Category Archives: Ideas

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING

I have always been captivated by the idea of memory. While it has been a theme in all my novels it was THE theme in The Memory Trap. In this novel, memory in all its forms – personal biographical memory, national collective memory, memory and obsession, mementoes and memorials – was explored through the lives of the characters.

ABR coverThe American writer and film-maker, David Rieff, has made memory the subject of his past two books. I have reviewed his latest for ABR and reproduce it below

This month’s ABR has a stunning cover to accompany the announcement of the 2016 Calibre essay prize to Michael Winkler. Check out the issue at

http://www.australianbookreview.com.au

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING
David Rieff
Yale University Press, $36.95 hb, 145pp.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18279-8

Over the past three decades, and particularly since the prime ministership of John Howard, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of young Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Most of these people have no ancestors among the ‘fallen’, but rather are following what has become a rite of passage for patriotic young Australians.

Lest we forget, they intone. But what exactly is being remembered? And to what purpose is it being used? After all, until recently, few young people visited the site of this appalling military failure in which Australians were used as cannon fodder by their colonial masters. For that matter, until recently, flag-waving nationalism and loud-mouthed patriotism played little part in any aspect of Australian life.

Memory and its more structured form as remembrance are considered to be positive and desirable attributes. Personal memory is thought to be the primary vehicle by which individuals define themselves, while collective memory helps define a nation. Collective memories, like Gallipoli, act as the struts and foundations of nationalism, uniting poor and rich, urban and rural populations alike. As for history and memory, they are regarded – if thought about at all – as almost exactly the same, rather like identical twins.

In his excellent new book, In Praise of Forgetting*, David Rieff questions the commonly unquestioned: namely the purposes and effects of collective memory. He shows how easily history can fall prey to morally contingent, proprietorial and emotive memory. Ranging across the Irish troubles, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Israel and Palestine, Stalin’s Russia, and the Balkans’ internecine battles Rieff reveals how collective memory invariably follows a political and ideological agenda, which is itself underpinned by specific moral imperatives. He makes clear that structured, state-sanctioned memorialising is in thrall to contemporary goals and aspirations and not the past it is purporting to preserve. As well, he points out ‘that exercises in collective historical remembrance far more closely resemble myth on one side and political propaganda on the other [more] than they do history.’ Rieff will always see the elephant in the room.

In advancing his arguments, Rieff draws on a wealth of work about memory and remembrance including that of the great Russian neurologist A.R. Luria, the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz, Theodor Adorno’s classic Minima Moralia, and most particularly the Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory) and the social philosopher Tzvetan Todorov (Hope and Memory and Memory as a Remedy of Evil). Rieff sets up a dialogue of sorts with these latter two luminaries in which there is acknowledgement and agreement, as well as argument and disagreement; crucially Rieff extends the analysis of both men. As a thinker, Rieff is fearless and devoid of sentimentality. To take on those you admire is a difficult task, but if done well, as it is in this book, it yields far richer and nuanced arguments than if you were to pit yourself against a thinker with a diametrically opposing view.

Individual memory degrades very quickly while official memorialising is a tool in service to ideological and cultural currents. Rieff refers to Shelley’s pithy ‘Ozymandias’, as well as David Cannadine’s memoir ‘Where Statues Go to Die’ about the ‘inglorious fate’ of colonial monuments in India. My favourite monument story concerns the Bremen Elephant. This ten foot high red brick elephant was erected in 1932 to celebrate Germany’s colonial conquests, especially in Namibia. By the 1980s this particularly brutal colonisation had become a matter of shame; the monument was an embarrassment and there were calls to pull it down. In 1990, when Namibia gained its independence, the Bremen Elephant was re-dedicated as an anti-colonial monument, and in 2009 a new monument was built adjacent to the old to commemorate the lives of those Namibians who perished in the colonisation. Rather than an enduring truth about the past, monuments rise and fall depending on prevailing political and social concerns.

Official remembrance is big business these days. New monuments, memorial gardens, entire museums are popping up all the time. Rieff is rightfully critical of a number of these, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, where the atrocities portrayed have been book-ended in kitsch. (For an excellent book on kitsch in memorialising see Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History, 2007.) My complaint with the U.S. Holocaust Museum is in its use of experiential exhibits. The underlying premise of this fashionable trend in museum practice is that by promoting a personal involvement in the (long-past) events being portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding. So it happens that on entering the U.S. Holocaust Museum visitors are issued with an identity card of a real person who existed during the Holocaust. As you walk past the displays of horror, as you watch the videos, as you linger in the (real) cattle car, you clutch your identity card wondering if your person – your surrogate self, after all – has survived. You have been inserted into these horrendous events. As for the imagination as a means of understanding, it has fallen out of fashion. What this might mean for memory in general, given that memories involve an imagining of past events, is anyone’s guess.

Rieff, in highlighting past atrocities and the way they have influenced current conflicts, recommends forgetting as a means of facilitating individuals to move on. Many Holocaust survivors did exactly this. They had survived and it was incumbent on them to live fully – not only for themselves but the millions who were denied a future. They did not consult counsellors or psychiatrists, rather they drew on their own resilience and determination to separate from their terrible experiences and steer themselves into the future. In many instances, It was their children and grandchildren who insisted on dragging them back to Auschwitz. It seems that the parents’ very productive forgetting interfered with the children’s demands for remembrance – a peculiarly narcissistic remembrance. The therapeutic has indeed triumphed as the author’s father, the sociologist Philip Rieff, predicted in 1966.

Rieff sees more value in forgiveness than do I. I am of the belief that some acts and the policies that allow them to occur are unforgivable, such as the atrocities under apartheid, those committed by the Nazis, and the slaughter being carried out by ISIS now. Nelson Mandela recognised this when he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not a Truth and Forgiveness Commission. There can be understanding and reconciliation, there can be a future where past enemies live together in peace, and this can occur without having to forgive the unforgivable (and thereby act in bad faith).

In Praise of Forgetting explores the powerful and often brutal effects of the seemingly benign and beneficent processes of memory and remembrance. It forces scrutiny of what has long been complacently accepted. Over the past half century or so, there has been a sacralising of memory both at the personal and collective levels. For the former it has often lead to a life of victimhood, for the latter entrenched hatreds and shocking brutality. If remembering truly were so therapeutic then such undesirable outcomes would not occur with such distressing regularity.

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*In Praise of Forgetting grew out of an earlier monograph Against Remembrance (MUP, 2011). I am hoping Rieff is planning a third volume titled ‘Against Forgiveness’.

 

 

The Insatiable Self

Pride, sloth, lust, greed, envy, wrath and gluttony: these are the seven deadly sins. Unlike their criminal cousins of assault, battery, rape and murder, the sins have undergone a transformation in the past few decades. Leeched of badness they can hardly claim to be sins any more. Indeed, many people would now consider the traditional sins to be virtues.

Pride has become self-worth.
Sloth has become ‘taking time for yourself’.
Lust is doing what is natural.
Greed is entitlement and, according to Gordon Gekko, it is good. (This is one of the few clear messages trumpeted by Donald Trump and parroted by his besotted and deluded followers.)
Envy is a fair response to unfairness in the distribution of society’s rewards.
Wrath is emotionally healing.
And gluttony…well gluttony is the odd one out, but this has always been the case. Of all the sins, only gluttony dishes out its own punishment. Indigestion, arteriosclerosis, liver disease, collapsed joints, diabetes, and many more physical ailments punish the glutton mercilessly and, it must be said, often fruitlessly. However, this is not the only quality that sets gluttony apart, but more of that shortly.

When the world was a simpler place there was a virtue to combat each sin. So humility would address pride, diligence – sloth, chastity – lust, charity – greed, kindness – envy, patience – wrath, and temperance – gluttony. In much the same way that many of the traditional sins have been stripped of their sinfulness, so many traditional virtues are now regarded as highly undesirable. Humility conjures up a bowing scraping Dickensian character with poor self-esteem; diligence is associated with a mindless functionary who needs to get a life; chastity is a pathology in the lay population and aligns with sexual perversion in the religious; charity promotes lazy dependence and a class of dole bludgers; kindness is all very well but only towards those you can trust, and patience is a poor achiever.

As recently as fifty years ago there was a set of sins and virtues subscribed to by the vast majority of people in western Judeo-Christian societies, and there were social structures to help maintain them: family, church, political and educational systems. Fundamental writings contributed further support. The Bible is full of admonitions against sin and praise for the virtues. Dante’s long poem The Inferno, in which the poet-pilgrim is guided through the circles of hell by Virgil, reveals numerous sins with all their horrible consequences in one of the most creative and compelling narratives ever written. Milton dipped his pen into this material as did poets as varied as Pope and Byron.

Novelists have long looked to the seven deadly sins to fuel their work, so much so that to remove greed, lust, envy, anger and pride from fiction would shrink the library to a shelf. A New York Public Library series of lectures on the seven deadly sins conducted in 2003 attracted various august contributors such as Francine Prose and the incomparable Joseph Epstein, and in my own library I have a slender hard-copy of the seven deadly sins from 1962 (a cancelled book from the Sunshine Coast Regional Library Service) with the following contributors:

Angus Wilson: on envyseven deadly sins
Edith Sitwell: on pride
Cyril Connolly: on covetousness
Patrick Leigh Fermor: on gluttony
Evelyn Waugh: on sloth
Christopher Sykes: on lust
W.H. Auden: on anger.

If I did not already own this book I would covet it, I would lust after it, I would have to have it.

Sins warrant punishment, whether it’s Adam and Eve banished from Paradise because of their disobedience, or the pride of the Hebrews who thought they could build a tower to Heaven and were punished by God for their effrontery. God split their common language into several tongues, and thereby split the people asunder (thus: the Tower of Babel). In the secular realm, the various legal systems that have accompanied human settlements over the millennia have meted out punishments for the sins of their citizens, while commonly held values and attitudes have meant that sinners were banished to the margins of society and treated as pariahs.

Shared attitudes towards sin and virtue have allowed people to live closely in communities under a system of common values. Pride, envy, anger, lust, greed and sloth all can damage others; even gluttony is at someone else’s expense particularly in times of scarcity. An awareness and value of the other, of the family and neighbours who reside in close proximity, as well as strangers passing through the community, have undergirded the proscription against sin and the encouragement of virtue.

But times have changed.

A few dacades back, the global village replaced the local village, and in our own digital age, cyberspace has replaced the global village. We are now joined with everyone else via a huge web of connections built out of ’likes’, ‘send’, ‘post’, ‘share’, and mediated by vast, rich corporations run by strangers who/that* have easier access to you than your friends and family.

To return now to gluttony. Like the other sins it has been transformed – but not to a virtue. Gluttony has become INSATIABILITY, and in its current form, it is ubiquitous. Insatiability is the power engine of modern life, it drives the modern self.Gluttony

Insatiability has put the self centre-stage. Insatiability has cut us off from others – unless they can supply something we need. Insatiability is fast killing empathy. To want more and better wealth, to want more and better sex, food, friends, family, travel, jobs, leisure, possessions – this is what we have become, this is who we are.

Insatiable.

Insatiability separates us from other people: all that matters is our own perpetually needy, wanting and demanding self. The assault on social life is profound, but many aspects of human endeavour are threatened. For example, insatiability is anti-creative, in both the arts and the sciences. With so much energy directed into wanting/needing/expecting more and better for the self, there’s little time or desire or perceived need to create something new, something with questionable utility. Always lacking, always in a state of deficit, insatiability sees us feeding off the self in order to feed the self.

This is a madness.

Insatiability locks us into the present. We want more, and we want it now. Insatiability has no patience – and neither does the digital world. Immediacy is king. A moment ago doesn’t matter any more. On average, people check their phones every 4.5 minutes, they are checking what’s happening now – friends, news, work, leisure, arrangements – and in the now they respond. And 4.5 minutes later they tap into the now again. And 4.5 minutes later they do it again. And in each 4.5 minute bracket they may have gone to the toilet or made a quick cup of coffee or paid a couple of bills. But four and a half minutes is insufficient for a new Mona Lisa, a new Enigma Variation, a new Mrs Dalloway. Four and a half minutes is insufficient to understand the suffering of the woman next door whose husband has just had a stroke; or the harm heaped on desperate people seeking refuge among us; or the brutality of pledging an eight-year-old girl in marriage to a forty-year-old man.

Combine the digital world with craven insatiability and you have a scenario where the self reigns supreme. This self needs to be looked after, rewarded, stroked, recognised; it can never have too much attention. This self has become our god, our only God.

This self, this insatiable self has already gobbled up much more than the seven deadly sins.

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* It’s impossible to differentiate the non-human corporation, that mysterious behemoth, from the people who work there.

POSSIBILITY

POSSIBILITY

Kierkegaard wrote that ‘Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.’ This is a warning to all those tempted to write an early memoir. Although given how very many early memoirs are produced these days – dull, superficial, even soporific accounts of lives that do not warrant remembering much less sharing – no one is taking much notice of Kierkegaard. In 1977, Tom Wolfe published an essay called the ‘Me Decade’ in which he drew attention to the cult of the self. How much more intense and widespread has the focus on self become. Ours is the ME ME ME ERA. Sharing is a hallmark of contemporary life, and an early memoir allows for the possibility of several more volumes before one is confined to the grave.

But it is not memoir nor the dominance of the self that has prompted this note, rather what interests me is the increased understanding that comes with advancing years to which Kierkegaard alludes. For those excited by understanding, this is one of the rewards of ageing. For myself, it’s a great relief to know that so much is behind me: mistakes never to be repeated, misbegotten lovers, misspent moments that might stretch into months, the weight problems, the money problems, the job problems. It’s satisfying to have sufficient understanding to forgive my parents their mistakes. I understand the madness of past relationships, the blind longings for love, I understand now, long after the fact, the roads I should have taken. I am much wiser now I am no longer young.

I’m not nostalgic, I don’t long for my youth – I didn’t care for it much while it was happening – and besides, with so much left to do I simply don’t have time for a rerun. I like my increased understanding. I like the fact that so many issues that caused me stress and sleepless nights simply do not matter any more. But I do have one major regret: the shrinking of possibility that accompanies the passing years.

At 40 I could still study medicine if I wanted, I could still expect to get around to the lesser plays of Shakespeare and the second half of Ulysses, I could delay returning to my piano studies. If I’d been without a partner – I wasn’t – there was still the likelihood I would meet someone who would become my beloved and journey with me through the years. I had time, and with time came the possibility of things happening now or later, some planned, others unexpected. At 50, possibility was still strongly evident. But a mere ten years later and possibility, ‘amazing possibility’ is dwindling.

Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, argued that what kept people from suicide was their hope that conditions of life would improve. Hope has always nudged precariously close to delusion, I’ve always thought, but possibility – well, that’s something else.

If you consider life to be an adventure, if you are alert to unforeseen possibility you are constantly surprised and often full of wonder. You’ll see the moon at its fullest, you’ll see it as a mere sliver of finger-nail and both will invigorate; you’ll see the red-rump parrots scratching in the grass; you’ll relish the conversation with a stranger on the train; you’ll count your blessings at having found an extraordinary Neruda poem, at hearing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards. This is not wide-eyed Pollyanna stuff, it is, simply, LIFE writ large. Every day brings the possibility of revelations, of alive-ness, of wonder. Given life won’t last forever, allowing for possibility seems a sensible way of going.

But now it seems I have reached the age of diminishing possibilities. At 40 I would tell myself that when I had finished my current novel I would spend a few months at the piano. At fifty I promised myself that when the current novel was over I would, again, tackle Ulysses. At 60, I doubt I will ever return to my study of the piano or finish Ulysses. I’d prefer to reread Proust than Joyce (and at this stage it is an either/or situation). And I’d prefer to reread the major plays of Shakespeare rather than plod through the lesser ones. I’ll manage with my trips and stumbles over the keyboard, and I’ve adjusted to there not being a beloved. And while I know this state of mind reveals a certain wisdom, I long, not for youth, but for the huge unchartered terrain of possibility that was a life still to be lived.

CONVERSING WITH FAMOUS DEAD PEOPLE

I have had a long-standing habit of conducting conversations with famous dead people. It started in early childhood. While other children had imaginary playmates, children they made up and who were much like themselves, my imaginary playmates (although we never played, only talked) were abducted from the novels I read – obvious ones like the boy in the wheelchair in The Secret Garden and less obvious ones like King Arthur. (An old friend, on hearing about my penchant for King Arthur, pointed out that my father’s name was Arthur, hinting at unresolved Oedipal conflicts. But of all my loves, that for my father was the least complicated, and his attractions quite different from King Arthur’s.)

Back in those days privacy was a rarity. Like most of my friends I shared a bedroom, and pocket money might stretch to the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Victory or a session at St Moritz skating rink but little more. Certainly there was no sulking in your own bedroom to the comfort of your very own record player turned up to a hostile boom in order to obliterate the family from the adolescent consciousness. Even if a greater number of props to solitude had been available back in those days, the disposable income was not – and even if it had been, a child was unlikely to be the main beneficiary. Back then, childhood was a time of deprivation, at least relative to what your parents seemed to have. There were spoiled children who were showered with gifts, but for most children fun, although plentiful, was necessarily cheap.

Privacy within the home was rare, but outside the home was quite another matter. Kids were told to get out from under their parents’ feet. We would walk alone to the corner milk bar for a polly waffle or choc wedge, or a little further to the park to play, or on your bike and riding the neighbourhood streets. And then there was the cubby at the back of the garden. Cubbies were so private there were passwords for entry.

While my sister hung out in the front garden behind the hedge smoking Turf filter tips with her friend Joan, I occupied the back shed, not far from the incinerator, for long leisurely conversations with the best of the best. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliffe, Scarlett O’Hara, a whole swathe of characters from Iris Murdoch novels, Leon Uris heroes, and many many more. Private, cheap, entertaining, enormously satisfying, infinitely rich conversations.

As my reading broadened so, too, did my choice of companion, with a major shift from characters to their creators. By the time I left school I was conversing with famous dead people, regular conversations with Madame Curie, Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf – not together, of course, that would never do, in fact all my conversations have been one-on-one. At the time I knew next to nothing about the real life personae of Virginia and Jean-Paul and wanted to keep it that way. Indeed, I protected my conversations by steering shy of all biographies and autobiographies except those which might serve my purpose, like Sartre’s Paroles, which had the effect of inserting the author more firmly, and certainly more appropriately into my private sphere.

My conversations with famous dead people have afforded me enormous pleasure; they have also been the primary way in which I have clarified my ideas. Once admitted to the circle I rarely get rid of anyone, although our meetings might diminish to an occasional imagined letter. In addition to Curie, Sartre and Woolf, there have been Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Theodor Adorno, Debussy, Barthes (my Debussy and Barthes speak excellent English). And there have been others, still alive, but irrevocably distant from my real existence like Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt, George Steiner. (Years ago, when my friend Robert Dessaix interviewed George Steiner on the ABC’s books programme, I remember feeling embarrassed – and a little jealous too – as if someone had caught me out doing something not quite legitimate).

Such perfect conversations these are, with such assured outcomes, and I always so fluent, so erudite, and so unselfconscious when compared with real conversations where I’m liable to talk rot and am struck by brilliant insights ten minutes too late. Perfect conversations in which I control the ebb and flow of ideas. And even though I remain unsure where the conversation will end, I am absolutely certain that not only will I survive to the end, I’ll do so with flying colours. These conversations, always so intellectually and morally sound, persist unencumbered by corporeal distractions like body odour, or constipation, or unsightly moles, or personality constraints like vanity, or hypochondria, or a dull and intransigent resentment of early family life. And I, too, exist unencumbered by any imperfections in these conversations, whether undesirable personal qualities or, indeed, the risks and slips of the usual face-to-face interaction.

But I do not fool myself – have never fooled myself. My perfect imagined conversations, their intellectual rigour notwithstanding, are nonetheless contrived, and while permitted to meander here and there, they do so only under my direction. This perfection is restricted and solely under my control. It makes a nice change to the rest of life.

Restricted perfection. What an interesting notion.

IMAGINATION SOUP. How novels begin.

It was 2009, a bright day in early spring, when I took the afternoon off work and made my way to Heidi Gallery and gardens. The gardens were in bud, there was a shadow of brilliant green on the deciduous trees, the river seemed less brown than usual in the sharp white light. And the birds! A rowdy party of magpies, peewees, and rainbow lorikeets flapped through the still air. I meandered around until the lengthening shadows made it uncomfortably cool and then made my way to the gallery itself. There I found an exhibition of the work of Kathy Temin. I’d never neard of her, knew nothing of her art or her background, so I entered the long room of the main exhibit with no expectations. I found myself in a forest of white trees constructed out of white fake fur and soft stuffing. Some trees were stocky, others were slender; there were trees formed from squashed soft spheres piled one on top of the other, there were cone-shaped trees and slender cylindrical ones; some trees were not much more than a metre tall, others stretched to two or three metres.

Kathy Temin. My Monument: White Forest

As I moved among these soft white structures, I was simultaneously silenced by them, dwarfed by them and swaddled by them. I couldn’t have left if I wanted to. For reasons I could not explain, nor at the time did I want to explain, being immersed in Kathy Temin’s sculptural landscape had transported me back to Auschwitz. It was not Auschwitz 1, so nicely spruced up for the visitors with its famous gates and infamous words, Arbeit macht frei, but Auschwitz 2, Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its equally famous peaked gatehouse under which the trains entered the camp, stopping a moment later at the long platform where a clipped Teutonic nod decided who would die and who would live a little longer.

Kathy Temin’s white fake fur trees took me back to Auschwitz.

In November, 1999, Dot and I spent an afternoon walking the paths and woodlands of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s a huge area and apart from a few locals taking a short-cut via the old death camp and a small group of bored Polish schoolboys, we were alone. We wandered the pretty woodlands still rosy with late autumn colour where over half a century earlier Jews were amassed at the peak times, waiting their turn for the gas chambers. We stood silently in the ruins of Crematoria 2, 3, 4 and 5 where hundreds of thousands of murdered men, women and children were reduced to ash. We wandered the umpteen columns and rows of wooden huts. We stood in front of those tiered bunk benches each about 3 metres wide where as many as 12 Jews were crammed in together, the sick, the dying, and the steadfastly-surviving.

At the end of the railway tracks and situated between the ruins of Crematoria 2 and 3 is the International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. Built in 1967 in Soviet brutalism style, it consists of huge cement blocks in a geometric pile with plaques set in the brick work under foot. It’s big this monument, but it had no effect on me. The place, this Auschwitz-Birkenau, was monument enough.

Kathy Temin’s sculpture was called My Monument: White Forest. I did not learn the title until I was back home reading the exhibition catalogue. Sue Cramer, one of the curators of the exhibition wrote: ‘If not for the title of Kathy Temin’s sculptural environment My Monument: White Forest, we might not at first recognise this maze-like arrangement of furry white, oddly shaped trees as a monument.’

I knew it immediately.

Cramer continued: ‘Temin describes the work as a “memorial garden, an attempt to translate the feeling I had when visiting memorial sites in Eastern Europe.”’

Touché.

Monuments are an art form designed to convey people, places and events from the past, as well as abstract qualities of courage, goodness, freedom – even memory itself.

At the time of Temin’s exhibition I had only vague thoughts about the novel that would become The Memory Trap. I saw My Monument: White Forest and soon after, emerging from the imagination’s soup, came the character of Nina Jameson, an international consultant on memorial projects. And so the novel began – nothing about Auschwitz, nothing about the horrors of war (the loose-limbed imagination doesn’t work that way), rather four main characters with a shared childhood in seventies Melbourne, four people whose hopes and yearnings, whose loves and obsessions, whose uses and abuses of memory have all shaped the course of their adult lives. There are monuments in The Memory Trap, but as well there’s music and marriage and a swag of very human mistakes.

I’m fascinated by the imagination, I’m gripped by its loiterings and lurchings, but most important of all, I am grateful for it.