The 20th century has witnessed the conquering of infectious disease, soaring life expectancy and a miracle of economic growth. Yet it is often described as the most terrible century in human history-and we can't even remember its horrors without descending into a kind of false memory syndromeby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Just as the Art of Memory has finally died, we are obsessed as never before by remembrance. The cult of memory?maybe we should say “memorialism”?has been a striking characteristic of the 20th century.
By the Art of Memory, I mean the way in which, form the earliest days of human society, men committed vast realms to memory. Epics such as the Iliad or the Kalevala were passed down through oral tradition; quantities of music were memorised; people could describe in detail (as Lord Holland did when his nephew Charles James Fox was on the Grand Tour) paintings in Italy which they had only seen once.
It may well be that the art of memory has been in decline since the invention of printing. Certainly its demise has been speeded by the mechanical reproduction of images and music, the electronic mass media of radio, cinema and television, and most recently, the computer and the internet, which mean that we shall never have to remember anything again. Even now, musicians who can play from memory seem old fashioned, and ordinary people who can quote much poetry by heart seem like quaint relics.
Instead we have “memorialism.” Much of the history of the 20th century has become the object of obsessive commemoration. This should be a form of Vergangensheitbew?ltigung: that notion of coming to terms with the past which so absorbs the Germans, but I am not sure that this is so. We are obsessed with the past, but our coming to terms with it is selective. The meaning of many of the events of the past century has been distorted. It has been said that misunderstanding one?s own past is part of becoming a nation: we could add that misunderstanding our age seems to be part of its experience.
Our obsessive memories are of three things: of war, and especially “the Great War”; of national socialism and its most enormous act, the annihilation of the European Jews; and of communism. All these are invoked, used and misused, remembered rightly and wrongly, in what can sometimes look like the collective equivalent of “recovered memory syndrome”?not to say “false memory syndrome.”
To begin with, there is the belief, which unites numerous historians and savants, that we are coming to the end of “mankind?s worst century.” The theme of Mark Mazower?s Dark Continent is that 20th-century Europe was not…