Saturday, 22 September 2012

Philip Gourevitch on memory

Thanks to Lauren for sending me the link to this interview with Boston Review ran with Philip Gourevitch, author of the book on the Rwandan genocide, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

Telling Stories About the Stories We Tell (Boston Review)

Although it's not strictly about the Latin American context, Gourevitch has some interesting thoughts on collective memory:
There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.

So one of the things I’m interested in is how a measure of forgetting can also be helpful—societally or politically—in getting from a state of violent destruction to one of habitable coexistence. I’m not talking about reconciliation, whatever exactly that is. I mean a condition where you’ve reckoned with the demons adequately to hold them enough at bay that you can have security and act for the future instead of simply reacting to the past.
 I think he's probably right, the mourning and remembering can't become all-consuming and go on forever. The problem comes when countries try to leap ahead and brush their traumatic past under the carpet, accusing opponents of this policy of bitterness and revenge, when the work has not even been done. And, on a practical level, how this fits in with justice for victims and prosecution of rights abusers. I'm not sure that most countries, on a societal level, are in danger of remembering too much, although some sections of society may be, but certainly, there needs to be a degree of selection and compartmentalisation. We need to make up stories to live with our idea of the past, and the tensions involved in doing this is one of the things that interests me here. 

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