The forgetting museum

When it seems self-evident that commemoration averts recurrence of that being commemorated, it takes a psychoanalyst to point out that making people remember assumes that their responses to their memories can be calculated. An obsession with memory blinds us to the abuses of memory and to the uses of forgetting, argues Adam Phillips.

There is a strange moment, strange at least to the modern reader, in Rousseau’s opening dedication to his Discourse on Inequality of 1754. He is discussing the Romans, “that model of a free people” who were “in no position to govern themselves when they first emerged from the oppression of the Tarquins”. It took the Romans a long time to bear their freedom because they were “souls which had been enervated, or rather brutalised by tyranny”. The traumatic past of the Romans – though that, of course, would not be Rousseau’s word – of brutalising and being brutalised, and the difficulties this leaves them with in relation to their freedom to be self-governing, leads Rousseau to his strange wish. “For this reason,” he writes:

I would have sought as my own country a happy and peaceful commonwealth of which the history was lost, so to speak, in the darkness of time; one which had endured only such hostile attacks as might serve to bring forth and fortify the courage and patriotism of the inhabitants, a commonwealth whose citizens, being long accustomed to a wise independence, were not only free but fit to be free.

As ever, Rousseau’s contradictions and confusions are as telling as his explicit proposals. Is this wished-for country a happy and peaceful commonwealth because its history is lost? Is it a peaceful and happy commonwealth because it has only suffered the kind of hostility that has brought out the best in it, and if so why would that history need to be lost? With his example of the Romans in mind it is clear that in his view a bad history is bad for a commonwealth which, of course, has serious implications, as Rousseau and his readers know, because very few, if any, societies have such untrammelled pasts (myths of a Golden Age testify to this fact in their attempt to obscure it). What is strange to the modern reader is Rousseau’s stated belief here that a good future, a “happy and peaceful commonwealth” depends upon a lost past; a past, in other words, that has been forgotten, indeed has to be forgotten because all the evidence for it has been lost.

Today we are more likely to regret, to fear, to avoid and retrieve our lost pasts. Forgetting both in personal and political life, is hedged in by a kind of superstitious dread. It is assumed, even by those who no longer believe that we can be saved, that memory can help us, that remembering is our last vestige of the myth of redemption. Attempts to abolish the past, or to dogmatically replace the past with our preferred versions of it are now viewed by many people with suspicion, even by those who believe that the writing of history can only ever be the rewriting of the past; that all history is revisionist history, the only question being revision to what end, revision with what desires in play? Deniers of the Holocaust are different from those historians who want to work out exactly how many people were killed in the concentration camps, but we still might need to know what exactly it is – wittingly or unwittingly – that they want to persuade us (and themselves) of. What we are urged to remember is bound up with how we are being urged to live. The preferred life has its set of preferred memories. Voluntary or involuntary – that is, encouraged or discouraged – memories always have a future in mind.

So when we are saying that anyone should remember the Holocaust we need to be as clear as we can be about what we are wanting this remembering to do. We know, for example, that to say that those who forget the past are likely to repeat it is not to say that those who remember it will not. In so far as they repeat it at all – and not all traumas are repeated, unless we define trauma as that which repeats itself – they repeat it differently. We tend to think, with this picture in mind, that those who remember the past and repeat it do so as an act of restoration, renewal, celebration, reconsideration and so on; whereas those who have forgotten the past – or repressed it, as we now say of the traumatised – are likely to do so without knowing that that is what they are doing. We can think of them as helpless, and possessed by something that they are unaware of, and driven to re-enact. In this redemptive myth of memory, remembering the terrible thing – Original Sin, the cultural or personal trauma – holding it in mind, is presumed to mitigate or even avert its recurrence. To remember the trauma is to re-imagine a life that incorporates it, just as to remember a crime is to remember the law that shouldn’t have been broken.

There is a wishful belief underlying the redemptive myth of memory which is that what is to be remembered – if we remember the right things in the right way – is on the side of our wellbeing, and even of our virtuousness. Remembering done properly will give us the lives that we want. Even that memory can keep us kind. Whereas we know, in another part of our minds as it were, that memory is only ever as virtuous as its users. The Nazis were doing their version of remembering by recycling their myth of Aryan origins; reconstructing, documenting, witnessing, analysing and publicising atrocities does not seem to diminish their scope or scale. Nazism is now just another iconography and ideology available for use – both for and against – in the cultural field. An obsession with memory blinds us to the abuses of memory and to the uses of forgetting. Of certain things we should be asking – and perhaps the Holocaust is one, if one among many – not how should they be remembered, but how should they be forgotten?

Our (modern) fear is that we won’t get our forgetting right, or that forgetting is not possible; it may, of course, be a wish that atrocities cannot be forgotten; that we cannot bear ourselves as creatures who could actually forget such things. We tend to forget experiences that are too much for us, that are, in the reductive language of psychology, either too pleasurable or too painful. We equate the forgettable with the trivial or the unbearable; and in this picture we have a place to put the unbearable; but by the same token we believe that it (the memory, the experience, the desire) is still there, somewhere, and capable of returning. And we have a place for the trivial where it is effectively disposed of (“remembering everything is a form of madness”, one of the characters in Brian Friel’s Translations says). There is haunting and there is discarding; and it is not always within our gift to decide which is which. And it is this, perhaps above all, that makes forcing people to remember – rather like forcing them to eat – at once so implausible, and so morally problematic.

In our wanting German people to remember the Holocaust, and to remember it as terrible we are at best saying to them something like: we are always liable to forget our concern for others, and perhaps it is our concern for others that is the real trauma that we will do anything to forget. You must never forget it again. At its worst we may, in the nicest possible way, be obeying the law of talion, torturing the torturers, becoming a version of the thing we are horrified by (it is perhaps not incidental that guilt often makes people aggressive, and that therefore making people feel guilty often provokes the very thing it is trying to avert). Making people remember tends to assume that you can calculate their responses to their memories. It tries to engineer solutions when engineered solutions are part of the problem. Forced remembering – the absurd idea that one might learn one’s personal history off by heart, and in the correct version – spells a fear of history; a well-founded fear that the past is subject to multiple and shifting interpretations. That what we remember, and where the memory might lead – both what we might do with it, and what it might do with us – is unpredictable. So-called liberal democracies cannot escape the fact that some of their members will want to remember the Holocaust for inspiration. Memory, in other words, is not a form of instrumental reason. It is perfectly understandable that, when it comes to the Holocaust, some people will not want people to have minds of their own; around the Holocaust a consensus is required, anything else breeds terror. So is it possible now for anyone to have what might be called thoughts of their own about the Holocaust? No one, rightly, is militantly encouraging the victims of the Holocaust to recall their unspeakable experiences, and to recall them in a certain way. What then do we want from the perpetrators and their descendants?

One thing we want is a way of remembering that will guarantee the impossibility of a recurrence. But it is possible that this very demand – more akin to exorcism than conversation – is itself at once too intimidating, and too unrealistic. Indeed it may be akin to Rousseau’s wish for a lost history. Told what they should remember, and told what they should feel about it, the complexity of each individual German’s history and experience is unlikely to be spoken. Where there was conflict – even, or especially, among the millions of so-called bystanders who colluded with the regime by turning a blind eye – there will be compliance. Enforced memory, like all indoctrination, is fear of memory, of what it might come up with, so to speak, when left to itself. To leave memory to itself, forgetting is required; the time-lag, the metabolism, the deferrals of forgetting. Forgetting has to be allowed for if memory – non-compliant, unmanufactured memory – is to have a chance. But giving memory a chance may not be the kind of thing we are willing to risk now. After so many memorials it may be worth wondering now what a Museum of Forgetting could be a museum of?

Published 24 June 2005
Original in English
First published by Index on Censorship 2/2005

Contributed by Index on Censorship © Adam Phillips / Index on Censorship / Eurozine


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