History, Memory, and Forgetting Part 2: Forgetting and the Limits of Defamiliarization

“We cross our bridges when we come to them, and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

In my first year at Memorial, I taught one of our first-year fiction courses. I ended the term with Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow—a narrative told from the perspective of a parasitic consciousness that experiences time backwards. The person to whom the consciousness is attached turns out to be a Nazi war criminal hiding in America, who was a physician working with Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz. Just as we get back there, after seeing this man’s life played in reverse to the bafflement of our narrator, the novel promises that things will start to make sense … now. And indeed, the conceit of Amis’ novel is that the Holocaust can only make sense if played in reverse. Then, it is not the extermination of a people, but an act of benevolent creation—in which ashes and smoke are called down out of the sky into the chimneys of Auschwitz’s ovens and formed into naked, inert bodies. These bodies then have life breathed into them, are clothed, and sent out into the world. “We were creating a race of people,” the narrative consciousness says in wonder.

Time’s Arrow, I told my class, is an exercise of defamiliarization: it wants to resist us becoming inured to the oft-repeated story of the Holocaust, and so requires us to view it from a different perspective. Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful, I added, worked to much the same end, by (mostly) leaving the explicit brutalities of the Holocaust offstage (as it were), as a father clowns his way through the horror in order to spare his son the reality of their circumstances. As I spoke, however, and looked around the classroom at my students’ uncomprehending expressions, I felt a dread settle in my stomach. Breaking off from my prepared lecture notes, I asked the class: OK, be honest here—what can you tell me about the Holocaust?

As it turned out, not much. They knew it happened in World War II? And the Germans were the bad guys? And the Jews didn’t come out of it well …? (I’m honestly not exaggerating here). I glanced at my notes, and put them aside—my lecture had been predicated on the assumption that my students would have a substantive understanding of the Holocaust. This was not, to my mind, an unreasonable assumption—I had grown up learning about it in school by way of books like Elie Wiesel’s Night, but also seeing movies depicting its horrors. But perhaps I misremembered: I was from a young age an avid reader of WWII history (and remain so to this day), so I might have assumed your average high school education would have covered these bases in a more thorough manner.[1]

The upshot was that I abandoned my lecture notes and spent the remaining forty minutes of class delivering an off-the-cuff brief history of the Holocaust that left my students looking as if I’d strangled puppies in front of them, and me deeply desiring a hot shower and a stiff drink.

In pretty much every single class I’ve ever taught since, I will reliably harangue my students that they need to read more history. To be fair, I’d probably do that even without having had this particular experience; but I remember thinking of Amis’ brilliant narrative conceit that defamiliarization only works if there has first been familiarization, and it depressed me to think that the passage of time brings with it unfamiliarization—i.e. the memory-holing of crucial history that, previously, was more or less fresh in the collective consciousness. The newfound tolerance for alt-right perspectives and the resurgence of authoritarian and fascist-curious perspectives (to which the Republican Party is currently in thrall) proceeds from a number of causes, but one of them is the erosion of memory that comes with time’s passage. The injunctions against fascism that were so powerful in the decades following WWII, when the memory of the Holocaust was still fresh and both the survivors and the liberators were still ubiquitous, have eroded—those whose first-hand testimonials gave substance to that history have largely passed away. Soon none will remain.

What happens with a novel like Time’s Arrow or a film like Life is Beautiful when you have audiences who are effectively ignorant of the history informing their narrative gambits? Life is Beautiful, not unpredictably, evoked controversy because it was a funny movie about the Holocaust. While it was largely acclaimed by critics, there were a significant number who thought comedy was egregiously inappropriate in a depiction of the Holocaust,[2] as was using the Holocaust as a backdrop for a story focused on a father and his young son. As Italian film critic Paolo Mereghetti observes, “In keeping with Theodor Adorno’s idea that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, critics argued that telling a story of love and hope against the backdrop of the biggest tragedy in modern history trivialized and ultimately denied the essence of the Holocaust.” I understand the spirit of such critiques, given that humour—especially Roberto Benigni’s particular brand of manic clowning—is jarring and dissonant in such a context, but then again, that’s the entire point. The film wants us to feel that dissonance, and to interrogate it. And not for nothing, but for all of the hilarity Benigni generates, the film is among one of the most heartbreaking I’ve seen, as it is about a father’s love and his desperate need to spare his son from the cruel reality of their circumstances. Because we’re so focused on the father’s clownish distractions, we do not witness—except for one haunting and devastating scene—the horrors that surround them.

In this respect, Life is Beautiful is predicated on its audience being aware of those unseen horrors, just as Time’s Arrow is predicated on its readers knowing the fateful trajectory of Jews rounded up and transported in boxcars to their torture and death in the camps, to say nothing of the grotesque medical “experiments” conducted by Mengele. The underlying assumption of such defamiliarization is that an oft-told history such as the Holocaust’s runs the risk of inuring people to its genuinely unthinkable proportions.[3] It is that very unthinkability, fresher in the collective memory several decades ago, that drove Holocaust denial among neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups—because even such blinkered, hateful, ignorant bigots understood that the genocide of six million people was a morally problematic onion in their racial purity ointment.[4]

“I know nothing, I see nothing …”

They say that tragedy plus time begets comedy. It did not take long for Nazis to become clownish figures on one hand—Hogan’s Heroes first aired in 1965, and The Producers was released in 1967—and one-dimensional distillations of evil on the other. It has become something of a self-perpetuating process: Nazis make the best villains because (like racist Southerners, viz. my last post) you don’t need to spend any time explaining why they’re villainous. How many Stephen Spielberg films embody this principle? Think of Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, looking through a window into a room swarming with people in a certain recognizable uniform: “Nazis. I hate these guys.” It’s an inadvertently meta- moment, as well as a throwback to Indy’s other phobia in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” Snakes, Nazis, tomato, tomahto. Though I personally consider that a slander against snakes, the parallel is really about an overdetermined signifier of evil and revulsion, one that functions to erase nuance.

Unfortunately, if tragedy plus time begets comedy, it also begets a certain cultural amnesia when historically-based signifiers become divorced from a substantive understanding of the history they’re referencing. Which is really just a professorial way of saying that the use of such terms as “Nazi” or “fascist,” or comparing people to Hitler has become ubiquitous in a problematic way, especially in the age of social media. Case in point, Godwin’s Law, which was formulated by Michael Godwin in the infancy of the internet (1990). Godwin’s Law declares that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” This tendency has been added to the catalogue of logical fallacies as the “Reduction ad Hitlerum,” which entails “an attempt to invalidate someone else’s position on the basis that the same view was held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party.”

Perhaps the most egregious recent example of this historical signification was Congresswoman and QAnon enthusiast Marjorie Taylor Greene’s comparison of Nancy Pelosi’s decision to continue requiring masks to be worn in the House of Representatives (because so many Republicans have declared their intention to not get vaccinated) to the Nazi law requiring Jews to wear a gold Star of David on their chests. She said, “You know, we can look back at a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star, and they were definitely treated like second class citizens, so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany. And this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.”

To be certain, Greene was roundly condemned by almost everybody, including by many in her own party—even the craven and spineless Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had some stern words for her—but what she said was different not in kind but in degree from the broader practice of alluding to Nazism and the Holocaust in glib and unreflective ways.[5]

Though this tendency is hardly new—Godwin’s Law is thirty-one years old—it has been amplified and exacerbated by social media, to the point where it made it difficult to find terms to usefully describe and define Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. The ubiquity of Nazi allusions has made them necessarily diffuse, and so any attempt to characterize Trumpism as fascist in character could be easily ridiculed as alarmist and hysterical; and to be fair, there were voices crying “fascist!” from the moment he made that initial descent on his golden escalator to announce his candidacy. That those voices proved prescient rather than alarmist doesn’t obviate the fact that they muddied the rhetorical waters.[6] As the contours of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies came into focus, the fascistic qualities of the Trumpian Right became harder and harder to ignore; bizarrely, they’ve become even more clearly delineated since Trump left office, as the republicans still kowtow to the Mar-A-Lago strongman and move to consolidate minoritarian power.

Historians and political philosophers and a host of other thinkers of all stripes will be years in unravelling the historical and cultural strands of Trump’s rise and the previously unthinkable hold that Trumpism has over a stubborn rump of the electorate; but I do think that one of the most basic elements is our distressing tendency toward cultural amnesia. It makes me think we’re less in need of defamiliarizing history than defamiliarizing all the clichés of history that have become this inchoate jumble of floating signifiers, which allow neo-Nazis and white supremacists to refashion themselves as clean cut khaki-clad young men bearing tiki-torches, or to disingenuously euphemize their racism as “Western chauvinism” and meme their way out of accusations of ideological hatefulness—“It’s just about the lulz, dude.”

There is also, as I will discuss in the third of these three posts, the fact that remembering is itself a politically provocative act. On one hand, the diminution in the collective memory of Nazism and the Holocaust has facilitated the re-embracing of its key tropes; on the other, the active process of remembering the depredations of Western imperialism and the myriad ways in which slavery in the U.S. wasn’t incidental to the American experiment but integral gives rise to this backlash that takes refuge in such delusions as the pervasiveness of anti-white racism.

NOTES


[1] To be clear, this is not to castigate my students; as I’ll be expanding on as I go, historical amnesia is hardly limited to a handful of first-year university students in a class I taught fifteen years ago.

[2] One can only speculate on what such critics make of Mel Brooks’ career.

[3] Martin Amis attempts something similar in his 1985 short story collection Einstein’s Monsters, which is about nuclear war. His lengthy introductory essay “Thinkability” (to my mind, the best part of the book) addresses precisely the way in which military jargon euphemizes the scope and scale of a nuclear exchange, precisely to render the unthinkable thinkable. 

And speaking of humour used to defamiliarize horror: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Finally Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, and General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott)’s own “thinkability” regarding the deaths in a nuclear war: “Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, post-war environments: one where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed! … Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.”

[4] Which always rested on a tacit contradiction in their logic: it didn’t happen, but it should have.

[5] We see the same tendency, specifically among conservatives, to depict any attempt at raising taxes or expanding social programs as “socialism,” often raising the spectre of “Soviet Russia”—which is about as coherent as one of my favourite lines from Community, when Britta cries, “It’s just like Stalin back in Russia times!”

[6] I don’t say so to castigate any such voices, nor to suggest that they were premature—the contours of Trump’s authoritarian, nativist style were apparent from before he announced his candidacy to anyone who looked closely enough.

Leave a comment

Filed under maunderings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s