In Praise of Forgetting

Christopher Owens with a review of a book that extols the freedom to forget.

Forgetting is big business.

Take a look at any book or programme designed to "further" your career/personality/whatever else you care to talk about, and there's the inevitable section involving "letting go" of the past and "moving forward." Words like 'burden', 'power', 'tomorrow' and 'destiny' are sprinkled liberally around such texts in order to convince the potential candidate for the Ludovico technique that the past is something to ignore. A toxic conclave where the mind plays tricks and triggers emotions that are not flattering to the individual ego.

Of course, there are occasions where this would be genuinely effective but, generally, it's used by people to "cast off" bad relationships, decisions and behaviour. When in fact, the opposite would be the best approach: study the actions that led you to the situation where you felt the need to consult a self help book/programme, and learn from it.

So should we forget historical injustices and consign them purely to history books?

Published in 2016, David Rieff's In Praise of Forgetting argues that we should do just that because

  • history is all too easy to distort for a political purpose

  • constant commemorations reduce history to kitsch

  • forgetting is a natural process (hence why England does not commemorate the soldiers killed in the Battle of Hastings, but do for the First and Second World War)

Beginning with discussing the First World War, and concluding with post Franco era Spain, Rieff is very much in favour of honesty in the history books, so much so that it's impossible to form solid myths around them (although I think he's a little too optimistic at the thought of Spain having "gotten over" Franco's legacy). Which is all very well and good in theory, but doesn't quite stand up under scrutiny.

For example, it isn't a big surprise that one of the countries that he discusses in relation to his theory is Ireland.

Firstly, he makes two errors when discussing the history of this country: he claims that both the Easter Rising and the Good Friday Agreement happened on Good Friday (you can immediately guess the point he's trying to make with that one) and that William of Orange's ascent was peaceful.

Obviously, even the best of books will have the odd factual error here and there. But this is a kind of precursor to the realisation that Rieff hasn't been able to grasp the extent to which Irish history still has a hold on the collective conscience. Throughout the book, he makes the point that it's impossible for people today to "remember" events that happened in (say) the 1600's, so why carry on with the pretence.

In most circumstances, you would say that he's correct but, as some country types know all too well, there are people who can identify which fields were taken off their ancestors in the plantation. And considering that took place in the 1600's, I think it's safe to say that this won't be "forgotten" any time soon.

As well as this, a claim from a social worker in 2010 that local children could tell her about certain events that happened in their street (such as a shooting) is a further indication that historic grievances are deeply embedded within the Irish psyche (that applies to everyone, not just republicans and loyalists). So the idea of "forgetting" is nigh on impossible, despite Edna Longley's famous quote about politicians erecting a statue to amnesia and them promptly forgetting where it was erected.

Ultimately, the past still has an incredibly strong grip on the consciousness of the modern world. The rise and rise of identity politics can certainly be seen as a progression of this, with an attempt to "right the wrongs" of the past.

The Pensive Quill's very own Anthony McIntyre has written that it's:

... important to realise that social movements, nations and religions are built to some extent on foundational myths. That has to be the case also in loyalism and republicanism. It would be a strange phenomenon were they not to be tainted by it.

Where he hits home is describing the trend for commemorations and re-enactments as reducing complex historical incidents to mere kitsch, reducing the power of what happened. With the recent commemorations for the Easter Rising (and bearing in mind recent re-enactments of the Falls Curfew), it makes for uncomfortable, thought provoking reading (even if one doesn't completely accept his argument).

Ultimately, this is an interesting and thought provoking tome, even if Rieff's argument can get lost or muddled up at times due to the wide spectrum of writers he quotes from.

David Reiff 2017 In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and it's Ironies Yale University Press ISBN-13: 978-0300182798


  1. Fair critique Christopher.

    I read this last year. Reiff poses many questions about remembering and forgetting ... and yet manages to definitively answer none. His contribution is all the more thought provoking for that.

    Any reader will enjoy this book proportionate to their ability to tolerate ambiguity.

  2. Yes, I know a few people who felt that this ambiguity was a downside of the book. I enjoyed the process, because it got me thinking. I generally feel books of this ilk can date badly if the overall opinion is set in stone and never challenged throughout (which Rieff does pretty well).