In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies

In This Review

In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies
By David Rieff
Yale University Press, 2016
160 pp.
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In this slender volume bristling with erudition, Rieff wrestles with one of the most explosive forces of modern times: mythologized historical “memories” that encourage people to cultivate old grudges and settle historical scores. The historical memories that bind people into political and cultural communities are, Rieff demonstrates, often inaccurate—less a set of lessons learned from the past than a distillation of a culture’s biases and illusions. And they can have a sinister impact on contemporary politics; Rieff looks at how in the United States, the glamorous myth of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy has served to promote racial polarization and hate since the Reconstruction era. He argues that forgetting even historical crimes on the scale of the Holocaust is ultimately both inevitable and beneficial. It is a shocking idea, and readers may wonder whether the process of forgetting will not be shaped by the same forces of pride and self-interest that distort the process of remembering. Nevertheless, in an age in which the memory of ancient grievances functions too frequently as a pretext for new crimes, Rieff is correct to observe that oblivion has some appeal. 

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