of escapist nostalgia and self-involved narcissism it has often wrought, the deep worry is that what Rieff calls “the memory industry” has also taken up the cultural space our more willingly forgetful ancestors made for forging a common future.

One of Rieff’s regrets about memory is that it is too political, serving narrow agendas: “The takeover of history by memory,” he intones, “is also the takeover of history by politics.” Memories of the past, neutral though they may seem, “legitimiz[e] a particular worldview and political and social agenda.” But he also voices the worry that the universalist arguments for collective memory have been “in their essence profoundly anti- or at least post-political in orientation.” While parochial groups appeal to the past to lend credence to their case for present advantage, cosmopolitan memories of great crimes like the Holocaust have been mobilized precisely to transcend the endless conflicts of states, nations, and peoples. As inspiring as this dream has been, Rieff rightly concludes it is not politically contentious and realistic enough to get much done.

Arguably the best response to this situation is to recommend not more sweet forgetting, but more politically effective memory than our age of victimhood has known. After the dead are dead, their memory matters for the sake of our campaigns for justice: to inspire them in the first place or to give them strength. That memory serves conservatives and nationalists does not mean their progressive and cosmopolitan opponents should relinquish the field of struggle. But perhaps they will need to learn to focus less on the crimes of the past and more on the unfulfilled hopes of our ancestors for a just world—hopes of which our age of memory all too frequently loses track in its very effort to honor their deaths.