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Selective Memory

August 17, 2017

Last Friday Michael Press published a blog post partly in response to issues raised in my recent post on the erosion of national monopolies on cultural heritage and the concept of universal or global heritage. He focused on the site of Joseph’s Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus. Once a multi-religious shrine revered for hundreds of years by Jews, Muslims, Christians and Samaritans alike, after 1967 the site has remained revered by Jews while the Palestinians have come to see it as a symbol of Israeli colonialism. The site has been the target of repeated acts of vandalism, with some Palestinians insisting it was never a Muslim holy site but merely the shrine of a local sheikh named Yusuf. Press poses the question: how can a universal model of cultural heritage exist when two groups can develop polar opposite interpretations of the exact same site?

A lot can happen in one week. While Press mentioned Confederate monuments as another example of polarized interpretations, white nationalists and various groups of the self-proclaimed “alt right” were planning a rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. A weekend of violence left three people dead. Reverberations included a new round of removals of Confederate monuments. In Durham, North Carolina a group of protesters took matters into their own hands and pulled down a 1924 memorial to Confederate veterans with ropes.

But my purpose in this post is not to give yet another tour of how different people attach different meanings to the same object, or review the context in which many Civil War memorials were set up during the nadir of American race relations. Instead I want to highlight how historical memory, in addition to being multipolar, is also selective.

Memory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, being a phenomenon of emotion and magic, accommodates only those facts that suit it. It thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details. It is vulnerable to transferences, screen memories, censorings, and projections of all kinds. History, being an intellectual, nonreligious activity, calls for analysis and critical discourse. Memory situates remembrance in a sacred context. History ferrets it out; it turns whatever it touches into prose. Memory wells up from groups that it welds together, which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs observed, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple yet specific; collective and plural yet individual…Memory is rooted in the concrete, in space, gesture, image, and object. History dwells exclusively on temporal continuities, on changes in things and in the relations among things…At the heart of history is a criticism destructive of spontaneous memory. Memory is always suspect in the eyes of history, whose true mission is to demolish it, to repress it.[1]

Thus wrote Pierre Nora in his opening chapter to the three-volume examination of France’s Lieux de mémoire. Memory, in short, is selective. It latches on to part of the past with all the predilections and vicissitudes of the human mind. By process of natural selection it quickly “accommodates only those facts that suit it.”

The alt-right demonstrators who descended on Lee and Jefferson’s statues were certainly selective. They latched onto the Confederacy as a forerunner of their cause, even though the intellectual groundwork of their movement, such as it is, is derived not from the antebellum South but from nouvelle droite radicals of post-1968 France. Many of them claimed to be defending their heritage of an America founded by white men against tides of immigrants, yet as Kevin Williamson has noted, activists with surnames like Fuentes and Cvjetanović are bearing names certainly not found on the Mayflower’s passenger manifest.

What they are doing is the same thing many other totalitarian movements from the original Nazis to Ba’athists to ISIS have done: pick a few memories from the past and fit them to a narrative in the service of an entirely modern ideology.

History may advance at the expense of memory, but memory is what sets narratives, and memory is constantly being updated to the present. Many persons remember Robert E. Lee not as a paragon of southern virtue but as a paragon of racism and treason, and his statues erected as reminders of white supremacy. Many of those same people are white, young, and live in newly revived cities in the South. Places like Durham, North Carolina. Places which have seen a deliberate latter-day revival of many aspects of southern culture of the 1860s or of 1890-1930, as people wearing flannel shirts and suspenders drink from mason jars and grow Civil War-length beards while buying hand-crafted goods and listening to Old-time revivalist music. These cultural memories have been selected, then easily divorced from their Jim Crow or Confederate contexts and recapitulated forwards into new ones. Memory, after all, is a phenomenon of the present.

One could cycle through numerous other cultural memories of Robert E. Lee: As a brilliant general (embodied in the U.S. Army’s Fort Lee or the M3 Lee tank); as a killer of Americans (his farm is now Arlington National Cemetery); as a rebel against authority (the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard); as an ardent defender of slavery and secession or as a reluctant warrior.

One could form memory around any one of these facets, fit it to a desired narrative, and ignore the rest. And this happens anywhere that memory is in play. To return to the example of Joseph’s Tomb, the Palestinian narrative has chosen to remember the site as if its history began in June 1967, while the Israeli Jewish narrative acts as if June 1967 changed nothing about how the site would be perceived. Different narratives are shaped as different memories are emphasized. Memory is always selective.

Narratives can give a sense of meaning and purpose, a differentiation from the other. But narratives can serve another purpose: As a form of denial, not of others but of the self.

There was recently some discussion on Twitter about the old canard that slavery was practiced everywhere since ancient times. In the antebellum South this was used to argue that the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ was in fact perfectly normal. Now the same argument is sometimes used in an attempt to mitigate American guilt. But at other times the reverse is proposed: That slavery in the ancient world was not all that bad, at least when compared to the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 16th-19th centuries.

But was it? The racial component of American slavery is often cited, yet the word “slave” is derived from the mass enslavement of Slavic peoples by the Byzantine empire. The idea that some people are slaves by nature was argued by both Herodotus and Aristotle. Harsh punishments, torture, mutilation, branding, being worked to death, sexual abuse – all of these were features of ancient slavery as much as slavery in the Americas.

A Roman soldier leads two slaves in loincloths in this relief from Smyrna. A scene very familiar to American slavery. (source)

But the urge to mark the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th-19th centuries, and its offspring of American slavery, as a uniquely horrible system allows us to distance ourselves from it. Paradoxically, if slavery was something perpetrated only by a uniquely bad group of people, then even if those people were our ancestors we can still rest easy knowing that it was not us. We can look ourselves in the mirror and tell ourselves that we would never have participated in something like that.

But if harsh forms of slavery were common to many time periods? Then we are forced to confront the likelihood that under a different set of circumstances we probably would have done the same thing. As did many, many others. Just as we participate in many destructive and unjust systems in the present day without giving them a second thought. This does not make slavery look less bad. It makes humanity look far worse.

In a chapter titled “The Bluecaps” in his masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn first paints a villainous picture of the power-hungry and abusive NKVD. But then his writing takes a sharp turn as he begins to reflect on how often he abused his power as a captain in the Red Army during the Second World War. He ordered his men to dig him a special bunker at each camp site, condemned privates to be imprisoned in a pit for trivial offenses, and sent men out to repair wires under shell fire just to impress his superiors, resulting in one of their deaths. “My power,” he wrote, “soon convinced me that I was a superior human being.” But for one decision made while in university, he could have ended up in the NKVD instead:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe a whole lot, good and evil.

Socrates taught us: Know thyself!

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: It is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

If Malyuta Skuratov [chief of secret police under Ivan the Terrible] had summoned us, we, too, probably would have done our work well!

From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.

And correspondingly, from evil to good.[2]

I suspect Nora is too optimistic about the ability of critical history to overcome memory. History tends to transition back to memory as soon as it is written down. Memory seizes bits of history and fits them to its preferred narrative. This is not to say that historical facts do not exist, but the interpretation of these facts tends to move into the realm of memory as soon as others read it and seek to apply anything they learn from it.

Memory, of course, is what lets us tell ourselves that it wouldn’t have been us. That we can understand what happened so as to avoid making the same mistakes. That we can purge the evil people from our society and destroy them.

But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

It is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.


[1] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History,” 1-20 in Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 3.

[2] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 168.

Article © Christopher Jones 2017.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 17, 2017 11:40 PM

    Thanks for writing and sharing.

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