• João Antônio Gomes

The War for Memory

Humans arrive at this world with nothing to their names, and they shall depart from it similarly. All the material or intellectual goods acquired throughout life become suddenly worthless upon death, and no one is safe from such a fate, not even those who believe in the chance of an after-life. The Bible, for one, famously asserts in Genesis 3:19 that "for you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” But do not misinterpret me: I am not a nihilist attempting to persuade you that all is devoid of meaning, much more of value. On the contrary, I am a staunch believer that in life's most reductionist form, there is something of worth – memory. No mansions, supercars, knowledge, or jewelry can reach the magnitude of remembrance: they all perish to death's test. Memory, therefore, is humankind's most prized possession; after all, it is the only evidence of each individual's existence. This line of reasoning may compel one to think that being remembered is the grandest honor one can receive; however, the importance of memory does not lie in if the future generations will remember him but in how he will be remembered. To be monumentalized by your descendants may be a true blessing, but to be demonized by them is, without a doubt, the most sinister of punishments, for it may be an eternal one. Thus, humanity’s most fierce fights are not in the battlefields but in the pages of a history book.

The fact that history's victors earn the privilege to tell it is but a reflex of memory's significance. Had the Axis won World War II, history textbooks and courses would be much different. In such a scenario, one can think of two outcomes. First, the historiography around events as horrific as the Holocaust and the Massacre of Nanking would be scarce, if not inexistent. Second, and more likely, these events would not be forgotten but celebrated as pivotal moments in those countries’ history. Be it as it may, it is in the best interest of those who rule to choose what history tells and how it tells it; to align their tales with their political agenda. Corroborating this idea, British novelist and political critic George Orwell establishes in his world-renowned novel 1984 that the control of memory is necessary to consolidate a long-lasting regime: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." Thus why Stalin (the real life inspiration for Big Brother) would actively erase the victims of his purges from official photographs so the masses would forget his opposition and the very possibility of challenging the regime. The prevailing states of the world are concerned with painting themselves in a favorable light; thus, they opt to revise history – the embodiment of collective memory.

Although it may seem like the battle for a positive remembrance is only a fact of a higher ideological and abstract discussion, it is present in several aspects of day-to-day life. Statues, for instance, are an active reflection of it: they represent the official narrative of historical events and figures. When there is a shift in power or in societal values, these narratives invariably change to suit the ideological foundations of the new regime -- a change manifested in the destruction of monuments. For instance, protestors in Southern states of the U.S. have demanded that Confederate monuments of the Jim Crow Era be brought down, claiming they are incoherent with the present society's abomination of the enslaver establishment. Similarly, America would famously topple Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, signaling the decay of the dictator and, with it, a need to revise how he should be remembered. Thus, statues are an argument over the official version of facts, which may be challenged whenever rulers fall or societies change. Furthermore, the discussion over memory is evident in much simpler circumstances of life – namely, in story-telling. From the dawn of civilization, humans have told stories and myths, and, throughout time, they have altered them to convey certain meanings that fit their needs. Even though this practice is much diluted in modern society, it still prevails clearly in some indigenous groups. Oftentimes, tribes change their stories to educate the newer generations in their cultural morals and values. Because most tales have some grounding in facts, one can argue that this constitutes a change in memory as well. Thus, memory is at stake even in the simplest aspects of the world.

From the abstract to the material, memory is the most disputed item. Historical revisionism, statues, stories, etc., are but examples of this dispute. If you should take anything away from this discussion, that is that you should be suspicious of all of history’s heroes and villains: every creed, person, and regime has its shadow. Strive to see history as the story of human experience, of individuals in your likeness; strive to be fair in how you remember your ancestors: do not promote them to the status of a deity nor condemn them to perpetual degradation, for memory is all there is.


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