“We’ve become obsessed with memory.” That’s the view of David Rieff, internationally renowned scholar and journalist, who is in South Africa to promote his new book, In Praise of Forgetting. It’s a nonfiction work with a central argument that many are likely to find contentious: that society’s preoccupation with remembering the past may be actively harmful.
“I think there’s a romance about memory,” Rieff says. “If you remember, all will be well: that memory is a kind of protection of some kind against bad things continuing to happen.”
The theory that an awareness of the past helps safeguard the future is widespread, and is perhaps best summarised by Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
But it just isn’t true, says Rieff.
“What I’ve tried to argue in the book is that that’s empirically a very strange claim and there’s a real vanity about it, as if one has more control than one really does. What happens when something is remembered? Then what?”
Past atrocities, Rieff says, seem to do little to prevent current or future atrocities. We all know what happened in Rwanda in 1994, but sit by while events in Syria unspool. Far from memory thwarting violence, Rieff says, it may actually be used to invoke it. As illustration, he cites the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.
“There, I think memory was deployed as a way of mobilising people for war,” he says.
Rieff tells of being in Serbia in 1993, interviewing a nationalist politician. As Rieff took his leave, one of the politician’s aides handed him a folded piece of paper. Back at his hotel, Rieff opened it. It contained nothing more than a number: 1453, the date when Constantinople fell to the Turks. The message was clear: the politician saw his role as defending Europe against the Muslim hordes.
“A lot of people died because of those fantasies,” Rieff says.
To talk of the value of forgetting the past in South Africa might seem controversial. It’s a country where the black majority is often exhorted to “get over” apartheid by white racists seeking to disavow its ongoing social and economic legacy. Rieff says the South African situation is different, however, to what he’s encountered in places such as the Balkans and the Middle East – mainly because South Africa is still too close to the end of apartheid.
“I don’t feel like what’s happening here is memory in the same sense,” he says. “What I see is a political debate about what kind of post-apartheid society people want. What strikes me about South Africa is how bitterly disappointed and how angry people are. The anger here is really white hot, it seems to me. That’s not the kind of memory I’m talking about. What’s happening here is an ongoing political struggle.”
The events of apartheid are still recent enough to be fresh in the minds of living South Africans. Nonetheless, Rieff says, they will not be remembered forever.
“South Africans right now are thinking about [the Soweto uprising in] 1976,” says Rieff. “But nobody here can remember 1576 and the truth is, 500 years from now, are people going to remember 1976? Maybe yes; maybe no. If they do, they’ll have reinterpreted it 17 times.”
Rieff is at pains to stress that he views the question of forgetting as separate from the question of forgiveness. “I don’t think it’s possible to forgive certain things,” he says, which is why he views the nation-building aspirations attached to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as unrealistic.
“I do think that, within the fullness of time, things can be less painful. If you think of the death of someone you love, the longer it is from the event, the easier it is to bear. That’s human nature. It might be nice if it weren’t like that. But the truth is that if you don’t kill yourself in the first year, you’re unlikely to do so in the seventh.”
Rieff knows what he’s talking about. In 2008, he published a book about the death of his mother from cancer, titled Swimming in a Sea of Death. It attracted a great deal of attention, because Rieff’s mother was one of the most influential Western thinkers of the 20th century: intellectual and writer Susan Sontag. Despite having what he characterises in that book as a “strained and at times very difficult” relationship with Sontag, Rieff reluctantly colluded with his mother in her refusal to admit that she was dying.
Now 63, Rieff is the product of Sontag’s youthful marriage to famed sociologist Philip Rieff. As someone who spent 20 years reporting from refugee camps and war zones, his is a pessimistic sensibility, as he openly concedes.
“The world is a slaughterhouse,” Rieff says matter-of-factly.
Part of his past work has focused on immigration. What is his take on the result of the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union?
“I find the indignation and desire to brand this all as a kind of fascist response to multiculturalism or multiracial Britain – I think it’s cheap and doesn’t take into account a lot of the story,” he says. “I think the EU is such a disgrace. It has shown itself to be an engine for the banks and for the worst kind of globalisation. I think that’s also relevant. You couldn’t have had the kind of victory you did if people respected the EU.
“Yeah, there’s racism, there’s islamophobia, but there’s also the fact that the EU is the antithesis of what it claims to be … I don’t know how I would have voted, to be perfectly candid.”
Another issue that Rieff has been following attentively is the debate about the removal of statues and road names commemorating problematic historical figures. As you’d expect from someone who rejects the idea that remembering the past is an inherently worthwhile practice, Rieff was in favour of the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town campus.
“I’m always struck by the considerable bad faith and intellectual confusion on the part of those who object,” he says. When it comes to the issue of name changes, Rieff says, we all concur that some names should be changed.
“People wouldn’t say that after Stalin fell, Soviet leaders weren’t right to change the name of Stalingrad,” Rieff says. “Everybody agrees with the principle that certain names are unacceptable.”
He suggests that the key is to view the issue on a case-by-case basis. To change the name of Rhodes University would be “commonsensical”, he says.
“People want to memorialise struggles, victories, heroes,” Rieff says. “These things are going to happen. I just think people should understand what they’re doing. These are statements about the present, not about the past.”