Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a set of stories cum essays which explore the two words in the title. In communist Czechoslovakia, “forgetting” was a political activity. It was the weapon of the totalitarian regime to decide who were the heroes of the nation and who were not. John Updike in his review writes:
The theme of forgetting is masterfully, effortlessly ubiquitous. On the official level, erasure achieves comic effects.
Official forgetting is echoed by the personal struggle of the subjects of so revisable a government to recover lost letters, to remember details that give life emotional continuity.
Forgetting does not happen all alone. You forget something but remember something else. And if there is nothing to remember, you create something to remember.
After reading this book recently, three news stories struck me as new cases of “forgetting”. First there is this concept of double genocide, then there is this celebration from South Carolina and lastly this Leaked US Cable about Vatican‘s attempt to make people forget their role (or lack thereof) during the Holocaust.
To revisit Updike, there are many comic effects. But a bigger point here is that at least in two cases, the “forgetting and selective memory” routine is being practice not just by the regime but by the communities themselves.
In the South Carolina story, people are remembering the joys of being “South Carolinians” and of being “Confederates” and fight for “freedom”:
For many white South Carolinians, the theory of states’ rights and the misinterpretation of the war upon which it was based still holds sway. Charleston’s market hall is now a museum run by the “Daughters of the Confederacy”. It houses a lock of General Robert Lee’s hair and a painting of the confederate president, Jefferson Davis. The word slavery appears in none of the displays. The national flag of the confederacy flies above the museum, with the Stars and Stripes nowhere in sight.
Mark Simpson, commander of the South Carolina branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which sponsored the ball, said the line that the war was fought over slavery was spin, used by detractors of the south to discredit them. “Slavery was an issue, yes, but only because it was the economic lifeblood of the south.”
In the Vatican story, the US diplomat and author of the cable comments:
THE DECISION TO PARTIALLY OPEN THE VATICAN ARCHIVES RELATING TO VATICAN-GERMAN RELATIONS DURING THE LEAD UP TO WORLD WAR II AND DURING THE WAR ITSELF APPEARS TO BE AN ATTEMPT BY THE POPE TO SILENCE ACCUSATIONS OF ANTI- SEMITISM LEVELED AGAINST HIS PREDECESSOR PIUS XII. IT MAY ALSO HERALD RENEWED VATICAN INTEREST IN BEATIFYING PIUS XII – FREE FROM THE PALL OF SCANDAL AND DERISION. THE DECISION BY POPE JOHN PAUL II TO DISPENSE WITH STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES IN THIS CASE COMES AFTER YEARS OF VATICAN PROTESTATIONS THAT THIS MATERIAL COULD NOT BE RELEASED BECAUSE IT WAS NOT YET PROPERLY CATALOGUED. IN ADDITION, THE GENERAL ARGUMENT WAS FORWARDED THAT MUCH ARCHIVAL MATERIAL WAS “SENSITIVE” AND MIGHT EMBARRASS LIVING PERSONS, AND THUS SHOULD NOT BE RELEASED UNTIL AFTER A PROPER PERIOD OF TIME – CURRENTLY 70 YEARS. TODAY’S DECISION SHOWS THAT WHEN THE POPE IS CONCERNED ENOUGH ABOUT CHURCH INTERESTS, HE WILL DO AWAY WITH THE VATICAN’S STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES IN ORDER TO FURTHER THOSE INTERESTS. THE DECISION SHOWS THAT WHATEVER THE POPE WANTS, DOES IN FACT HAPPEN. END COMMENT. NICHOLSON
Clearly, the Pope decided it was time for people to remember that Pope Pius XII was a saint.
And in the double genocide story, there is an attempt to create new meaning
According to Lithuania, whose foreign minister leads the campaign to create a new law, the EU’s understanding of genocide should be extended to include crimes against groups defined by “social status or political convictions”.
(for those wanting to know, the double genocide law states that denial of crimes by totalitarian regimes be treated in the same way as denial of the Holocaust. The Baltic countries along with come of the former communist eastern European countries are proposing this. Most of Europe is divided on this issue. Jews see this as another round of anti-semitism. The Baltic nations did have a high share of Jews killed in the holocaust and most of the camp workers were local volunteers.)
To come back to Milan Kundera, in one of the stories, Mirak the protagonist says:
the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivions