I don’t really understand why this book was written. I’m entirely open to the possibility that I’m a bad reader, but it feels to me like this book has a very simple premise that was monstrously over-written. On the ‘simple premise’ angle: the premise is that there’s a difference between “history” (the stuff that happened), and “memory” (how we think about history, particularly how we think about it as a society), and that it may be better for us if we could learn to forget about our historical grievances. Not only that, but we often misuse history in dangerous ways, such that there’s no necessary connection between history and memory.
On the ‘monstrously overwritten’ side:
And regardless of whether we completely accept Freud’s generalization, we hardly need a profound insight into human nature to understand that to remain productive—and possibly even to stay entirely sane—we human beings need to behave as if the era in which we are fated to live and die and, after we have been extinguished forever, a relatively short period of the future to come about whose essential characteristics we feel that the present allows us to foresee would be recognizable to us were we to be resurrected at some more far-off point in the future.
That sentence needed an editor. So does a lot of the book.
It’s not hard to argue that a little selective amnesia about our history, and a little reframing of our memory, would help everyone. The most striking examples of mis-framed history in Rieff’s book are Osama bin Laden’s declaration that the modern West’s war on Islam is just a continuation of the Crusades, and the Israeli government’s habit of identifying any opposition to the current Israeli government as objectively pro-Holocaust. The past has been weaponized in defense of a modern ideology. As Rieff puts it:
And on the other side there is Tony Judt’s far more pessimistic suggestion: “Maybe all our museums and memorials and obligatory school trips today are not a sign that we are ready to remember but an indication that we feel we have done our penance and can now begin to let go and forget, leaving the stones to remember for us.” Judt recalled that during a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, he saw “bored schoolchildren on an obligatory outing [playing] hide-and-seek among the stones.” And he argued, “When we ransack the past for political profit—selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons—we get bad morality and bad history.” To which one should add: we also get kitsch.
The nut of the whole book, I think, comes when Rieff writes that “remembrance is about self-love, and self-recognition, which means more often than not that it is little more than the present in drag.” Everyone loves that Santayana quote about remembering the past, but Rieff’s point—and I think it’s a correct one—is that too often we’re not remembering history; we’re remembering what we want to remember to serve ideological ends. So by all means let’s study history; but let’s be careful about the uses to which we’re putting our memory.