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Forgetfulness: the dangers of a modern culture that wages war on its own past

Francis O’Gorman believes the systematic devaluation of the past began in earnest in the 19th century.

In a pervasive modern view, which seems to most people so obviously true that they can think in no other way, the past is a burden that must be shed in order that a new kind of life can come into being. Modern human beings are always in transit to another place, which seems only more distant the longer they have been travelling.

It is a view of things that has a comical side, as Francis O’Gorman points out:

A concern with the multiple shapes of futurity situates us all in a joke, we might say, that has yet to conclude. Contemporary habits of mind are, in these terms, a gag without a last line,  a gag without a gag… The experience of contemporaneity is, to phrase it in these mercurial terms, of waiting to know, and never finding out, what the penguin did in the bar.

In the future-oriented way of life that O’Gorman describes, we are all in the position of Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, who, when asked if he believes in the life to come, replies, “Mine was always that.”

A cultural historian and professor of English literature at Edinburgh who has focused particularly on Victorian sensibilities, O’Gorman believes that the systematic devaluation of the past began in earnest in the 19th century, though it goes much further back. Today, disparaging the past is a mark of intellectual respectability. Anyone who believes that history involves loss as well as gain is reactionary: “The preference among liberal intellectuals is for a new kind of Whig history – one where the past is to be surveyed primarily to expose its failings…”

In this by now thoroughly conventional perspective, the values and structures of the past are seen as “always categories of power, where anything that is dominant is, by definition, oppressive. The only exception is the dominance of liberal ideas themselves, which can, it is assumed, never be oppressive.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, Whig history meant history written as a story of continuing improvement. Today, it means history written as an exercise in reproach and accusation in which universal human evils are represented as being exclusively the products of Western power.

Giving voice to oppressed and marginalised groups – ethnic and sexual minorities, subalterns of empire – may be a necessary part of historical inquiry. Yet as practised today by many historians, retrieving these occluded identities seems to require that other identities – local, national and religious, for example – be critically demolished and then consigned to the memory hole. Forgetfulness of the past must be actively cultivated, so that a future may emerge in which human beings can shape their lives as they please. As David Rieff argues in his powerful critique of commemoration, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (2016), there may be times when laying the past aside is necessary for human beings to be able to live peaceably with themselves.

The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. As O’Gorman puts it, “We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.” Rather than enabling human beings to fashion new identities, a willed collective amnesia leaves them with no identity at all.

Many forces have combined to create this condition. Acutely, O’Gorman identifies one of the sources of the modern narrative in early Christianity. Announcing itself as the bearer of “good news”, Christianity “splintered the conception of human life based on sustaining a localisable past… The new faith, which must have seemed first of all a new Middle Eastern cult of the son of Joseph the Carpenter, not only discouraged acts of devotion to what had happened long ago… but also explicitly reorientated its followers’ minds to the future.”

Here, O’Gorman elides the original teaching of Jesus, which continued the traditions of charismatic Judaism, with the universal religion invented by Paul and Augustine. Yet the point remains valid. Christianity has always included “instructive rites for rejecting history”, acts of confession and penitence that are supposed to erase yesterday’s sins.

A Christian narrative of redemption in which past evils and crimes could be nullified by a dramatic act of moral renovation has inspired many modern revolutionary movements. “Christianity began the process of moving us toward the future,” writes O’Gorman. “The French Revolution from 1789 to 1815 (which was, ironically enough, violently antagonistic to Christianity as belonging to the past) clinched secular expectations about the relative values of tomorrow and yesterday.” When they sacked churches and defaced graveyards, the Jacobins were re-enacting a Christian rite in which history could be stopped and purified of sin, then begun anew.

O’Gorman does not make the point, but the current fad for destroying statues (of Confederate generals in the US or imperial figures in the UK) is also a rite of penitence and purification. Yet history never does stop or begin anew. The French Revolution gave the world the Terror, the Napoleonic Wars and the restoration of monarchy. Similarly, destroying statues will not correct past or present wrongs, only polarise society and exacerbate social conflict. The iconoclasts perform the ritual to impress on themselves and the world their superior righteousness.

The modern narrative may be a hollowed-out version of a religious myth, but by itself religion cannot account for the prevailing collective amnesia. A continuous process of memory loss is integral to contemporary capitalism. As O’Gorman puts it:

Capitalist modernity’s breathless desire is to forget. It is to draw a veil over histories, cultural narratives from the past, artefacts and achievements bequeathed to us by predecessors, and identities shaped by time, in preference for unknown material and ideological prosperities allegedly to come.

Mobility, fluidity and ceaseless innovation are the ruling imperatives in the turbo­charged economy that shapes our lives. Any­one who is unduly attached to a particular place or occupation, or identifies themselves with a specific community, risks being left mouldering in a derelict zone that will soon be forgotten. In this environment, the ideal character is someone without any definite identity, a bundle of desires and perceptions that responds to fleeting opportunities without needing to fashion a coherent life story. In a world supposedly brimming with infinite possibility, infinite adaptability has to be the paramount virtue.

The modern West has not always been ruled by what O’Gorman calls “our enthralment to forgetfulness”. Even in Victorian times, there were influential “dissenters from the future”. William Morris and John Ruskin are easily mocked as epicures of nostalgia, and neither of them formulated any practicable alternative to the militant industrialism of their time. But when Morris, in News from Nowhere (1890), described “the great achievement of the 19th century” as “the production of measureless quantities of worthless makeshifts”, he showed he had an astute eye for the future.

The key word here is “makeshifts”. Morris understood that the modern dissociation from the past has the effect of making the present permanently provisional. As the process of change accelerates, the future to which all activity is directed becomes more indeterminate and eventually indefinable. Any clear idea of a destination fades away, and all that is left is a sensation of movement.

Nowadays, it is liberals who celebrate this advance into an unknown future. Already displaying the historical amnesia they seek to impose on others, they imagine that a society dedicated to deconstructing its past will be one of equality and harmony. But as O’Gorman notes, an early-20th-century devotee of deconstruction was more perceptive. Writing in his Manifesto of Futurism (1909), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti asked rhetorically: “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”

Ten years later, Marinetti co-authored the Fascist Manifesto, the founding document of Mussolini’s movement. For someone who wanted to raze all museums and libraries and demolish Venice – and demanded the prohibition of pasta on the grounds that eating it sapped virility – fascism in practice was bound to be something of a disappointment. Yet at least it was a bold move forwards. Modernity for Marinetti was the violent pursuit of an ill-defined future, without being too fussed about those who were crushed in the onward march, and fascism embodied this impulse.

A blend of intellectual history, cultural criticism and autobiography, Forgetfulness is too rich in thought and insight to be summarised in any detail. This is not another leaden academic tome on the discontents of modernity. Instead, like O’Gorman’s earlier book Worrying: a Literary and Cultural History (2015), it is a meditation on the contemporary condition that will change how readers think of their lives. Writing in an engagingly light, almost conversational style, O’Gorman subverts the dominant world-view in which the present is meaningful only in relation to an increasingly elusive future. A book as acutely intelligent and as original as this is a rare gift of fortune. Read it and you will not easily forget what you have learned.

You will discover how O’Gorman’s interest in the deconstruction of historical memory was stirred when he visited Mycenae with his girlfriend and looked at what was advertised as the grave of Agamemnon. He tells us that no one in his West Midlands comprehensive had taught him classical Greek, let alone anything of Mycenaean culture, but the experience of standing “among graves of almost-forgotten origin, and with stories that no one can recollect any longer whether they are true”, started a process of reflection about how the memory culture of the ancient world differed from the modern regime of mandatory forgetting.

You will read of the stroke O’Gorman suffered in his kitchen in Oxford in 1998, from which he has fully recovered, “except, pointedly enough, for a weakened memory, and, strange to say, slightly altered handwriting”. You will learn how The Mill on the Floss “projects a culture’s breaking with the past… on to the local history of a disappointed young woman in love”; how in different ways both Freudian psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioural therapy view the past as “a scene of misfortune”; how the first roads, railways and stock markets produced a sense of accelerating time; how the serialisation of Dickens’s novels fed his readers’ desire for the future, and much else that is arresting and thought-stirring.

O’Gorman acknowledges that there is no cure for modern forgetfulness. Any reminder of past achievements can only be an obstacle to a society that defines itself by an image of the future. The Taliban-like destruction of ancient monuments in Mao’s Cultural Revolution was not an aberration, since China’s traditional culture was dismissed as a relic of oppression. A similar rejection of the past featured in many of the last century’s totalitarian regimes. Now the liberal West is in the midst of its own cultural revolution. In acrimonious debates about immigration and attacks on cultural appropriation in universities, Western history is being repudiated as a zone of crime and barbarism.

O’Gorman frames this development in terms of the rise of multiculturalism. Liberal opinion, he writes, has settled on a position that assumes:

that all cultures, the diversity of all ways of life, are equally acceptable and to be affirmed at all times… Multiculturalism assumes, though usually implicitly, that because each culture is entitled to respect or at least to be free from judgement, a plurality of cultures can coexist harmoniously in the same hosted space while retaining their identities. This concept of mutual-harmony-with-identity is sometimes joined in the minds of the most extreme liberal intellectuals with bolder arguments that “national” and “cultural identity” are myths, forms of false consciousness, or divisive ideological tools.

Against this background, O’Gorman concludes, there has been a “revival of intolerance and, in some cases, literally of fascism”, including “the direct affirmation of Nazi ideology recast in versions of White Supremacy”. But it is a hyperbolic form of liberalism that has left contemporary societies vulnerable to the resurgent far right. A Marinetti-like mentality has reappeared in the current generation of ultra-liberals, who display a contempt for traditions of toleration and free expression mirroring that which has always defined the far right.

Demolishing national and cultural identities makes moral and political sense if – and only if – the result will be better than the liberal societies that have actually existed. Yet these societies are highly fragile settlements, regularly disrupted by war and economic crisis. Today they are also threatened by an ideology that wages war on their past. Societies that repudiate their historic inheritance in this way leave themselves defenceless against the dark forces that are now re-emerging. As George Santayana might have put it were he alive today, those who deconstruct the past are condemned to repeat it. 

Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia
Francis O’Gorman
Bloomsbury, 192pp, £14

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge