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I write in defense of memory. Not Memory in her gaudy mythological form, the Titan goddess Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses—but memory as the glue that holds our lives together and imposes order and continuity amid the blooming buzzing confusion of sensations, thoughts, and activities that stream in upon our days. It is no exaggeration to say that a working memory is indispensable in the flourishing of the human person and of human culture.

Of course I recognize the maddening imperfections of memory: its unreliability, its failures, its deceptions, its panderings, its whispering seductions, its stealthy editing of experience for personal benefit—and its penchant for cruel taunts, for hurling self-condemnations at us without warning, for keeping us awake at night as we cling to any distraction to avoid an encounter with the rebuke of our own recollections. Memory can be a reservoir of joy, a treasury in times of woe. It can also be a source of woe, of remorse and regret that will not go away, steady work for the psychiatric profession. Whether in joy or in woe, memory maintains a shifty relationship to the truth, and like a shady accountant may maintain separate sets of books on the same account.

All these things are true of memory. And yet we cannot do without it. It is “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own,” as Touchstone declares in As You Like It. Well said, and even a one-sentence summation of my argument. For our very humanity is bound up in the inescapable fact of our memory’s vagaries and imperfections, all of which are inseparable from the fact that it is, and must be, our own.

A long time ago, at the beginning of my graduate studies in history at Johns ­Hopkins University, I read the philosopher George Santayana for the first time. We all know Santayana for a famous saying, frequently misrendered: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a favorite adage of op-ed sages. But I had never seen it rendered as it ­originally appeared, in Santayana’s book Reason in Common Sense:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

Santayana was not concerned here with the putative “lessons of history,” about whose precise contents he was always skeptical and circumspect. He was speaking of something more fundamental, more elemental, more anthropological. He was designating memory as a central precondition for a mature, civilized way of life—a subject about which he knew a great deal.

A second passage from Santayana was more startling, at least to me. Here I was at Johns Hopkins, an institution that prided itself on being the model of the modern research university in the United States, an institution dedicated not to the placid ideal of cultural conservation but to inquiry, to the remorseless supplanting of traditional learning with ever more incisive and disruptive scientific knowledge, including the relentless rethinking and reinterpretation of the past. So imagine my shock when I came across this passage:

It is one of the foibles of romanticism to insist on rewriting history and perpetually publishing new views without new matter. Can we know more about the past than its memorials transmit to us? Evidently we cannot know more; in point of truth concerning human history, any tradition is better than any reconstruction. A tradition may be a ruin, broken unrecognizably, or shabbily built over in a jungle of accretions, yet it always retains some nucleus of antiquity; whereas a reconstruction . . . is something fundamentally arbitrary, created by personal fancy, and modern from top to bottom. Such a substitution is no mere mistake; it is a voluntary delusion which romantic egotism positively craves: to rebuild the truth nearer the heart’s desire.

It was a shocking statement, a repudiation of everything Johns Hopkins University stood for. Historical revisionism a “foible of romanticism” and a “delusion”! What chutzpah!

But it also made me think. “Any tradition is better than any reconstruction”; “a reconstruction is something modern from top to bottom.” These two sayings seemed to contain an element of truth. The flames of memory, kept alight in culture, embodied in custom, passed along in tradition, ruins, relics, rituals: These have their own reason for being, their own insights, their own right to our respect, a right that cannot be abrogated in the effort to cast history as a science. We are human beings, subjects as well as objects. If Santayana was right, memory, too, had its claims, as the foundation of our ­Lebenswelt, of the world not as science describes it but as it is given to us, the human world we inherit and experience. Maybe these claims were not absolute, but they appeared to be durable.

Consider memory from a less philosophical angle. Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps the most dreaded affliction of our time. By robbing its victims of their memories, it robs them of their identity, their sense of who and what they are. Too many of us have had the unsettling experience of looking into the eyes of a loved one and being unsure whether the person we once knew so well is still there behind the eyes, whether he remembers who he is, or recognizes who we are, whether he still participates in the relationship that has subsisted between us. Without memory, he slips away from us, from himself, and from our shared world, into a fog of unknowing, a darkness inaccessible. We see the importance of memory by seeing what happens to us when it goes away.

Or consider an exquisite poem by my friend ­Dana Gioia. I love this poem for many reasons, not least because it addresses a subject that is almost entirely missing from verse and popular song.

Marriage of Many Years
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

Everyone has heard Tolstoy’s saying that all happy families are the same. But he was quite mistaken about that. Every intimate patois, every set of tribal dances, is different; each defies translation into something else; each is a hortus conclusus, its own garden enclosed. No general algebra or Esperanto can encompass this kind of thing.

What is described here is a very intimate memory-­world, the Lebenswelt of a couple, “our tribe of two,” against whose union the peeping-­Tom intrusions of “reality”—the nattering, cynical voice declaring “he isn’t that handsome, she isn’t that pretty”—seem irrelevant, since they are not expressed in the wordless language that, Gioia tells us, is learned by heart. (Why is it that we say that memorized things are learned by heart, rather than by head?)

Families, too, accumulate such lore, mental scrapbooks of sayings, stories, adages, puns, ­snatches of TV shows and song lyrics and advertising jingles, forming a household patois, also learned by heart, also generally inaccessible to outsiders, sometimes even spouses-in-law. As the saying goes, you had to be there.

And the intimate patois will vanish with its native speakers. Sometimes it vanishes prematurely, when one of the natives in a couple is gone, through death or divorce or dementia. The loss is incalculable, since the memory fades or hardens when the means of expressing it have vanished, or when it becomes too painful to recall. A language of one cannot last; once the possibility of conversation goes, its color and suppleness go with it, and soon it becomes no language at all.

Can we discuss larger collectives in similar terms? What is true for individuals or couples or families is true also, in a different way, for nations and peoples. What memory is for individuals, history is for civilizations; and without the reference points provided by a broadly shared historical consciousness, we soon forget who we are, and we perish. A culture without memory will be barbarous, as Santayana said, and easily tyrannized over. Daily events will occupy all our attention and defeat our efforts to connect past, present, and future. They divert us from an understanding of the human things that unfold in time, including the paths of our own lives. It is a different fog of unknowing than that of the Alzheimer’s sufferer, though one that sounds a lot like the mental state of children, or of all too ­many adults in the distraction-filled world we inhabit today. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to a life of aimlessness masquerading as progress.

Yet there are crucial differences. No one can be blamed for contracting Alzheimer’s disease, an organic condition whose causes we do not fully understand. But the American people can be blamed if we abandon the requirement to know our own past, and if we fail to pass on that knowledge to the rising generations. We will be responsible for our own decline. And our society has come dangerously close to this very state. Small wonder so many young Americans now arrive at adulthood without a sense of membership in a society whose story is one of the greatest enterprises in human history. That this should be so is a tragedy. It is also a crime, the squandering of a rightful inheritance.

The fear that we Americans might lose our national soul by forgetting who we are and where we came from is not new. Abraham Lincoln had the same fear, even as a young man. His 1838 Lyceum Address, the first of his great speeches, lamented the possibility that the great achievement of 1776 was being betrayed in the nation’s descent into ­violence and lawlessness. Fears of such a possibility have been perennial, arising anew in each generation of our republic.

In our time, the problem takes the form of a ­paradox: Though we “know” more and more about the American past, thanks to the labors of specialized professional historians, we know less, because we fail to grasp the overarching meaning of our history, a meaning that would impart coherence to the way we live together. We lack a perspective that would put the great achievements of American history in their proper light, properly weighed against failings and shortcomings, and taking into account the contrast between the dispiriting brutality of most of human history, and the astonishing prosperity and freedom and potentiality of our own. We lack a shared sense of the exceptional character of our pioneering experiment in self-rule—a reminder not only of our great good fortune in this land, but also of the great responsibilities that our good fortune entails.

So how to begin repairing the damage done by the neglect of our history, and counteracting the sins of commission and omission that have deprived us of our legacy, our shared ­memory?

First, we must face up to the depth of the problem, which goes far beyond bad schooling and an unhealthy popular culture, important as those factors are. The bullying and censorious combination of Jacobinism, Maoism, and secular Puritanism, which has taken possession of our intellectual elite, did not arise out of nowhere. It has been coming for a long, long time. The agenda of late modernity has turned into a steady assault on the claims of memory, grounded in the conviction that the past has nothing to teach the present, and that wherever the past is inharmonious with the desiderata of the present moment, it can and must undergo a thorough erasure and reconstruction. Living as we do in the age of ultimate moral truth, we are obliged to take command of the past as well as the present, in order to forge a future of pure justice and pure equity. We cannot permit our souls to be made impure by the existence of bad examples in our world. They must be removed from our sight. All statues erected to imperfect heroes of the past must come down immediately.

The imperious quality of these demands bespeaks a commitment to the uncontested primacy of the will, the will of those now living, and their sovereign right to impose whatever standards they want on the people and conditions and memories of the past. The watchword is the saying of ­William Blake: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” Such words recall ­Santayana’s description of that “voluntary delusion which romantic egotism positively craves: to rebuild the truth nearer the heart’s desire.” Edmund Burke’s fancy that society should be understood as a contract among the living, the dead, and those yet to be born has proved no match for the hard wheels of Blake’s cart.

Nor should we be surprised that the assault extends to the bones of the living, and to what were once regarded as fixities of our natural endowment, including formerly unassailable facts ­relating to sex and marriage and maternity. All now must give way to the imperial will, which has the right to alter and redefine anything it likes in the name of autonomy and agency—and require the rest of us to speak of these things in the newly ­prescribed manner, with no quarter given to memory, custom, or any such disposable things.

This ever-grinding machine of destruction and reconstruction makes it difficult to commemorate anything that is more than a few years old, including events of great public moment, as we saw recently with the anemic and aimless twentieth-year observance of September 11th. The whole proposition of memorializing past events and persons, particularly those whose lives and deeds are entwined with the nation-state, has been called into question by the prevailing ethos, which cares nothing for the authority of the past and frowns on anything that smacks of hero worship or filial piety.

That ethos is epitomized in the burgeoning academic study of “memory,” which denotes in this context not the faculty of individual recall, but widely held popular understandings of the past—particularly those that revolve around the nation-state. “Memory” designates the history we all share, which is why monuments and other instruments of national commemoration are especially important in serving as expressions and embodiments of it. It is not hard to see that the systematic problematizing of memory—the insistence on subjecting it to endless rounds of interrogation and suspicion, aiming at the destabilization of meaning while producing endless new topics for academic seminar papers—is likely to produce impassable obstacles to the effective commemoration of any aspect of the past.

Conscientious historians have always engaged in the debunking of popular misrenderings of the past, and such debunking is often warranted and an important public service. But “memory studies” tends to carry the matter much further, treating collective memory as a construction of reality rather than a more or less accurate reflection of it. Scholars in the field examine memory with a highly political eye, viewing nearly all claims for tradition or a heroic past as flimsy artifices designed to serve the interests of dominant c­­lasses and individuals, and otherwise tending to reflect the class, gender, and power relations in which those individuals are embedded. Memory, wrote historian John Gillis, has “no existence beyond our politics, our social relations, and our histories.” He added: “We have no alternative but to construct new memories as well as new identities better suited to the complexities of a post-national era.”

Although any collective entity can be subjected to this kind of deconstructive analysis, the chief target, as Gillis’s words imply, is the modern ­nation-state, with its anthems, stories, histories, emblems, symbols, rituals, monuments, and other elements of civil religion. The modern nation-state clothes itself in this finery, it is argued, in order to shroud its origins in mystique and surround itself with an aura of reality that commands the loyalties of its subjects. But its day is passing, or so scholars in the field seem to believe, and they generally feel it incumbent upon themselves to hasten its passing. Hence Gillis’s admonition that “we”—one assumes he means professional historians—have “no alternative but to construct new memories” more suitable to a “post-national” era. The iconoclasm of the 1960s, Gillis observed in 1994, “has been remarkably successful in desacralizing the nation-state, but the struggle is not yet over.” In constructing “new memories,” Gillis asserts, “we must take responsibility for their uses and abuses, recognizing that every assertion of identity involves a choice that affects not just ourselves but others.”

The ambition is staggering. This agenda is nothing less than the Jacobin one: to take control of the public memory and serve as judge of its moral acceptability. Is there a difference between this and the naked propagandizing of totalitarian countries? None that I can see.

And yet it is hard to regard the­ ­self-conscious creation of such “new memories” as very plausible. The programmatic skepticism that is unleashed when we profess the total constructedness of the past is hard to keep contained, and it tends to infect even one’s preferred normative myths, such as the ideal of an irresistible ­post-national future. Moreover, it is hard to be credulous toward something one has fashioned with one’s own hands. We have to think back to the biblical account of the Golden Calf to find an example of people’s sacrificing themselves for something they knew they had made for themselves—and that episode did not turn out well. But what we can say without hesitation is that this outlook—skeptical of all past constructions of history, eager to substitute “better” constructions of our own devising—makes the creation of new monuments and commemorations much more difficult than it ever has been before.

Part of the problem is inherent in the nature of modern historiography, which stands in a completely different relationship to the past than does memory. In his classic book Zakhor, a study of the peculiarly intense tension between memory and history in Jewish life, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi makes this very point. Zakhor is the biblical verb of admonition: “Remember!” But just what is one to remember? Although himself a modern historian, Yerushalmi insists that “historiography is but one expression of the awareness that history is meaningful and of the need to remember, and neither meaning nor memory ultimately depend upon it.” Yet he also argues that with the advent of modern historiography, the coherence of that Jewish tradition has been broken down. The very assumption upon which the entire tradition of meaning and memory was erected, “the belief that divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history,” must be denied. Thus modern Jewish historiography, he argues, has the ironic effect of disintegrating the very object of its interest. It is, he concludes, a ­peculiarly modern dilemma.

Again, Santayana’s statement may be recalled: “A reconstruction . . . is something fundamentally arbitrary, created by personal fancy, and modern from top to bottom.” A carefully curated and professionally certified reconstruction of public memory bears the same relationship to anything real and living that Disneyland does to an actual town. There is no past, and nothing worth remembering about it, when reality is reconstructed in the image of the present. Far better is the older view that the past is another country; that is the only way the past can be allowed to broaden us, and teach us things we don’t already know. When the past is a prisoner of the present, the present is a prisoner to itself. Which is why Yerushalmi concludes that “historiography . . . cannot be a substitute for collective memory,” nor is it likely to create “an alternative tradition that is capable of being shared.”

None of this is to deny the trickiness of memory. But memory’s vices are hard to separate from its virtues. Memory is most powerful when it is purposeful and selective. It requires that we possess stories and narratives that link facts in ways that provide a principle of selection—a way of knowing which facts are worth attending to. Without such patterns, facts are unremembered, or arrange themselves ­haphazardly—and the past takes on the dismal form captured so memorably by the adage, variously attributed, that history is “one damned thing after another.”

A compelling illustration is recounted in David Shenk’s fine book The Forgetting, which is not only a luminous study of Alzheimer’s disease but a sustained meditation on the meaning of memory, and thereby of history.

Shenk recounts the case study of a man whom psychologists call S—a Russian journalist who “­remembered virtually every detail of sight and sound that he had come into contact with in his entire life.” There seemed to be no limit to the number of details S could recall. He could memorize lengthy tables of random numbers in an instant, and recall them perfectly for decades afterward.

And yet, Shenk adds, “he understood almost nothing,” because he could not “make meaning out of what he saw.” When presented with tables of numbers placed in a deliberate and obvious pattern, such as a standard ordinal sequence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), he couldn’t make out the pattern. He couldn’t understand poetry or the law, couldn’t even remember people’s faces, because facial expressions are changeable, and he was unable to generalize the differences into a stable identity. S, then, “was not so much gifted with the ability to remember everything as he was cursed with the inability to forget detail and form more general impressions. He ­recorded only information, and was bereft of the essential ability to draw meaning out of events.” For S, life was indeed “one damned thing after ­another.”

What makes for intelligent and insightful memory is not the capacity for massive retention, but a balance in the economy of remembering and forgetting. In other words, memory thins out the trees so that forests may be made out. Memory is selective by nature, and its selectivity is essential to the mind’s quest for rational order.

This selectivity is reflected in the etymology of the Greek logos, sometimes translated “account” or “argument,” which derives from the verb legein, “to select.” To give a rational, coherent, useful, and true account of something, one must select certain details to emphasize and leave the others out. We remember the things that fit a template of meaning and point to a larger whole. We fail to retain the details that have no connection to anything of abiding concern.

Remembering, then, requires forgetting—not merely as an inefficiency, but as a selectivity that is essential, and different from the reconstructionist’s purges. Forgetting can take many forms. Sometimes it is necessary; sometimes it is beneficial; sometimes it is self-­deceiving; sometimes it means only that the silent artillery of time has done its work, and everything else has moved on. In his brilliant book In Praise of Forgetting, David Rieff explores the ways in which the cultivation of memory may perpetuate and exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. We are required, Rieff says, to “weigh the human need for remembrance against remembrance’s dangers,” and as a journalist who covered the Bosnian War, a conflict fueled by overly long memories, he knew whereof he spoke.

His observation cut against some conventional wisdom about America as a land free of the curse of memory. Goethe envied America for that ­reason:

America, you are better off
Than our ancient continent.
You have no tumbledown castles
And no basalt deposits.
Your inner lives are not disturbed by
Useless memories and vain strife.

But Goethe was mistaken. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson recorded an extraordinary speech given in October 1774 by a Mingo Indian leader whom the white settlers called Logan. The speech recounts the abuses and betrayals suffered by Logan and his people, including the murder of his entire family. Logan’s dignified and remarkably restrained words make for convicting and soul-searching reading, and it is hard to improve on the response to them by the historian Wilcomb Washburn, whose remarks seem almost aimed at Goethe: “The American may not have a material past of castles and monuments, but he has a psychological past of wrongs committed and not expiated. The recency of those wrongs gives our emotional past greater strength.”

The evidence is all around us today. The weight of our imperfect history lies heavy upon us. Remembrance is necessary, but so, too, is forgiveness. We cannot live without both, and they cannot exist for long apart from each other. Our future as a nation, as a people, depends on our learning to do both things, our learning to remember rightly. Remembering rightly is harder than ever in our morally panicked, militantly secular, and increasingly post-Christian world. The phenomenon we call “wokeness” is a monomaniacal preoccupation with the detection and punishment of moral fault, past and present, which does not permit forgiving or forgetting, does not tolerate the foibles and inconsistencies and blindnesses to which all of us are prone. It also, like all such domineering moralisms, soon becomes a vehicle for the cynical and remorseless manipulation of conscience by people interested only in power.

It wishes to forbid the simple human act of remembrance—remembrance not in order to moralize, to judge, to dissect, to place our forebears on trial (or somebody else’s forebears), or to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, but remembrance simply in joy, in sadness, in regret, in amusement, in anger, in disappointment, taking the patois and tribal dances on their own terms. The thing as remembered is so very different from the thing as experienced. Think of our childhood memories, precious and subtle and distilled for us now in a way that they could not possibly have been for us in the moment when we experienced them. All our experience undergoes this transfiguration as our memory refines it; it is one of the glories of human existence.

And yet we are rendering ourselves unable to enjoy such things, unless some moral ­criterion is first met. That inability arises, I fear, from guilt-haunted hearts that are unable to forgive themselves for the sin of being human and cannot bear their guilt except by projecting it onto others. The rest of us should firmly refuse that projection and recognize this post-Christian tyranny for what it is.

Around the time I first encountered ­Santayana, I came across another challenge to the career on which I had embarked. It was a long, florid, impressively learned, somewhat pretentious, quite unforgettable article by the literary scholar George Steiner, called “The Archives of Eden.” The article was a tirade against the ­shallowness of American culture, and it made me ­furious. But it also made me think. Steiner argued that though American scholarship was flourishing by any quantitative measure, the new knowledge was sitting on shelves, gathering dust, strangely detached from American cultural life. More than by this thesis—familiar enough from Emerson, Nietzsche, and Santayana—I was struck by this passage:

The KGB and the serious writer are in total accord when both know, when both act on the knowledge that a sonnet . . . a novel, a scene from a play can be the power-house of human affairs, that there is nothing more charged with the detonators of dreams and action than the word, particularly the word known by heart. (It is striking and perfectly consequent that America, the final archive, should also be the land whose schooling has all but eradicated memorization. In the microfiche, the poem lies embalmed; recited inwardly, it is terribly alive.) (My emphasis.)

The power of memorization lies in the fact that the poem, or prayer, or speech that is committed to memory becomes one’s own, alive in one’s mind and spirit. It is not like those Amazon e-books that can be vaporized on corporate leadership’s whim. It is ours, more fully than the books on our shelf. When they are shared by heart by many, poems and songs and speeches begin to form the soul of a people. This is why we need to pay more attention to what we are putting into our memories, and those of our children.

The limitations of memory remain. But rather than disparaging memory, let us conclude with the exuberant words of Augustine, one of the greatest analysts of memory, who described

coming into the field and spacious palaces of my memory, where are treasures of countless images of things of every manner, brought there from objects perceived by sense. . . . Even when I dwell in darkness and silence, I bring forth colors in my memory. . . . These acts I perform within myself in the vast court of my memory. Within it are present to me sky, earth, and sea, together with all things that I could perceive in them. . . . There, too, I encounter myself and recall myself.

And so might we. Especially if we begin to remember the right things, and remember them together, we, too, may encounter and recall ourselves. And we may change the ways we now live together as a people. Which is something we know we must find a way to do, and do it soon.

Wilfred M. McClay holds the Victor Davis Hanson Chair in Classical History and Western Civilization at Hillsdale College. This essay was delivered as the 34th Erasmus Lecture.

Image by Alex Berger via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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