“Once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember,” James Young writes. I believe him. I believe that we live in a crisis of criticism because we have built up these great ideas, theories and conceptions about the world without truly reconciling ourselves to our past. In fact, many of these grand ideas are an effort to forget the past for very temporary, but contemporary, purposes. As a result, even though the past is the soil from where these ideas and frameworks have come from the soil is drifting away. To jump unapologetically and, arguably, incongruously to another metaphor these ideas are citadels of the mind. Like citadels today they are simply elaborate memorials of an age that, we assume incorrectly, has no meaning to us now. We have let remembrance become a thing of the past rather than a legitimate reminder of it.
I look at what some call political correctness. Tony Judt has a great experience in the matter.
“In Nice today, for example, the main shopping street has been relabeled with a plaque reading “Avengueda Jouan Medecin. Consou de Nissa 1928-1965.” This is a politically correct attempt, in the French context, to remind passerby that the local inhabitants once spoke an Italianate Provencal patois and to invoke on behalf of the city’s distinctive identity the memory of that language. But Jean Medecin, the mayor of Nice between 1928 and 1965, had no particular interest in local dialects or customs, did not use the old Nicois form of his name or title, and was as French, and French-speaking, as they come–as were most of his constituents in his day. This one instance can stand for many where a false past had been substituted for the real one for very present-minded reasons; here, at least, the historian can help set memory back on its feet.”
I look into my own life and I experience instances that are casual, unremarkable and–with those two adjectives in mind–horrifyingly banal. I live, for a few months longer at any rate, near a reservation for Native Americans. In an interesting pique of disagreeableness they have begun an elaborate process of identifying ‘burial grounds’ near and around their reservation. Knowledgeable opinion is fragmented on the why. Some believe it is to abrogate or somehow encourage the ending of leases the tribe undertook many years ago. Others believe it is an attempt to somehow limit the ability of the local and state government to nix potential building plans. If it is decided that the burrowing owl or fringe-toed lizard can be displaced on account of a proper homage to the dead then the principle behind preventing development of the land is moot. It’s a much shorter jump from cemetery to, say, a parking garage than from an endangered species’ habitat.
The point being, the idea behind any ‘burial ground’ for these particular Native Americans is nonsense. They were nomads, historically, and like most Californian Indians they had no real permanent locations (or even seasonal ones). In a very real sense, specially if we have an eye on our government’s treatment of these tribes, all of California is an ‘Indian burial ground.’ Time will tell what happens and, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, so it goes. Political correctness in the American context bits a little bit further into the core of American ‘authenticity.’
But what I pull from it is not, perhaps, morality being subsumed to economic efficacy. The issue I have is how so many have let their monumental conceptions about the world erase so many details about this particular event so it can continue to fit their preconceptions. The burial grounds are there, it is argued, because to believe otherwise would be an insult to Native American culture. Tangible evidence and the details of the situation ride shotgun to ‘more important’ concerns. To consider anything else would be a form, another instance in a long lineage of tragedies, of cultural imperialism just like, well, pick your example. It is an autofill statement.
I find myself doing the same thing. I have a rule, a (capital-B) Belief. It was made, at one point, out of the past. Past decisions, experiences and thoughts provided this Belief. Those past accidents, for that’s what they were, are now forgotten because by making my rule, my monument, I have “divested” myself from “the obligation to remember.” I have my reasons. They may not be good ones, or they may be good ones. I have no idea. Too often, and I’m not alone in this, the details of ‘the now’ have ceased to matter because they rely on a past that I no longer remember or feel a compulsion to learn about. The best sort of facts, the inconvinient ones, are rubbed out of existence.
Sometimes this dynamic can prove Arendt’s quip that “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” To evaluate the statement’s true value take a look at the ultimate holders of all the answers: midcentury progressives, especially those who had taken ahold of communism as a legitimate explanation of the world’s functions. As Sartre aptly summarized, Marxism was “an instrument that made it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.” Or, perhaps more simply, the ironically titled book by former communist Leszek Kolakowski ‘My Correct Views on Everything.’ It is an autobiographical composite of his life and intellectual views with an added emphasis on the unfalseability of anything he said, wrote or believed as long as it was properly imbued with the absoluteness of Marxist orthodoxy. What strikes me and other readers is how dramatically reality adapted to fit the opinion.
Since we’re on the subject, I’d recommend the Commissar Vanishes by David King. It is the logical conclusion of this sort of ‘meta’ or theoretical thinking taken to the extreme.
With only the slightest rearranging can’t you see, dear reader, these criticisms redirected to our own modern times? It’s fascinating but also instructive. Their tone was not disciplinarian but it would be helpful if they adopted such a tone. Events cannot be shoehorned to fit our conceptions about class, gender or politics. People certainly cannot. Too often they are, just take a peak at Jezebel. It’s tragic but it is avoidable. If there is anything that I hope, personally, that I can do it is to hold myself to this simple standard: approach every situation exactly like it should be, approach it uniquely.