Truth Commissions: Histories of Laughter and Forgetting

History kills. Literally. In a bizarre event reported by RFE/RL, Lenin has recently taken revenge on an irreverent desecrator of a Belarussian memorial to the dear leader in an act showing how history continues to keep a firm grip on its victims.The anonymous 21-year-old is said to have climbed on top of the larger-than-life, seven-meter Lenin and attempted to hang from his famous outstretched arm, when part of the statue collapsed, sending the prankster to his poetic demise.

While the young victim cannot be brought back to life, history, can be ‘restored,’ and will. Lenin’s long arm, according to a follow-up story published the very next day, will be returned to its former glory as soon as possible, say local authorities.

Svetlana Boym, the author of “The Future of Nostalgia” – a book that examines 20th century cultural history through the prism of individual and collective experiences of memory, uses the terms restorative and reflective to talk about two distinct ways of looking at the past. The restorative view is manifest in nationalist revival movements, which make use of national symbols, myths and conspiracy theories for the purpose of an absolute reconstruction of the past. Proponents of this view believe that their restorative projects are about the truth, that the past is static, and cultural and national identity is formed and solidified through collective artistic symbols and an oral epic tradition.

A reflective view of the past, on the other hand, dwells on the durational, the dynamic, the changing aspect of time, on the incomplete, on the shattered ruin and on the individual experience of the past, which is often a mournful memory and indefinable longing rather than deterministic seeking and proclamation of truth.

The first is dead serious and unforgiving. The second takes itself less seriously, tracing the experience of mourning in the direction of irony and mirth. It is also capable of forgiveness, partly through the therapeutic quality of forgetting and partly through the sensation of blurring the real and the imagined.

Exploiting memory

Memory is sad business. Etymologically, the word can be traced through the Latin memor, ‘mindful’ to the Greek martus, gen. marturos, ‘witness’ (not until New Testament Greek does the word acquire the additional ‘witness to God’ from where the English word martyr originates). The word also appears in Old English as murnan, ‘to grieve.’ The Indo-European root mer- or smer-, from which all memory cognates derive, means ‘to be anxious, to grieve.’ Examples of such cognates include, the Greek merimna ‘solitude, anxiety,’ the Old Lithuanian mereti, ‘to be anxious,’ the Serbo-Croatian mariti, ‘to grieve over,’ and the Sanskrit smarati, ‘he remembers.’

The list goes on. The subject of memory is exploited by myriad competing ideologies. Charged with controversy, it has most recently become a topic of concern for government and non-government institutions set on a mission to dispense (or dispense of) historical truths. In their more benevolent form, truth commissions can be imagined as cathartic institutions – secular churches of a sort – that aim to transform both guilty sinners’ and traumatized victims’ memories for the lofty purpose of achieving reconciliation.

So far so good. On the implementation level, however, these idealistic projects begin to crack: who commissions the truth commissioners? What is the methodology applied in the process of transforming individual and collective memories? Even if the aim of these commissions is rehabilitative rather than punitive, can they ever be devoid of this or that political agenda?

While truth commissions are a relatively recent phenomenon, historic revisionist projects – their ‘shadows’ in the parlance of analytical psychology – are as old as history itself. The historic revisionist is an anachronistic species who is particularly driven by symbolic anniversaries. Recent examples of such opportunistic political campaigns feeding on the corpse of history include the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; the establishment of the “Commission to counter the attempt of falsification of history to the detriment of interests of Russia,” coinciding with Moscow’s celebration of the 64th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany; the melodramatic spat between new EU members Hungary and Slovakia because the latter barred the former’s president from privately crossing its border on a day the country was commemorating the invasion by Soviet-led troops, which included Hungarians; and finally, the looming 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – an event ripe with potential for more memorialization and less and less laughter and forgetting à la Milan Kundera.

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” says Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.” The comment resonates with the sentiment of philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietzsche’s attack on historical knowledge and education for their own sake, knowledge which he calls impotent, stripped of all creative impulse, one that leads to a decadent culture and the ultimate destruction of the vitality and strength of a nation (the Germany of his time).

It is not that history cannot serve life, Nietzsche says in “The Use and Abuse of History for Life;” the desire to know the past is inherent in every individual and every nation. Historical knowledge is ‘healthy’ as long as it serves as inspiration for action, as reverence to the heritage of one’s ancestors, or as relief from suffering. Out of context, however, historical knowledge can be easily manipulated for unhealthy and degenerate ends:

From the thoughtless transplanting of plants stem many ills: the critical man without need, the antiquarian without reverence, and the student of greatness without the ability for greatness are the sort who are receptive to weeds estranged from their natural mother earth and therefore degenerate growths.

Another author obsessed with the labyrinthine clogs of excessive memory is Jorge Luis Borges, who in the short story “Funes the Memorious” creates a character who possesses total memory. Unable to forget anything, Funes is an example of the Nitzschean historic man of paralysis, since without forgetting, no action can take place, and creation is reversed into degeneration. In Gabriel García Márquez’ novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the characters suffer from the opposite malady: an insomnia sickness that culminates in total amnesia and the construction of an imagined, fictitious reality.

Therapeutic forgetting

Philosophers and writers have been preoccupied with the subject of memory and forgetting for thousands of years. More recently, cognitive and neuroscience has taken up serious interest in the pathology of memory.

Daniel L Schacter, author of “Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past” talks about the subjective experiences of ‘remembering’ and ‘knowing’ the past by paying homage to yet another memory-obsessed writer – Marcel Proust. Proust, who contemplated the act of remembering as “a telescope pointed in time,” laid the groundwork for scientific research of the experience of remembering. Writes Schacter: “Foreshadowing scientific research by more than a half century, Proust achieved the penetrating insight that feelings of remembering result from a subtle interplay between past and present.”

Cognitive science is ‘in tune’ with literature not only when it comes to blending past and present realities, the literal and the literary, truths and fictions.

Gerd Gigerenzer, mostly known for his work on heuristics, argues in his book “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious” that more memory is not always better, and that our best choices are usually based on “a beneficial degree of ignorance,” gut feelings and intuition rather than on our culturally held beliefs that more information is always better and that more choice is always better. Gigerenzer echoes Nietzsche on the ‘healthy’ use of history as a prompt for action: “Forgetting prevents the sheer mass of life’s detail from critically slowing down the retrieval of relevant experience and so impairing the mind’s ability to abstract, infer, and learn.”

Forgetting and mythopoeia then can be seen as therapeutic devices – a way of digesting the past through slow creative reflection instead of archiving the ulcerous symbols of history.

Psychology and cognitive science research can also help shed light on the physical and mental processes of memory work and adaptive forgetting to bring relief to traumatic experiences.

Myths and legends, oral epics or folk songs are the instruments of restorative ‘historians.’ Taken out of their native earth, which is the realm of literature, and ‘transplanted’ – to use Nietzsche’s metaphor – into the foreign soil of politics, they become degenerate growths of populist rhetoric that appeal to the fictions of national identities. It is those forms of literature, diagnostic rather than prescriptive and focusing more on the individual than the collective that have the potential to transform the experience of suffering, which posses the magical ability of turning tears into laughter.

Platonic reconciliation

There are some truth commissions that make use of individual stories, interviews and personal recollections, but their performance is nevertheless marred by their ultimate purpose, which is collective by the nature of their commissioners. They are governmental methods of constructing big pictures and sense-making tools that are devoid of sensing, which is an individual and private experience.

In an ultra-networked, technologically insatiable world where context is valued over content, the very existence of truth commissions is, to say the least, suspect. Contextual truths fall prey to the insensitized, ready-made emotions on which the non-reflective minds of political entrepreneurs in need of quick fixes and relativistic truths gorge. As long as truth commissions remain in the realm of collective bureaucracy, reconciliation will remain Platonic – a present representation of an absent thing.