Too Much Memory? Remembering and Forgetting at the Crossroads of the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide

Sebouh David Aslanian

Indeed suffering in common unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties and require a common effort.[1]

These words from Ernest Renan’s iconic essay of 1882, “Qu'est-ce qu’une Nation?” offer a piercing diagnosis of how some small nations, which have been historic targets of persecution and violence and therefore know that they can easily disappear, have managed to generate and maintain their collective identities during the violent period that was the twentieth century. Painful memory, usually in large doses, has provided a remarkably effective if unhealthy boundary maintenance mechanism and helped those who patrol those boundaries (intellectuals, politicians, activists, and so on) to define and often narrowly to focus the identity collectives.
For none perhaps has the synergistic codependency between pain, memory, and identity alluded to in the above quotation been truer than for the Armenians. Many of us would agree that the continued denial of the Armenian genocide has created a hypertrophied or bloated historical memory coiled around pain that has, for many Armenians, shaped what it means to be Armenian and has held them captive to a past full of unspeakable pathos and trauma. As a historian interested in the Armenian past, I am reminded of the classic text by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Written on the heels of the nineteenth century’s fixation on monumental history, of the “flooding of memory” and the proliferation of mnemonic practices (monuments, museums, archives, and most notably the hegemonic genre of nationalist historiography), Nietzsche’s text, as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi noted not too long ago, reads like an early twenty-first century meditation on the “uses of forgetting.”[2] Its central thrust is to remind its readers that we are all “suffering from a malignant historical fever and should at least recognize the fact.”
I would like to draw from this brilliant text—and more importantly, from the even more marvelous meditation on it by Yerushalmi—to explore briefly the synergy between the denial of the Armenian genocide and bloated sense of Armenian collective memory and how this surfeit of memory has affected, defined, and in some cases stunted Armenian life.
For Nietzsche, the “over saturation of an age” or culture with history is hostile and dangerous to life because, among other things, it “disrupts the instincts of a people, and hinders the individual no less than the whole in the attainment of its maturity.” A bloated historical memory, in this sense, has the potential of becoming the “gravedigger of the present.” Nietzsche’s comments here foreshadow Jorge Luis Borges’ fascinating fictional tale about a certain Funes el Memorioso who one day falls from his horse and, instead of suffering from amnesia, becomes a repository of the whole world’s memory. Unable to filter out anything from his memory, Funes becomes a living encyclopedia of all the events, sensations, moments, and so on that have taken place “since the world was a world.” [3] His memory is disabling. For both Nietzsche and Borges, too much memory uproots the ground of the future and enervates, or worse cripples, the life instinct for creation. Those who allow memory to choke their present and future, Nietzsche warns, live as though their motto were: “let the dead bury the living.” That is why for Nietzsche, “Life in any true sense is absolutely impossible without forgetfulness.”
As descendants of survivors or simply as citizens of the world concerned about justice and dignity for all, Armenians will gather around the world on 24 April, a hundred years after those fateful and tragic events in the ancestral birthplace of their forebears, not to practice forgetfulness. To the contrary, they will honor and cherish the memory of those who perished and will do so in dignity, and in the knowledge that justice and recognition will one day deliver them from a Funes-like oppressive and painful memory of an unacknowledged, unatoned for, and unrepented past. One of the benefits of genocide recognition and justice for the Armenians will be the opportunity to refigure their past (including that portion of their past that overlaps with and is connected to the past of the Turkish people) in novel ways, and in doing so, to forge a more healthy and creative disposition towards their future. Until recognition, repentance, and justice have arrived, however, we are all well advised to heed Yerushalmi’s injunction to be vigilant as guardians of memory, but to do so in ways that are self-critical and pregnant with a future of tolerance. In his Zakhor: Jewish History and Memory, Yerushalmi notes that our age is characterized by:
the aggressive rape of whatever memory remains, the deliberate distortion of the historical record, the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness. Against the agents of oblivion, the shredders of documents, the assassins of memory, the revisers of encyclopedias, the conspirators of silence, against those who, in Kundera’s wonderful image, can airbrush a man out of a photograph so that nothing is left of him but his hat—only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his [or her] vocation, can effectively stand guard.[4]
As we draw closer to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, let us confront this dark milestone as an invitation to meditate critically on the significance of a century of silence and a hundred years of history for Armenians and Turks that is broken and needs to be healed. Let us foster a critical and open forum for all to discuss, to remember, and to rebuild. Let us hope to usher in a period one day when Armenians will no longer be defined primarily through the codependency of pain, memory, and identity—as Renan, with whom I began my thoughts, highlighted over a century ago in his reflections on nations and their identities. Let us hope for a time when Armenians will no longer feel crippled both intellectually and culturally by the Funes-like obsession with their painful past, and Turks will be free to examine scrupulously, and condemn categorically, that aspect of their past connected to the Armenian genocide. In doing so, both Armenians and Turks will finally be free to forge a new future on the ground of the past thus liberated. Justice and recognition are the only handmaidens for the birth of this new future.

[1] Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha, (New York: Routlege, 1990), 8-21 (19).
[2] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, “Postscript: Reflections on Forgetting,” in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1989). My thoughts on Borges and Nietzsche are influenced by Yerushalmi’s reflections. I have elaborated on this in Sebouh D. Aslanian, “The Marble of Armenian History: Or Armenian History as World History,” Études arméniennes contemporaines 4 (December 2014): 129-142.
[3] Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memorious,” in Ficciones, edited with an introduction by Antony Kerrigan, (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 112.
[4] Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 116.

[An earlier version of this essay was first presented as an introduction to the event “Remembering the Armenian Genocide: An Evening of Commemoration and Music” on 10 April 2015 at the University of California-Los Angeles.]

"Jadaliyya" (www.jadaliyya.com), April 21, 2015

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