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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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Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist