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.
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