April 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Against Remembrance’ by David Rieff

By Maria Tumarkin
'Against Remembrance' By David Rieff, Melbourne University Press, 144pp; $19.99

In the last decade of the twentieth century American journalist David Rieff was in Bosnia covering the war. His mother, the late Susan Sontag, was there as well, staging Waiting for Godot in the second year of Sarajevo’s 1395-day siege. (A square in the city’s centre is now named after Sontag; nothing so far for Rieff.) Bosnia was not the only terrible and dark place Rieff came to know. He saw Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo and the Middle East (the perpetual staple of reporters). But it was Bosnia that got to him and changed him. It changed Sontag, too.

Bosnia broke Rieff’s heart and radicalised him, his exasperation with the ideals of western humanitarianism – an alibi for doing nothing – exploding in books such as Slaughterhouse (1995) and A Bed for the Night (2002). Bosnia also “poisoned forever the idea of remembrance” – or, more specifically, the West’s insistence on remembrance as both a moral duty and an unquestionable good. It turned Rieff into a memory sceptic.

“That memory is a species of morality,” Rieff writes now, “is one of the more unassailable pieties of the age.” Buried in this piety is a fundamental forgetting of what memory can and cannot do. “Auschwitz,” he notes, “does not inoculate us against East Pakistan, East Pakistan against Cambodia, Cambodia against Rwanda.” To remember these and other moral catastrophes is to remember how little remembering does to change who we are and what we are capable of.

And it is not just a question of memory’s statute of limitations. Memory – our “inability to forget” – can be “actively dangerous”. Rieff looks to Ireland, the United States, Australia and others, turning up example after example of historical memory being spliced into slogans and battle cries, minced into competing martyrologies, calcified into ideology. The problem, he concludes, is structural.

If, in this new book, Rieff is eager to pounce on “the moral free pass that remembrance is usually accorded”, if he does not, for a moment, buy George Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, it is because his eyes saw what they saw and his heart felt what it felt in all those war zones. How to reconcile all that with the sacrosanct place memory holds in the other worlds Rieff inhabits – as a writer, a thinker, an American, a Jew?

The problem with going really hard in a really short book (and Rieff is going hard and this is a short book) is that you end up marshalling evidence rather than examining it, harvesting examples rather than peering into them as if into an abyss, in the hope of a glimmer of understanding. The problem with employing a strictly polemical key to write against the tide (and Rieff is certainly doing that, too) is that you may occasionally end up swimming in a sea of your own triteness until what you are left with – no matter how well written, how impassioned, how intellectually far-reaching – is not a book so much as a pamphlet.

Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin is a writer and historian who teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne. Her books include Otherland, Courage and Traumascapes.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Inside the pillbox

Bullying in the workplace

Triumph of the kill

Susanne Bier’s ‘In a Better World’ and Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Incendies’

Former Labor leader Mark Latham turned reporter for '60 Minutes', 2010. © Gary Ramage / Newspix / News Limited

The ALP afterlife

Hans Keilson. © Martin Spieles / S Fischer Verlag

Case histories

Hans Keilson’s ‘The Death of the Adversary’ and ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’


More in Arts & Letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality