Monday, February 17, 2014

Nietzsche on Forgetting the Past

It seems that we are moving to a time when it may become quite an uncontroversial assertion to claim that there is no point in remembering the past, after all, a quick Google search is far more efficient. It could be argued even that forgetting the past completely is a healthier option than remembering – less conflict based on unforgotten slights. 
In his brilliant essay from 1874, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, Nietzsche seemed to make this very assertion, claiming that “it is possible to live with almost no memories, even to live happily as the animal shows: but without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all”.[1] But Nietzsche’s was not a plea for amnesia; rather he claimed that a happy life, one that involves health, strength and fruitfulness, can only be lived within a horizon that one draws around oneself.[2] The antidote he recommended in order to combat the overdose of the historical that he saw dominating his own time, was to have the strength “to forget and enclose oneself in a limited horizon (…) and guide the eye away from becoming and toward that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, toward art and religion”.[3] But he saw his own age as being dominated by a particular type of history which, for want of a better description, we can call “scientific, objective history”: the type of history that had the pretension that it could reveal “wie est eigentlich gewesen ist”. “History”, he wrote, “conceived as pure science and become sovereign, would constitute a kind of closing out of the accounts of life for mankind”, adding: “with a certain excess of history life crumbles and degenerates, and finally because of this degeneration, history itself degenerates as well.”[4] So, it was the type of academic history being practiced in the universities of 19th century Germany by the likes of von Ranke, that Nietzsche was opposed to, because it literally stifled and killed any life-giving impulse. As Gadamer summarises it: “Nietzsche’s view that historical study is deleterious to life is not, in fact, directed against historical consciousness as such, but against the self-alienation it undergoes when it regards the method of modern historical sciences as its own true nature.”[5]

But Nietzsche understood that to demand of humans that they should never practice history and never attempt to remember would be asking the impossible. On the contrary, “only through the power to use the past for life and to refashion what happened in history, does man become man”.[6] He enumerates cases in which history can be useful (though each one also carries dangers): firstly by presenting monumental examples of greatness from the past; secondly by offering contentment and pleasure though approaching the past with reverence; thirdly by using history in a critical manner to shatter and destroy by the roots something that endangers life.[7] One of the fallacies of the scientific approach to history, according to Nietzsche, the approach that makes the false claim to objectivity (which is no more than a superstition),[8] is that it leads the historian to make generalizations and that these are based on perceived laws.[9] But, while laws can be found in true sciences, “so far as there are laws in history, laws are worth nothing and history is worth nothing”.[10] There are no absolutes and no certainties in Nietzsche’s view of the world,[11] except, perhaps, that there are no absolutes.

It seems to Nietzsche that the aim of objective, scientific history is to rob living things of the mysterious atmosphere that encircles them,[12] what Benjamin later referred to as the “decline of the aura.”[13]  But Nietzsche does see a purpose and a value in the historian’s craft, which is “to describe with insight what is known, perhaps a common theme, an everyday melody, to elevate it, raise to a contemporary symbol and so let a whole world of depth of meaning, power and beauty be guessed in it”.[14]

In his essay on Nietzsche’s views of practicing history, Michel Foucault pointed out that what Nietzsche ultimately objected to in the academic, objective, historical practice of the 19th century, was its pretention to have gained a “suprahistorical perspective” lending its judgments “an apocalyptic objectivity” whereby historical development is seen “as a teleological movement”.[15] Foucault agrees with Nietzsche, that the historian has created a charade in which he “effaces his proper individuality”, is “forced to silence his preferences” and “blur his own perspectives and replace it with the fiction of a universal geometry, to mimic death in order to enter the kingdom of the dead, to adopt a faceless anonymity”.[16] To counteract this, Nietzsche does not reject history, but instead “Nietzsche’s version of historical sense is explicit in its perspective and acknowledges its system of injustice (…) It is not given to a discreet effacement before the objects it observes”.[17] We are reminded on E. H. Carr’s famous dictum, that we should “study the historian before you begin to study the facts”,[18] though we could just as easily throw that on its head and say “study the facts in order to get to know the historian”.

In his afterword to a Dutch translation of Nietzsche, Frank Ankersmit agrees that Nietzsche never planned to condemn the study of history wholeheartedly, and therefore embrace absolute forgetfulness. He summarises Nietzsche’s view succinctly: “The work of the historian is not copying or reproducing, passively being pulled along by the past, but an active, artistic act of creation”.[19]  Ankersmit rightfully concludes that Nietzsche’s most significant insight is that the historical profession in the Germany of his age had contributed to a split between the external and internal parts of the individual personality. The “civilized” person was all inner personality, filled with historical knowledge. Nietzsche solution proposed, either a withdrawal into forgetfulness, or the development of a historical sense as outlined by Foucault above. Ankersmit calls this a historical practice that leads to “self-knowledge”.[20] The lesson that he takes from Nietzsche’s critical approach to historical practice is: “those parts of our self and of our past that we have not yet processed (…) form our deepest and most mysterious inner being (…) The core of our personality is not the known, but in fact the disturbingly strange, the unprocessed. What is strange is not repulsed or driven to the outer regions of our personality, but forces its way into the deepest part of our self. This explains why historical knowledge – that is to say, knowledge that appears to us initially as strange but is nevertheless experienced as being a part of our personal and collective identity – is so crucial for our self-insight and for a harmonious culture”.[21] For this reason, I believe, Nietzsche would have been appalled by a modern society that left unprocessed a significant part of their history, that when faced with an episode deemed disturbingly strange or alien, choose unremembering rather than self-knowledge.

The Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, played with issues of remembering and forgetting in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The book is a discursive, yet deeply perceptive analysis of life in a totalitarian state, based on Kundera’s own experiences. The real enemy of totalitarianism, we learn, is memory. When the Russians installed a new president, President Husak, after their invasion of 1968, Kundera tells us that one of the first things Husak did was dismiss one hundred and forty-five historians from their posts. Kundera quotes one of these historians as saying to him: ”The first step in liquidating a people (…) is to erase its memory”.[22] Later Kundera quotes President Husak, “the president of forgetting”, as he is addressing an assembly of children: “’Children, never look back,’ he cried, and what he meant was that we must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory”.[23] In a conversation about the book that he had with American novelist Philip Roth (included as an afterword in the English translation), Kundera explained: “The basic event of the book is the story of totalitarianism, which deprives people of memory and thus retools them into a nation of children.”[24] If the end point of totalitarianism is to reduce a nation to the level of children, and the tool to be used in order to achieve this is the erasure of memory by means of depriving them of their historical collective memory, then the situation of a nation that unremembers its own past must be that of children.

[1] Friedrich Nietzche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980) p. 10
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., p. 62
[4] Ibid., p. 14
[5] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) p. 316
[6] Nietzsche, p. 11
[7] Ibid. pp. 14-16, 19-21, 21-22
[8] Ibid., p. 35
[9] Ibid., p. 36
[10] Ibid., p. 55
[11] Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rainbow. (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984) p. 87
[12] Ibid., p. 40
[13] Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” in: Illuminations. ( London: Pimlico Press, 1999) p. 184
[14] Nietzsche, p. 36
[15] Foucault, pp. 86-88
[16] Ibid., p. 91
[17] Ibid., p. 90
[18] E. H. Carr, What is History?
[19] Frank Ankersmit, “Nawoord” in: Friedrich Nietzsche, Over nut en nadeel van geschiedenis voor het leven: tweede traktaat tegen de keer. (Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij Groningen, 1983), p. 150
[20] Ibid. , p. 164
[21] Ibid. , p. 161
[22] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. (Harmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1983) p. 159
[23] Ibid., p. 187
[24] Ibid., p. 235


  1. "When the Russians installed a new president, President Husak, after their invasion of 1968, Kundera tells us that one of the first things Husak did was dismiss one hundred and forty-five historians from their posts". Was that literally true or was it part of a George Orwell-esque technique that Kundera used in his novel?

    If one of the historians really did say ”the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory”, that historian seemed to be onto something profound. The Husak decision was deeply sinister in intent, if not in outcome.

    1. Hi Hels,

      In 1975 the Czechoslovak historian Vilem Precan (dismissed from his position at the Institute of History in 1969) sent a public appeal to the World congress of Historians, listing all 145 dismissed historians. The Congress passed a resolution condemning the Husak action. This was followed later that year by the American association of Political Scientist issuing an expression of support for the 145 historians. In some ways this provided the inspiration for the creation of Charter 77 in Prague in 1977. And the rest, as they say, is history...

  2. Really interesting, Paul. Forgetting has been so often a replacing in totalitarian states, though democracies like the US manipulate the history that is taught to youth as well. Your piece made me reflect on events like the Cultural Revolution and resultant nationalistic history or histories that are taught, read, understood, taken for granted in China today (by much of the Han majority). Surely, these histories are arguably creative, but driven ideologically through the deep cultural (and linguistic) sense of looking backward to the future in Chinese culture. Would Foucault (or Nietzsche) say that such an unremembering causes a lack of true, deep self-knowledge because of the manipulation of history, Kundera's "retooling"? This sort of deep, self-fracturing manipulation differs little from the simple, shallow sense of our past presented by giant corporations in which we are encouraged to engage with another manipulated world, past, present, and future. Complexity vanishes in the light of simple solutions easily packaged and sold. That's a big narrative to combat. From a teaching lens, how much history, how much remembering do children do versus how much unremembering through cramming narrow versions of history for test preparation? The construction of the self through engagement with history is fascinating concept. Thanks very much for your blog post.

    1. Thanks Ian. I think you've put your finger on an important issue by using the terms "complexity" "shallow" and "simple solutions". Of course there is no neutral narrative and remembering is always selective and a healthy person forgets 99% or more and societies cannot possibly remember everything, nor should they. But the attempt to package history into simple, easily manipulated lessons defies the complexities and uncertainties involved. China, it would seem, has recently embraced such a simplified package recently. What is very ominous I think is the anti-Japanese tendency within this new, simplified narrative. The memory wars in the Far East could easily explode into armed conflict. But these simplification tendencies exist in all our nations e.g, Ireland is a land of victims who battled the British giant and still supports the underdog, The Netherlands is a land of tolerant, liberal citizens who embraced the Other and still provide refuge for the persecuted, etc.