The argument may be flawed, but Francis O’Gorman’s calm insight in her new book Forgetfulness is compellingby Samuel Earle / December 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Forgetting,” claims Francis O’Gorman, is now “the principal attitude to the past.” His new book has two aims: to trace a history of how memory’s place within society has changed; and then to offer a rallying cry for liberal nations to “celebrate and explore history’s best achievements, both things and acts.”
As new forms of backwards-looking nationalism are blamed for sending the west into the arms of Donald Trump, it might seem strange to publish a book lamenting the “forgetfulness” of liberal societies. But O’Gorman, a professor of English at Edinburgh, suggests that the problem is not simply that western nations remember too little of their history, but that they do not remember it proudly enough.
O’Gorman argues that today, due to a mix of advanced capitalism and Whiggish notions of progress, we no longer know how to value the past. It is seen as a primitive realm, such that our engagement with it is either commercial, via nostalgic consumer goods, or condescending, believing we can correct its mistakes.
It’s an ambitious, often engaging argument that spans psychoanalysis, ancient Greece, the history of Christianity and the history of the railways.
The argument, though, isn’t watertight. Given the current wave of nostalgia he identifies isn’t the problem that we remember too much rather than too little—and too rosily? The chapter on the rise of post-structuralism and identity politics on university campuses is the book’s least engaging contribution, littered with lazy caricatures and at times active misrepresentations.
Such melodrama contrasts with his otherwise calm and insightful tone—above all, in his portrayal of how the 19th century transformed popular perceptions of the past and the future through new forms of communication and t…