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Criticism 46.3 (2004) 499-510

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The Sublime Triplets of Historical Consciousness

University of Arizona
On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and Its Aftermath, by Ernst Breisach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 243. $41.00 cloth, $16.00 paper.
Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History, by Peter Fritzsche. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. 288. $27.95 hardcover.
Déjà vu: Aberrations of Cultural Memory, by Peter Krapp. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Pp. xxviii + 218. $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory, by Dominick LaCapra. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. ix + 274. $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting, by Harald Weinrich. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. vi + 254. $35.00 cloth.

One of my favorite childhood memories revolves around a campfire story written in the early twentieth century, "Tajar Tales." The Tajar is something like a badger, something like a jaguar, and something like a tiger, and he lives in and around the camps that children attend each summer. The Tajar possesses magical qualities: "If you should see him once, you would forget what he looks like. But if you should see him twice, you would forget to forget what he looks like, and that would be quite fatal." The precise form of this fatality is never spelled out, and the children hanging spellbound upon the Tajar's many follies, such as a penchant for dancing in the moonlight in compromising fashion, are left with the admonition that although they may "know" what a tajar is, they may never "see" him. To see is to endanger memory by lapsing into forgetfulness.

Reading this story to my preschooler at bedtime, and concurrently reading the books under review here, enhanced the theme of dangerous memory, the [End Page 499] kind that threatens the existence of a beloved entity. Deliberate forgetting to forget, after all, is the choice made by any historian who cares enough about the past to desire its memory—it is hardly "fatal." Only Friedrich Nietzsche would go so far, in his Untimely Meditations, as to suggest that "monumental" history allows the "dead to bury the living," permitting the folly of fatality to strike at the heart of civilization. Most historians regard the compulsion toward memory as salutary, and forgetting as abomination. With respect to the traumas of the twentieth century, in fact, "never forget" has become a mantra of the sacred nature of memory. What is the lesson of the Tajar? What magical knowledge is lost when we forget to forget?

The relationship between memory and forgetting, between history and the past, is complicated and fraught. The terms do not simply negate each other as opposites, either in antithesis or in dialectical overcoming. For the modern historian and Annaliste Marc Bloch, it follows that "Forgetting is not the opposite of recollection, for its opposite would be complete breakdown, one that no longer concerns anyone, that offers no admonishment, and to which no consideration can lead" (qtd. in Krapp, 63). The existence of forgetting, as epiphenomenon, persists in admonition and caring; it remains connected to ethical relationships such as that between debt and credit, forgiveness and the "unforgiven," as will be explored below. The true opposite of memory would be oblivion, a nothingness that denies memory's Being. As Harald Weinrich's richly detailed survey reminds us, the river Lethe figured in Greek mythology as the place where forgetfulness found its shape, because true oblivion literally transcended expression. The river offered a reflection of all that was wrong about forgetting, all the harm and misery caused, in the mirror surface of its waters. Indeed, the Greek word for "truth" (aletheia) can be semantically construed as "unforgotten or the not-to-be forgotten": "In fact, for hundreds of years Western philosophical thought, following the Greeks, sought truth on the side of not-forgetting and thus of memory and remembrance; only in modern times has it more or less hesitantly accepted to grant...


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