AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Thursday, 27 April 2017


A review...

Blood and memory

Do we have a duty of remembrance to the dead? Galen Strawson is not entirely convinced by Avishai Margalit's The Ethics of Memory

Is there an ethics of memory – do we have obligations to remember people or events from the past? Avishai Margalit takes up the question in memory of his parents, who both lost huge families in the Nazi Holocaust, but had very different views on how to cope. His mother's position was that the Jews were irretrievably destroyed, and that "the only honorable role for the Jews that remain is to form communities of memory - to serve as 'soul candles' like the candles that are ritually kindled in memory of the dead". His father disagreed: "We, the remaining Jews, are not candles. We should create a community that thinks predominantly about the future, not a community that is governed from mass graves."

Should we not at least remember their names? A recurrent anxiety in the Old Testament is that one's name not be "cut off" or blotted out after one's death. Margalit begins his book with the story of a colonel in the Israeli army who, as a junior officer in command of a small unit, lost one of his men to friendly fire. Interviewed after his promotion to colonel, he failed to remember the man's name. There was a flood of outrage. Why wasn't the name of this fallen soldier scorched on his commander's heart?

Memory of the name is not essential, as Margalit says. It is enough that the colonel remembers the man. But names can seem painfully important. Yad Vashem, the memorial sanctuary in Jerusalem dedicated to gathering the names of all Jews murdered by the Nazis, is an idea and a reality of enormous power. In David Edgar's play Pentecost, a group of children are being transported to a concentration camp. Packed in a cattle truck and starving, they are reduced to eating the cardboard nametags tied round their necks. Already lost, now they are lost utterly.

So is there an ethics of memory, a duty of remembrance? Margalit worries the issue from all sides before giving a qualified yes. He doesn't think that memory obligations are inevitable. If you aren't caught up in what he calls "thick" relations, family relations or relations of love or friendship or community, then you may have none at all. But if you are involved in such relations you do have obligations of memory, individual and communal. Remembrance Sunday was not set up just to fulfil a need of the living, or to pass a warning message down the years. There was, quite separately, an obligation to the dead, a duty of commemoration.

It seems right. So why on earth does Margalit say that there is little or no morality of memory? Well, it's a matter of terminology. Like many philosophers, Margalit distinguishes between ethics and morality and more or less reverses their ordinary meanings. Most of us think morality is what governs our thick personal relations (among other things), while ethics, a matter of official committees and rules, covers our impersonal, thin relations. But philosophers switch the terms. For them, ethics is the thick, local, particular, personal stuff. Morality, by contrast, is thin, general, abstract, detached: it's about how you should treat others whoever they are and whether you know them or not.

The Ethics of Memory is highly erratic, but it's also a lovely and often brilliant book. Margalit is, as he says, an illustrator rather than an explicator. He's an "eg philosopher" (one for whom striking examples are crucial) rather than an "ie philosopher" (who prioritises definitions and general principles). His book runs on cases, stories, quotations but, at the same time, there is considerable order and structure. As far as I can see, Margalit's views flow from three central premisses or intuitions: 1) it is care, or caring, that lies at the core of thick relations; 2) memory is the cement that holds thick relations together; and 3) "we dread the idea of dying without leaving a trace".

The first point is exactly right: care is the heart of good personal relations. But I don't think the second two are correct as they stand: I don't think they're true for everyone. I'll take the third point first.

Margalit knows that some deny that they dread the idea of leaving no trace, but he's sure he speaks for many. I think he does, but I think it's a minority. For my own part, I don't give a hoot about leaving a trace. Most people dread dying rather than tracelessness. It's not being forgotten by others that matters, it's eternal future non-existence. That's why the story of an afterlife is so popular. That's why so many people make Dostoevsky's mistake – the mistake of thinking it would be better to shiver on a ledge in hell for all eternity than not to exist at all. (Cf chapter 10 of Julian Barnes's History of the World in 10½ Chapters.)

Suppose you do desperately want to be remembered after death. Fine. How long do you want? Until all those you have known have died? Not enough? How about a million years? Ten million any better? How about until the earth is engulfed by the sun expanding into a red giant? It bothers me when I see 18th-century gravestones in churchyards pulled up and turned into pathways or decoration, because I don't think that's what their owners wanted. But what's the timescale of remembrance? In the end Ecclesiastes is right. In the end there is "no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come amongst those who shall come after".

Margalit opposes Ecclesiastes, claiming that "the project of memory is not vanity of vanities". And it's true that lasting public institutions of commemoration can be a good thing (also a bad thing: see the ruinous Serbian obsession with their defeat in the battle of Kosovo in 1389). But it seems to me that the desire to be personally remembered reveals a confusion about life, a mistake about its point. And it's certainly not a good motive (in fact it's a terrible motive) for behaving in one way rather than another: for being good or kind or working hard.

Margalit speaks of the yearning for personal glory and ties it to the desire to be remembered after death, but I just don't get it. Even if you have the yearning (few do), you don't have to have the desire to be remembered. The desire for posthumous fame seems to me utterly mysterious, as it did to Isaiah Berlin. Why on earth should I care? In the end the issues comes to this: some care and some don't. There is no general human truth.

As for the second point: are actual, explicit memories the cement of thick relations? It sounds attractive, but again I don't think it's generally true. It depends what kind of person you are. Don't worry, reader, if you have a lousy memory, because it doesn't follow that you're no good at thick relations. Michel de Montaigne, famous for his friendship with Etienne de la Boétie, reckoned that he was better at friendship than at anything else, but thought himself ill-equipped to write about memory because "I can find hardly a trace of it in myself; I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!" When asked why their friendship was as it was, he gave the right answer: because it was him, because it was me. Same with love. Nothing to do with memory.

I agree with the radical Earl of Shaftesbury: "The now; the now. Mind this: in this is all." The now doesn't exclude the past because the past shapes and animates the present. The past is alive in the present without being alive as the past, alive in explicit memory – just as a violinist's phrasing flows from her practice sessions without her needing to have any explicit memory of them. I believe this shaping is what matters most; this is the deepest continuance of memory. But this time I expect I'm in the minority.


Source: The Guardian, Saturday 4 January 2003.