The idea that organised remembering presents an obstacle to reconciliation is a familiar one, and is the subject of a recent book by David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical memory and its ironies. Hew Strachan’s review in the TLS argues, however, that ‘collective memory may be more neutral than Rieff allows’, suggesting – with a possibly unconsciously military metaphor – that it can be ‘conscripted’ to amity as well as enmity.
Is collective memory really this passive? I’m reminded of the resonant words of the urgently revisionist history teacher, Irwin, in Alan Bennett’s History Boys: ‘It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember’. The proposition is that, in the case of Britain, organised remembering is a means by which the individual forgets to question the cause of his or her personal loss.
Bennett’s play is interested in the individual, particularised suffering that war brings. Irwin reminds his pupils of the ‘photograph on every mantlepiece’, which necessitates ‘the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff’. Asserting that, ‘we still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died’, Irwin implies that the British authorities perform a collective memorial in order that individual mourning be subsumed into something safe, into an emotion which affirms the state rather than challenges it.
When the play’s iconoclastic English teacher, Hector, draws attention to the ‘uncoffined’ soldier of Thomas Hardy’s poem, Drummer Hodge, Bennett’s preoccupation emerges again. In Hector’s reading of the poem, the state fails to honour the individual who contributes nothing to the metanarrative. Perhaps the author is telling us that we need literature to question the state’s packaging of the past.
But literature can connive with the purposes of the state. Speaking of ‘the naturalisation of culture’, Terry Eagleton observes that ‘from Burke and Coleridge to Arnold and Eliot, a dominant ideological device in Britain is to transmute history itself into a seamless evolutionary continuum, endowing social institutions with all the stolid inevitability of a boulder’ (4). It could be argued that a similar mechanism has operated on the official memory of conflict.
Strachan notes that ‘polls in 2014 showed truly shocking levels of public ignorance about the war. Paradoxically, although the British people thought they should be marking the war’s centenary, they had little idea of who was fighting with whom and against whom’. If these polls can be trusted, the people have collective amnesia rather than collective memory, and the power of the state to ‘create memory’ is mighty indeed. Enough that the people stand quietly at the Cenotaph, feel a sad chill at the sounding of the Last Post, and reflect that all is for the best in this best of all possible countries.
Could individual memories provide a corrective to this herd mentality? As barristers famously know, memory is highly untrustworthy. Two witnesses of the same incident can, in good faith, give conflicting accounts only minutes after the event. What, then, is the value of personal testimony to the historian? The painter, Hughie O’Donoghue, has said that, ‘although [memory] is not always accurate it is always true’, which is perhaps a dangerously seductive aphorism. He qualifies it, however, with the statement that, ‘it tries to present the truth as it is felt’ (5).
When Dr Helene O’Keefe presented an account of second generation memory of the 1916 Rising in her lecture, ‘Once Removed from Revolution’, she cautioned that such accounts could not be treated as sources, but revealed how close they can, nevertheless, bring us to some of the realities of 1916. She spoke of ‘re-imagined’, ‘diluted’ and ‘inherited’ memory, and noted that people are inclined to impose narrative form on these memories, and imbue them with drama or humour – a tendency which can also be seen in academic or state-sponsored accounts of significant events.
What emerged from O’Keefe’s examples, however, were fascinating insights into ‘the truth as it is felt’. She highlighted, too, the many reasons participants in the Rising had chosen not to pass their memories to the next generation: self-censorship, humility, the imperative of secrecy, gender roles. One of the most touching of these reasons was a desire not to impose the burden of the past on their descendants.
And this is perhaps why the chimeric collective memory is so much more agreeable than the individual sort: it is without the painful trueness of personal experience.
Strachan, Hew. ‘Forget and forgive: In praise of reconciliation caused by not remembering the historical past.’ Rev. of In Praise of Forgetting: Historical memory and its ironies, by David Rieff. Times Literary Supplement 1 July 2016. Print.
Bennett, Alan. The History Boys. London: Faber and Faber, 2006. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture. London: Verso, 1995. Print.
Quoted in Marshall, Catherine. Monuments and Memorials of the Great Famine. Quinnipac University Press, 2014. Print.
O’Keefe, Helene, “Once Removed from Revolution: Second Generation Memory of the 1916 Rising”, University College Cork. 19 October 2016. Address.