The Manipulation of Memory

Faced with unhappy memories, it is difficult to know the best thing to do. The tendency is to think that when we are haunted by ghostly figures and events from the past, it is because the issues that they raise—mostly of maltreatment, violence, untimeliness and trauma—have not been resolved and continue to fester, becoming a kind of poison in the bloodstream of the present. What haunts us is, in this rendering, an injustice, something that has not been properly dealt with. This is one of the oldest views of ghosts, that they wander the world and cannot find rest because they have been maltreated, displaced and left unrecognised. An injustice has been done: they have been murdered, a memorial has not been set up for them, no-one has remembered to say kaddish. “I have suggested,” writes Avery Gordon in her seminal 1997 work, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, “that the ghost is alive, so to speak. We are in relation to it and it has designs on us such that we must reckon with it graciously, attempting to offer it a hospitable memory out of a concern for justice. Out of a concern for justice would be the only reason one would bother.” Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi also stresses the issue of justice, although with less certainty, at the end of Zachor, his book on Jewish history and memory “Is it possible,” he asks, “that the antonym of ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering’ but justice?”

It might be suggested, however, that in order to achieve justice we have first to remember the actual hurt that has been suffered. This is very much the thrust of contemporary memorialising: by uncovering the traumatic past it might become possible to amend it, or at least to acknowledge it and find a way to apportion responsibility for it. Hiddenness, silence, covering over: these are not the way to come to terms with suffering. Yet these widespread processes of denial demonstrate the active nature of forgetting: it is not that something slips from mind (“Oh dear, I forgot about the Holocaust!”), or at least not when we are talking about something significant. It is rather that events that are hard to bear—perhaps because they are traumatising, but also perhaps because they make us culpable—are often more comfortably set aside than recalled. This is one of the few definite truths uncovered by psychoanalysis. Keeping a ghost at bay is very hard work: you have to keep trying not to notice it, keep pretending that it is not speaking, that the things that move around in the dark are not really there at all. Of course, this also means that the ghost remains dissatisfied; that not only is there no chance of justice, but there is not even a basic act of recognition, something that is fundamental to the essential process of humanising. That is to say: if I forget you, drive you out of my mind, then you no longer exist for me; you and your suffering, and any part I might have in it, are no longer real. Anxiety about this, and about what it can do to humanity as a whole, fuels a wide variety of contemporary “Jewish” propositions about recognition of the Other as a fundamental ethical stance, from Emmanuel Levinas to Judith Butler, from Primo Levi to all who come after him. Being unrecognised and forgotten is not what most people wish for.

Robert Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory tells us something about how active the process of forgetting can be. First published in 2006, and disappointingly not updated for this “expanded” new edition (with the exception of a useful but very short new preface referencing Da’esh (Isis) and clarifying the legal framework for the book), The Destruction of Memory deals vividly with the effects of various forms of warfare, terror and state violence on architectural heritage. For Bevan, it is lamentable that the wartime jurist Raphael Lemkin failed in his attempt to have “vandalism”, understood as “attacks on culture as an expression of a people’s genius”, included as part of his legal notion of “genocide”. This is because the destruction of “a people’s genius”—their historical records, their cultural objects, their attachments to places and to the things of apparent permanence built upon them—is in itself a destruction of their peoplehood; when their culture is destroyed they cease to exist. So vandalism of this kind is a form of genocide. But just as importantly, it is often either prelude to, or part and parcel of, actual, person-centred genocide itself, what Lemkin called “barbarity”.  In 1933, hearing of the book-burnings in Berlin, Sigmund Freud famously and shortsightedly commented, “What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.” Lemkin himself, quoted by Bevan, was more prescient, although speaking in 1948 he did have hindsight to help him: “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.”

One problem is that we usually arrive too late to intervene, as Bevan relentlessly documents in a catalogue of brutalities, ranging from Kristallnacht to Sarajevo, from Hindu destruction of the Ayodhya mosque to Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian houses and Muslim cemeteries. In fact, the “destruction” of memory can proceed apace without anyone doing much about it. This is an instance of the “failed witnessing” that many people have written about, not least the American psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin in her explorations of what “acknowledgement” might mean in relation to the Israel-Palestine situation. Writing in a 2016 essay about the consequences of being someone—or something, such as a state or agency—that sees a wrongdoing occurring and does nothing about it, she comments, “Being the failed witness or abandoning bystander can be collapsed into appearing to be the abuser or injurer—both being forms of betrayal and resulting in mystification, which involves deep injury to the sense of self” (“Non-violence as Respect for All Suffering”, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society Vol. 21). This “failed witnessing” is too a willed phenomenon, akin to the supposed silence of trauma victims: it is not that they are silent, but they are silenced, and a significant way in which this happens—as Primo Levi expressly feared—is that when they speak, when they try to bring their testimony into the consciousness of others, very few listen.

The Destruction of Memory
Robert Bevan
University of Chicago Press

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