History and Memory 
Remembering Without Resenting: History and Memory

Concluding a series on historical trauma and collective memory, Martin de Bourmont invites us to examine our own historical horizons

Knotted Gun. Photo by sarihuella via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

With past in the forefront of our minds, can violence be reconciled? Photo by sarihuella via Flickr.

The poor are nothing if not an imposition. A beggar’s cries are a reckoning that confronts those around him with their own hypocrisy and impotence. One might wish they would simply vanish from the face of the Earth, for all the trouble they cause. For what is one to do about poverty and suffering? First of all, how much can we say that the mere sight of poverty disturbs us? In the age of 24-hour news, scenes of unbearable suffering have become commonplace, accompanying our family dinners and internet searches the way smooth jazz used to compliment one’s ride in the lift up to work. Speaking to a poor person and seeing one are two different things. The latter is simply a mundane component of any downtown stroll. Speaking to one, on the other hand, means looking the sum total of our moral failures in the face.

The poor are not the only group that can have this effect. The dispossessed and trod-upon of History also present a burden for the conscience. What is most dangerous is when this guilt becomes resentment. Christos Tsiolkas provides a clear portrait of this phenomenon in his novel Dead Europe. At first the novel is centered on Isaac, the Australian-born son of Greek immigrants, now returning to Europe for an exhibition of his photography. A secondary plot is suddenly introduced. Narrated in the third person, it takes place in Isaac’s ancestral village, where members of his family perpetrate a terrible crime against a Jewish boy. The two narratives are doomed to intersect. Without knowing about these events, Isaac seems to both anticipate and fear this inevitable confrontation. He considers himself a liberal, proud never to have lapsed back into the anti-Semitic prejudices once voiced by his mother and father. Yet, the further he travels, the more hatred he begins to direct at Jews and their history. Their memories pose a threat; they are a reminder of what he might share with his family’s bigotry and its cruel subtext. This internal conflict comes to a head when Isaac goes to visit the Jewish Museum of Venice. Forbidden to take photographs by the museum’s mutilated caretaker, Isaac hears himself shouting an anti-Semitic cry that he had been longing to let out “since the beginning of time”.

How can we avoid giving way to bigoted resentment when it comes to remembering the victims of oppression? I am reminded of a story told by Pierre Sergent at the end of Je Ne Regrette Rien, his history of a French Foreign Legion regiment and its participation in the wars in Indochina and Algeria. At the end, one of its members awaits execution in a French prison for his participation in an anti-government insurrection. Wondering what the man’s last thoughts may have been, Sergent decides it is best to leave it a secret:

“It was a man’s secret, and men are rare. Families, nations, civilizations, and even regiments can die. They come, they go, and none of this has any real importance. But to see a man die, that is always tragic.”

I am convinced that his words grasped another fundamental truth. Few live with the honour and dignity they once imagined they would possess, and to see those individuals with truly heroic qualities fall victim to the inexorable ebb and flow of the societies that created them is truly tragic.

Perhaps the search for heroic figures is the best place to begin a rehabilitation of historical memory. For instance, while the woes visited upon Africa and Africans by Western imperialism are very real, it is imperative that we do not reduce the black experience to one of inescapable victimhood. Doing so means relegating Africa, Africans and all the members of the African Diaspora to the backburner of history. In the words of Aimé Césaire we need to find a form of discourse that will free the world of the “European habit… of denying [Africans] the right of initiative that is the fundamental right of having [their] own personality”.

Instead of identifying one group as victims and another as oppressors, we can begin to conceive of History as an inherently tragic affair, in which every civilisation is founded upon the abuse of some by others. We should thus celebrate the individuals who rebel against it, successfully and less so. Individuals are not completely defined by their being Jewish, black, gay, or right or left wing. They are all involved in their own personal struggles, and as such possess a singular value.

We must look to individual destinies, not just as something we need to remember for its own sake, but as models of virtuous action, the kind that can and should be emulated in moments of historical crisis, no matter whom they befall. Simone Weil is the epitome of such a model. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Paris, Weil quickly garnered a reputation for her altruistic tendencies. In an oft-cited anecdote she once gave up sugar at age six because she heard soldiers were going without it on the front of World War I. As an adult Weil became a political activist for workers’ groups, once leaving her comfortable post as a teacher to work incognito in factories as a means of expressing solidarity with workers facing unemployment and wage cuts. She then went to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a member of an anarchist militia.

Yet Weil is most remembered for the way she died.

Living in exile in Britain during World War II, Weil resolved only to eat as much as the occupying Germans allowed her French compatriots. Her health deteriorated and she died in August 1943 in Ashford, Kent.

In studying the life of Simone Weil and others like her, the point is not to lament her passing as another life wasted by the onslaught of extremism and intolerance. Rather, we should seek to emulate her virtues. The point is not to absorb guilt because we are told we should. We must take responsibility for our actions to preserve our own freedom and to endow our feeling for the oppressed with an authenticity only an alert conscience can provide.