William Faulkner once said, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Antietam Ridge, Bloody Lane, Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge: the scenes of carnage are now quiet parks overseen by mounted commanders frozen in bronze, but they remain alive with memory. One can almost hear the final fading echoes of the soldiers’ yells as men marched into battle as canister torn across open fields. Or so it seemed to me when I was a child, daydreaming at Gettysburg on a sultry summer day while my grandfather was explaining General Meade’s “J hook” formation and discoursed about the finer arts of artillery strategy.
A living past can be a blessing. We are buffeted by fate, and our unruly instincts threaten to disperse us into chaotic desires. The shattering earthquake cares not a wit about you or me, nor do pangs of hunger or sexual desire. From without and within the eroding currents of impersonal Nature constantly press against us.
We need to feel the weight of an accumulated, narrated, memorialized past. It gives us a legacy, a place in the world, a place to stand.
Yet, as Faulkner knew, a living past can be a curse as well. In his novels the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. It’s more than a biblical conceit; it’s a fact of cultural life. Just think of Rwanda, where the horrors of the genocide of 1994 remain very much alive in the memories of men and women who suffered through it. Or perhaps contemporary Germany, where the Nazi past continues to haunt the political imagination of the country. Memory can load us with a terrible burden; the weight of the past can as easily crush and cripple as enliven and ennoble.
The curse has other forms as well. In a series of online columns for World Affairs, The Past as Grievance, David Rieff fixes his attention on the blood feuds kept alive by historical memory, drawing from his experiences as a reporter in the Balkans during the dark years after the break-up of Yugoslavia into ethnic zones that warred against each other. Past oppressions, past humiliations, past deprivations—memory can be a hothouse for grievances that, given a chance, will burst into flames.
Rieff judges historical memory more a curse than a blessing. “The problem with historical memory,” he writes, “as exercised by groups, anyway, is that it tends to be high on grievance and low on forgiveness.” Wounds fester, and the wounded dream of striking back. It would be best simply to forget.
A healthy society needs to let bygones be bygones, but I’m not sanguine about the prospect that many will turn to forgetfulness, as Rieff hopes. It’s not easy to do, certainly not for a society. Even the strenuous efforts that the Stalinist era commissars to air-brush inconvenient elements of the past into oblivion failed, and not surprisingly. The past exercises a tenacious hold on individual minds. We are made to remember.
A more successful strategy is to craft memories that soften our impulses toward grievance and reduce our desire for retribution.
The legacy of the Civil War provides a case study. The battlefields of that long and bloody conflict are marked by monuments devoted to both sides. As a child I was arrested by this fact.
How is it possible that the victors, whose brothers and friends died beside them in charges and counter-charges, ever allowed the enemy to return to the fields of past battles with honor? How did they avoid the very natural impulse to salt the fields of the South and drive Confederate memories into the dark corners and backcountry hollows of a subjugated region? And how is it that Southern veterans refrained from symbolic rebellions, monuments that sounded notes of on-going resistance?
The answer comes from our capacity to shape the past and its power over our historical imaginations. History does not come to us fully formed. It needs our interpretation, our arts of myth making that make history memorable.
In the midst of the struggle, as men were still dying, Abraham Lincoln was wise enough to foresee the end of the struggle and the challenges of memory. In his Second Inaugural Address, he turned his energies to the future, which he knew would threatened by enmity made perpetual as it hardened into a remembered past.
He did not take refuge in forgetfulness. Everyone knew that slavery—the reduction of black men and women to chattels—“was somehow the cause of the war.” But as he evoked the fundamental evil of slavery, Lincoln took a step back from the conflict.
God “gives to both North and South this terrible war,” he wrote, “as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” But slavery was not simply a Southern institution. It had been written into the Constitution by the Founders, he observed, some of whom came from the North, others from the South. This thought, which is itself a historical memory, intrudes and trims the moral pride of the North, allowing Lincoln to draw together the two sides together as a single body of men standing together under the righteous judgment of God. The war, therefore, was something suffered by the nation as a whole—North and South—and because of a deep evil resident in the nation as whole. The memory repairs rather than divides.
There are no failsafe methods for crafting reparative memories. In a note he wrote to himself during the Civil War, Robert E. Lee observed that a true gentleman does not take unnecessary offense. He forgives slights, overlooks harms. “He strives,” Lee writes, “for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past.” Virtue controls memory, refusing to allow enmity and grievance and haughty pride to gain the upper hand.
But—and this is crucial—virtue itself requires memory. Lee was loyal to an old English Cavalier memory, which is why he was chivalrous rather than bitter in defeat. And of course Lincoln drew upon biblical memory, which humbles men’s pride. We won’t have the strength to let the past be but the past unless we marinate ourselves in the nobility of our inheritance. Our best hope is to remember humanely, not to forget.
So go, go to battlefields and memorials and museums. Make personal pilgrimages to old family homes and haunts. Let the past weigh upon you. Sing the national anthem this Fourth of July. Historical memory is something Americans need today, not so much because we have bitter grievances to overcome, but because we lead increasingly uprooted lives that tempt us to think of other memories, other cultures, as phenomena to be managed and manipulated rather than engaged and respected. We need the past and the soul commanding power of the memory in order to be responsible global citizens. For only men and women who know their own place in the world and feel the binding power of memory can resist universalist fantasies that are invariably felt by others as imperial arrogance. As Richard Weaver, a wise steward of memory, once wrote: “There can be no internationalism without a solid, intelligent provincialism.”
R.R. Reno is Senior Editor at First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.