From Germany after Nazism to South Africa now, countries and individuals have had to cope with difficult pasts. Timothy Garton Ash considers the labyrinth of public and private memory and the tricks that it plays. He argues that the opening of old wounds can help to close themby Timothy Garton-Ash / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The sentence “we all have bad memories” can be interpreted in two ways: “we all have memories of things that we found horrible or embarrassing” or “our memory is intrinsically weak, leading us to forget or misremember.” The two may be connected. We have a bad memory for bad memories.
Evoking German attitudes to war and the Nazi period, James Fenton wrote:
How comforting it is, once or twice a year,
to get together and forget the old times.
In our post-Freudian English, this is called “repression,” thus encouraging further word play: “after suffering under a repressive dictatorship, people repress the memory of repression.” A bad memory is the mind’s way of handling the bad memories. But that is just a theory. Before Freud, there was Nietzsche: “‘I did that,’ says my memory. ‘I can’t have done that,’ says my pride, and remains adamant. In the end-memory gives way.” And before Nietzsche, there was Schopenhauer. “We do not like ruminating on what is unpleasant, at least when it wounds our vanity as indeed is often the case… therefore much that is unpleasant is also forgotten.”
Comfort? Repression? Pride? Vanity? The explanations differ, but on the existence of this phenomenon, at least, the sages all agree. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, we have a grand memory for forgetting. But is “forgetting” an adequate word? In everyday life, we tend to operate with the binary distinction: remember/forget. There is an awful lot that we do quite simply forget. Yet there are also many variations in between. There is, for example, the jumbling of memory or the involuntary embroidering of memory, as in the proverbial “fisherman’s tales.” (When you recount an argument you had with somebody, it always sounds as if you won the argument.) Thomas Hobbes drew the most radical conclusion in Leviathan. Discussing memory in a chapter entitled “Of Imagination,” he concluded that “imagination and memory are but one thing.”
clearly this is a rich field-one can almost sense another academic specialisation in the making. There she goes, the bright young doctoral student heading straight for the Jonathan Aitken chair of Memory Studies at the University of Westminster, after writing a thesis under the fearsome founder of the discipline, Professor Erich Teufelsdonck, the Kurt Waldheim Distinguished Professor of Ged??chtnisforschung at the University of Braunau.
Let the joke die on your lips: the discipline is already here. French historians have…