Memory, someone argued (in one of those essentialist reductions of human nature), is what makes us Human. Ironically, I can’t remember who put this forward as a thesis, but as far as I can recall, the argument went something like this: Animals have instinct, they ‘remember’ purely in terms of survival. In humans this survival mechanism has evolved into a complicated characteristic, which helps us to identify and interact in highly complex interpersonal and social relationships. It also assists us in finding the key to the car in the morning.
I am, however, not putting this forward as the complete argument – it must have been a lot more nuanced. And of course I hear the call from all Philosophy 101 students: ‘But what about the dolphin?’ Certainly I do not have nearly the right amount of knowledge to deny that dolphins remember. Perhaps it should be sufficient to say that memory does play a vital role in our social, interpersonal and personal lives. This is in essence one of the ideas that Kazuo Ishiguro addresses in his latest novel, The Buried Giant.
Although many critics have seen the book as a diversion from his more usual ‘literary’ interests– the book is written as fantasy– The Buried Giant retains one of Ishiguro’s overarching themes: the role memory plays in our lives. From A Pale View of Hills to Never Let Me Go Ishiguro has always been interested in the retention, the denial and the absence of memory. From a woman who chooses to remember through a surrogate, to a man unable to come to terms with who he was and is, to a group of students who have the ‘normal’ memories of identity denied to them due to their position as mere organ donors, Ishiguro has analysed the role memory plays in our relationship to society.
In The Buried Giant, it is the loss of memory, and its historical and personal implications, that are the focus. South Africa is currently going through its own questioning of historical memory and forgetting with the Rhodes Must Fall debate. In many ways the publication of Ishiguro’s latest novel comes at the perfect time for South African’s interested in the idea of historical memory and its importance. Certainly, some of the debate surrounding the removal of the statue has focused around this very idea.
One of the less nuanced arguments from the anti-Rhodes Must Fall movement is that, by removing the statue, history will be forgotten. But this completely misunderstands the role sculptures play within our socio-political public spaces. Rhodes has not been sitting there for the last 80 years for the sake of remembering what ills he did to the indigenous population of South Africa. It was there to proclaim Rhode’s positives – what ones there are – and there is very little other reading one can have of it. Those who claim that the statue should remain because it is a reminder of what happened in this country clearly need a few quick lessons in visual literacy.
As the philosopher RG Collingwood argued in his The Principles of Art, public statues, like social rituals, are there in order to give a society a sense of identity and sense of confidence in this identity. They are all part of what he referred to as ‘magic’ or ‘the ritualized representation of a useful emotion for its practical value.’ Statues are very rarely placed in public spaces in order to remember the bad – unless the bad mythologizes a more positive aspect of the national identity.
A statue in a museum, though, serves a quite different purpose. Some have argued that UCT’s statue of Rhodes should be placed in a museum in order for it to be reflected on in a different manner. However, it is agreed by all, both for and against the Rhodes Must Fall debate, that historical memory remains of primary importance. Certainly the ‘pro-movement’ have no intention of forgetting history. History is the very issue that they are raising. As a supporter who stood next to me at the removal of the statue shouted, as it lifted off the plinth, ‘this image is going to be on the cover of every history text book’ (a nice piece of wishful thinking).
However, it is precisely this kind of ‘historical memory,’ and its retention, that Ishiguro’s book goes some way to questioning, asking whether it is indeed a positive thing at all. In The Buried Giant the breath of the dragon Querig creates a mist of forgetting that allows the Saxons and the Britons in the 6th Century to live together peacefully side-by-side. They have been at war in the not so distant past and it would seem in one of the battles the Britons performed what today would be referred to as ‘war crimes’ of grievous and unforgettable proportions.
However with the wizard Merlin’s help (Arthurian legend recurs throughout the novel) Querig’s breath creates a mist that dulls the people down into a peaceful amnesia. It is then slowly revealed that only until Wistan, the imposing Saxon warrior, kills the dragon Querig can memory be fully restored. Wistan, whose fighting skills, bravery, honesty and the seemingly good care he takes the two elder Britons with whom he travels, seems for most of the novel to offer hope for reconciliation after the time of forgetting is over. And yet when he turns to his young apprentice and states ‘[i]t was Britons took your mother and mine. We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood,’ that the idea of the destructive nature of memory is made clear. Even Wistan, decent and noble as he is, is not capable of forgiving and forgetting and he kills the dragon so that war can ensue between the two races.
Dan Halter’s current exhibition at Whatiftheworld, ‘The Original is Unfaithful to the Translation’, too references this idea of the potential for vendetta. The work V for Vendetta takes the form of the Guy Fawkes mask from the graphic novel of the same name adapted into various African mask-making traditions. Inherent in this work is the notion that vendetta is not only a valid response to colonialism but that this emotion can be retained and replicated in objects and can be transferred from one society to the next.
Certainly all of this disturbs liberalism’s belief (which I personally hold) in the need for the retention of historical memory and its use in effecting and establishing redress. Another nail in this liberal idea is St Augustine’s teachings on the ‘transformation of the will,’ which is only possible, as Larry Siedentop puts it, by the ‘escape from undesirable habits and dependencies reinforced by ‘memory’’. Memory, St Augustine argued, is something that sucks one back into bad habits. ‘The load of habit,’ he said, ‘is a force to be reckoned with.’
Certainly this ‘load of habit’, or the desire to maintain the status quo, is exemplified by the desire to retain the past’s visual signifiers. It certainly seems true that the failure of meaningful transformation in South Africa has as much to do with bad governance, as it has to with the white community’s desire to hold on to these ‘bad habits’ or memories.
People have for the last 21 years referred to the ‘New South Africa’. What seems at least true to me is that it can’t be ‘the new’ if it looks like the old. The retention and memorializing of our distinctly negative histories that still exists in the imagery in public places is not only a sure sign of the lack of transformation in the country but also the lack of a willingness to entirely reject the past. On this level both Ishiguro and St Augustine seem right in suggesting that memory, far more than a help to South Africa, could be a distinct hindrance.