josh rosner


In Book Review on May 16, 2011 at 12:46 am

My review of David Rieff’s new book Against Remembrance, appeared in the Canberra Times recently (7 May 2011). At 133 pages, it’s a small book, but it packs a huge punch. Rieff – son of Susan Sontag – has a particularly interesting thesis here. Although Against Remembrance is mostly a polemic against George Santayana’s injunction that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, Rieff takes the time to deeply explore whether national days of commemoration, such as Anzac Day, serve an important historical function for the nation, or have they been corrupted for political gain?

This is a controversial book. Those who believe the Anzac spirit is what defines us as Australians will hate this book with a vengeance. So be it, I say. As a nation we should stop an ask ourselves why we ‘celebrate’ Anzac Day and what does it, and similar national expressions, say about our collective memory and how it is wielded for political purposes.

For a guy who dropped out of Amherst College and became a vagabond taxi driver in Mexico, Rieff has an outstanding mind which he has used to its full capacity to research and write Against Remembrance. As they saying goes: do yourself a favour and take a look at this book.


Against Remembrance. David Rieff. Melbourne University Press. 133pp. $19.99

David Rieff’s latest book, Against Remembrance, sat on my desk for two weeks before I finally had the time, on Anzac Day, to open it. Barely a few pages into this slim book I immediately regretted the delay.

Rieff has written one of those books that, whether it frustrates you or pleases you, will leave you unable to resist discussing its contents with friends and strangers alike. Given the subject matter – in many ways, Against Remembrance is a polemic against George Santayana’s injunction that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ – it is sure to be controversial.

Anzac Day, I must confess, holds little personal meaning for me. Through a fortunate convergence of events, no member of my family over the past few generations has fought in a war.  I tend also to be one of those people who does not subscribe to the suggestion that my brothers and I were able to play cricket on the street in front of our childhood home because someone who lived before us made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’. I believe the politics of war is far too complex for simple motherhood statements, yet our nation – and many like ours, such as New Zealand and the United States – seems to use remembrance celebrations as a form of national psychotherapeutic self-medication.

Nonetheless, reading Against Remembrance on Anzac Day forced me to reflect upon the differences between memory, remembrance and ceremony and whether national days of commemoration such as Anzac Day serve an important historical function for the nation, or whether have they been corrupted, for political gain, at the expense of a compliant – willing, even – public?

Shakespeare’s king, Henry V, memorably proclaimed that, “Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot/But he’ll remember with advantages/What feats he did that day.” Left to their own devices, Rieff argues, society’s also forget, and not over centuries or longer, but in a surprisingly short period of time.

Historical memory is selective and more often than not self-serving. Rieff argues it has, “led to war rather than peace, rancour rather than reconciliation and the determination to get revenge rather than commit to the hard work of forgiveness.” He cites the experiences of the American South from 1865, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine to effectively support his argument.

His point is that human memory is highly fallible, as any police investigator can attest. Should an individual’s memory fail, though (say, as a result of trauma or disease), it won’t pose a threat to society as a whole. Yet a failure of collective memory is frequently presented as a potentially catastrophic moral or political event, particularly by the two groups who should know better: politicians and journalists.

Rieff is not arguing against ‘less we forget’ or the eradication of collective historical memory. He writes, “In 2010, it still makes not just historical but ethical sense to most people in Australia and New Zealand for them to honour the memory of the dead of Gallipoli, and in doing so (particularly since there are now so many recently arrived immigrants in both countries) to honour their own national sense of belonging,” but he is also right to question the lack of moral imperative to hold services honouring the Battle of Hastings in 1066 or the battles of Sekigahara in 1600, for example.

Despite the importance of those battles in their time, it would be, Rieff argues, “morally absurd” to commemorate them now because “…the historical reach of the imagination, whether backwards or forwards … is limited.”

In his book The Ethics of Memory, Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, who Rieff references, wrote that some ‘moral nightmares’, such as the Holocaust, should be a part of our collective memory because they are, “striking examples of radical evil and crimes against humanity, such as enslavement, deportations of civilian populations, and mass exterminations.” Margalit refers to the tormented memory of the holocaust people such as the Italian writer Primo Levi carried around with them daily. Margalit believes not remembering leaves humanity vulnerable, at least in the sense Santayana meant it.

But, Rieff argues, what if this is wrong? What if the memory of an evil – even an evil as great as the Holocaust – “does nothing to protect society from future instances of radical evil?” After all, there’s a certain resonance to Nietzsche’s assertion that ‘there are no facts, only interpretations’.

Whether or not you subscribe to Rieff’s theory about the importance (or questionable importance, as he sees it) of collective memory, Against Remembrance forces every reader to consider why they believe what they believe about collective memory and historical events. You’ll come out the other side of this book exhausted, and with many unanswered questions, but it’s an experience you’ll be glad for.

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