Machnamh 100 - Prof. Joep Leerssen
3rd December, 2020
I am delighted to join you from the Netherlands and I would like to begin my comments, which will chime with everything that has been said before, by quoting a few lines from a classic Dutch poem. It commemorates the Nazi occupation of my country and it ends as follows:
Come to me tonight with stories of the war and how it ended
and repeat them a hundred times over
each time tears will fill my eyes.
These lines eloquently bring home to us how the past can be long ago but the emotions are still with us and continue to define us. How memory brings people together in shared remembrance, shared stories, shared emotions and that these stories do not wear with age but remain powerful in each repetition.
The poem is called ‘Peace’ but it teaches us that war continues to resonate even in the peacetime that puts an end to it. At the same time this poem is also about trauma, about the lingering damage of war; even in peacetime the war stays with us. It may haunt us with undiminished grief and horror. That recall can define who we are can prevent us from ever really wiping away our tears. Piety and pity are closely related and history can indeed become a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.
This was all addressed movingly and trenchantly in the President's discourse. I should like to add a few side observations in the margin of all that, and I have seven points to make.
The first point is that when we face the past, we face a dilemma: Time sweeps us on towards the future. We inexorably move away from the past. If we lose touch with our past we lose touch with who we are and on the other hand if we get stuck in the past we lose out on what we can become. That's a conundrum.
The philosopher Hegel saw a way out of this and he called it ‘Aufhebung’. In that German word there are three meanings and each of these meanings is necessary to have a healthy relationship with the past. Aufhebung means, in the first place, to abolish, to discontinue.
Much as a peace treaty brings hostilities to an end; The war is over and we need to put it behind us. In the second place, ‘Aufheben’ means to preserve, to put something in safe keeping, in storage. We do not forget, we even enshrine the traces of the past in poems and monuments and museums, in precious things. And in the third place ‘Aufhebung’ means to lift something, up to elevate it to a higher position.
The past, deactivated as it is, part of what is behind us and preserved in our cultural memory, loses its virulence and its rancour. It can become something that makes us better people, something that we can learn from. We can look back on the conflicts and hostilities of long ago the way we look back on our youth and on our youthful follies; something that made us what we are, something we had to outgrow, and something that enriches our store of experience.
Hegel’s ‘Aufhebung’ works best when the past is very long ago. We can look back dispassionately at the disagreements between Daniel O'Connell and Thomas Davis. By now we realise that both men were right and wrong in their own ways, and that despite their differences both were equally part of a higher truth that we have moved towards since then.
But in other cases memories, certainly of more recent conflicts, are more rebarbative. Nonetheless, sooner or later, and this is my second point, we must get over the rancour that all major historical events leave in their wake.
One of the bitterest ruptures to divide a society was that of the French revolution. It destabilised the French state for an entire century, making it lunge from Republic to Empire to Monarchy and back again. But by now only cranks still commemorate the decapitation of Louis XVI, and on the evening of the 14th of July, Bastille Day, all the citizens of Paris happily waltz together, dancing in the city's various fire stations, and that, to my mind, is the best commemoration of all: To be happy and convivial together.
I may on this occasion suggest to the President to identify a happy day for a recurring festivity, because it is not just trauma and high-minded seriousness that makes us a community but also a bit of ‘craic’. Possibly Bloomsday could become an official national holiday, possibly a new day could be instated, maybe the 16th of February.
Why that day? It is in fact a day of glorious memory in Irish history. On that day in 1932 the Cumann na nGaedheal government, having lost the general election, ceded power to the victorious Fianna Fáil - Labour coalition. This peaceful, democratic transition of power came less than ten years after the bitter Civil War. It was, and here I followed Joe Lee's view, an act of astonishing political maturity in the fledgling new state, and this at a time when almost all of these new states of Europe were abandoning their hard-won parliamentary democracies and installing authoritarian strongmen and dictators, from Poland and the Baltic, to Hungary, Greece, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Ireland in 1932, sensible and solid, was a shining exception it had moved to a Hegelian ‘Aufhebung’ of its decades of strife and struggle. It is still a lesson for the present when it comes to peaceful transitions of power and that, too, is worth commemorating and celebrating.
But what stays with us are the crises, with their terrible beauty. What people remember are not Gross National Products or shifting demographics. They are the crises. Indeed after a Decade of Centenaries it seems as if the things we commemorate are the very opposites of celebrations, even though an independent and democratic Republic of Ireland eventually emerged from it all.
That is my third point: What we remember in this contemporary, vibrant, successful and modern Ireland still seems to gravitate towards the past, as grievance. The bloody-mindedness of the Black and Tans, the denigration of snooty British aristocrats, seems to blend with the tuberculosis and neglect in mid-century orphanages and with endemic misogyny and child abuse. And we haven't even started the centenaries of the Civil War period. Films like Neil Jordan's ‘Michael Collins’ or Ken Loache’s ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ have already epically recalled the animosities of that period and instilled them into the popular culture, and this may yet loom larger in public memory than the general election of 16 February 1932.
In gravitating towards the commemoration of crises, Ireland is following a European pattern, but maybe that pattern should be reconsidered. And that's my fourth point: Long ago, all we commemorated was triumphs.
It was what Nietzsche called ‘the monumental view of history’. This changed in the 20th century: People turned to a more critical view. We became sensitised to the fact that each heroic triumph has its collateral damage, its sacrifices, its victims. What used to be triumphalist monuments became sites of mourning. Under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and elsewhere, the ashes of an Unknown Soldier were interred, and triumphalism became tinged with pity and remorse.
Dublin, from the beginning, was part of this European shift from the triumphalist to the traumatic. It has its beautiful National War Memorial in Island Bridge, built in the final days of British imperial rule and now, after many years of neglect, restored to its original dignity and beauty.
This is not about triumph, it's not even about heroism. It's about something that is common to all men and women, irrespective of nationality, race or creed: Our mortality, our vulnerability. Empathy with those who faced their mortality and vulnerability in the crisis of history, that is now the dominant mode of commemoration.
The President built on that insight in his discourse today and part of the ‘ethics of commemoration’ is that it is fitting and necessary as a society to express and to foster that empathy. But I move to my fifth point and that is this: Both in the mode of triumphalism and in the mode of pity or empathy, we tend to approach the past as a collective and we divide the past in collectivities.
When we celebrate our triumphs, we relive the moments when we faced our opponents, enemies, or a catastrophic crisis, and got the better of them. And we see ourselves in what we might call epic terms. And when we mourn victims, and save them from oblivion, we for all our inclusivity, may still empathise with them, for all their diversity, in terms of their group identity. And while we avoid the ham-fisted mode of epic we may over-balance instead into the sentimental mode of melodrama.
In literary studies we define melodrama as the type of narrative that relies on strong black and white contrasts between villains and victims. In melodrama the victims are always innocent and virtuous, and they suffer at the hands of those who are motivated only by wickedness and depravity. This, too, is a black and white view of the world it took a great and original thinker, the frequently mentioned Hannah Ahrendt, to make us see that pure evil is often banal rather than satanic, and takes the face of a dull civil servant rather than a diabolical monster.
Neither epic nor melodrama can do justice to the complexities of the past. They schematise the world into two groups, and they schematise the ethics of commemoration into a group-based contrast: heroes against enemies, or victims against villains.
So what's the problem, you may ask. Well, here comes my point, number six: My colleague Iraklis Milas, an ethnic Greek from Istanbul, has done a classic experiment with Turkish and Greek respondents. As you know Greeks and Turks belong to proverbially antagonistic nations and Milas wanted to see where he could locate that antagonism. So we asked Greeks how they felt about Turks and how they felt about themselves, and similarly for the Turks. The responses were surprisingly even-handed and serene. Sure, there were good ones and bad ones amongst us, as well as amongst them, and after all, the bottom line was that we were all humans, and the others were not all that different.
Milas wondered at this surprising lack of antagonism and he probed further. He asked the Greeks not how they saw themselves, or how they saw the Turks, but how they thought the Turks saw them. ‘How do you Greeks think that the Turks think of you?’ and the analogous question to his Turkish respondents: How do you think the Greeks think of you Turks? The answers to these questions were indeed full of rancour, suspicion and animosity: ‘The others despise us, they do not recognise our civility and dignity as a modern and advanced nation, they begrudge us our independence, they think we are their enemies’.
‘They think we are their enemies’. It was there that the enmity was found, at the level of imputation: What we think that they think.
There is a very important lesson in this experiment: Group antagonism is at its most virulent and at its most intractable when it is in camouflage and when it is unacknowledged. We are not aware of it in ourselves and only suspect it to reside in the other. We see the other as we think they see us. We are rancorous, without being aware of it and we betray our rancour by pretending it is theirs rather than ours. This prejudice of how we think the others see us drains our confidence in each other's intentions, prevents us from expecting or showing generosity, and makes us lonesome and isolated in what we feel is an unreliable world.
It is good and necessary to move away from simplistic celebrations of identity, to include and embrace the groups that have been silenced by history and to emphasise the diversity of the past. But in order to fully achieve a Hegelian ‘Aufhebung’, we may need to go one step further, to acknowledge and uproot our rancour, and move towards generosity.
That is how I understand Ricoeur’s notion of ‘hospitality’ as invoked by President Higgins: Whatever the past was it was, as Professor Laffan pointed out, complex. It was not as ethically simple as our epic or sentimental commemorations imagine it, and too contradictory to be pigeonholed into groups.
And this brings me to my seventh and final point. If we acknowledge not only the diversity of the past but also the complexity of the past, we may be able to replace rancour by generosity. The harsh quandaries and the perplexity of the past were most poignantly and relatably experienced at the level of the human individual, facing the turbulent forces of history. Individuals face the challenge of having to make difficult choices; collectives emerge from the choices that have already been made. That is why collectives are best visible from hindsight to us who commemorate, but individuals, more than groups, can impress us with something that is neither epic nor melodramatic but tragic and dignified and in a Hegelian sense uplifting.
Nowadays we are more aware of individual dignity in our commemorations. Anne Dolan has given very moving examples of this approach. We read out the names of victims, highlight them as relatable humans rather than as representatives of a group, people who hoped and feared and who had their own individual life to lead facing difficult choices. In the Immigration Museum in Paris, migrants and refugees leave personal mementos with stories attached to them. These stories speak to us directly from human to human, and they enriche us. And that's the note I would like to conclude on.
I would like to see the ‘com’ taken out of ‘memoration’. I would like to see a polyphony of personal narratives telling us how complex things were for each one of them. It would be great to see commemorative platforms put in place of people who come to us with stories, as the poem says, that allow us to relate individually to individuals in all their human complexity, rather than reducing them to group identities. And I think this would be a noble task for a future looking State.