Saturday, 26 May 2012

Memory and Responsibility

In her reportage on Afghan conflict, "The Wind Blows Away Our Words", Doris Lessing raises the question of "memory". She compares how people recall the around 4 million who perished in WW1 with the near total loss of recall of memory for 20 million who died in the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918 - 1920. 

Extract from " The Wind Blows Away Our Words" ---

The First World War's dead numbered four million. This was modest compared to the horrors that were to follow, and very soon. The seven to nine million of Stalin's forced collectivization of Russian peasants. The twenty million (or so) of Stalin's murders in the Gulags. The twenty million (or so) of the Great Leap Forward. The sixty million (or so) of the Cultural Revolution. But these were deliberate murders, policies of murder, planned and carried out. The four million of the First World War were not planned, were not meant, they happened. At the time it was terrible, impossible, dreadful - all Europe was afflicted by the numbers of the dead, perhaps sensing that they marked the beginning of our decline.The possibility of man-made disasters was being recognized, and with much unease and foreboding. Yet as that war ended, with its four million dead, there began a much greater calamity, the flu epidemic,which ravaged the whole world and killed twenty-nine million people. The years 1918,1919,1920 were horrible because of this great influenza epidemic. There was also a sleeping sickness epidemic, equally mysterious, though far fewer people died..... The First World War is always remembered, discussed, analysed. Histories are written, heroes celebrate, we stand to attention once a year and mourn. But the Great Influenza Epidemic that killed more than seven times as many is seldom mentioned.
We should be asking, perhaps, "Why have we forgotten this terrible calamity?' What other calamities have we all chosen to forget? "What is it about certain types of disaster that numbs the human mind?'

You can read histories of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, and not find it said that most of the troops died from typhus, dysentery, cholera. Generals Snow and Ice are plentifully commemorated. In war after war. the deciding factors were typhus, dysentery, cholera, even the Black Death. But often the histories hardly mention them.

Is it that there are kinds of calamities that our minds are equipped to deal with, but others not? Does it mean that as we link causes to effects, we will remember more and more?\

(From Her Long Hair Streaming Down - Doris Lessing)

(From The Strange Case of the Western Conscience  -Doris Lessing)

    It has probably happened in the past that a terrible atrocity has become the symbol or shorthand for other, lesser or greater, atrocities, so that they become forgotten. Our minds seem to work like that. We may observe how they work watching the changes in how we refer to the murder of six million Jews.When the news was fresh, we said, 'the six million Jews murdered in the gas chambers by Hitler'. This became shortened to 'the six million Jews murdered by Hitler.' While our minds really cannot really take in the enormity of of the six million, at least this is a number, a figure, standing for people, for human beings; but now there is a catch-phrase, The Holocaust, because of a television programme.The humanity of the murdered people is diminished by the slogan. Soon we may forget how many people were killed. We have already forgotten, because of this way we have of making Hitler stand for the evils of our times, the Jews murdered by Stalin who, in the few years before he died, (referred to the as 'The Black Years' ) were systematically killed in the newly occupied countries of Eastern Europe, and in the Soviet Union itself. It is on record that medieval tortures, medieval methods of killing, were brought out of museums and used. How many were there of them?  Hundreds of thousands? A million? Who knows! Are they ignored because there were comparatively few of them? I don't think there are any memorials of them anywhere.

We consider some forms of murder worse than others. Why should the murder of six million Jews be worse than, let's say, the deliberate killing, by starvation, as a matter of policy, of seven to nine million, mostly Ukrainian peasants? If one were to ask this - and it certainly needs temerity to ask - the reply would be,'Because it was a deliberate, racial murder, qualitatively different, because of the use of gas chambers.' But this 'six million' -the Holocaust- has itself been simplified. Hitler also killed on racial grounds, 'about' one million gypsies. Many of them in the gas chambers. They died because they were gypsies, and -Hitler said- racially inferior. These people are never mentioned There are no books written by the victims, no television or radio programmes, no memorial services, no memorials to the 'approximately' one million gypsies murdered by Hitler.(And, of course by his party members). Do we share Hitler's views that gypsies do not matter? Of course not; it is just that this enormity has been swallowed by something greater - in number. But if six million Jews are a Holocaust, then are one million gypsies one sixth of a Holocaust? Should we not put aside this word, Holocaust, and use language that shows some thought, and care , for the dead?

Not only the gypsies have been forgotten. Hitler is supposed to have murdered , in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany,'about' twelve million  people. Six million Jews, one million gypsies - that makes seven million, and leaves five million. Who were they?  Before the murder of the 'racially inferior' Jews and gypsies began, many Germans resisted Hitler and were killed. Hitler's Germany murdered German communists, socialists, trade unionists,, and ordinary decent people. The wound made by the killing of the Jews in the extermination camps is so deep that it has been almost impossible to concede any humanity to the Germans of that time. But surely at some point we should start looking at the whole business more coolly? Who were these other five million murdered by Hitler? How many of them were German? Is it not that  the Germans who were the first to fight Hitler (and they must have felt themselves the loneliest , the most isolated people in the world, for no one the was standing up to Hitler) - is it not time they were counted, and honoured, their story at last told? Until we do this I believe we shall be poorer for it, as we are when we allow ourselves black and white judgements, pattern thinking, over-simplification. 

We ourselves are prisoners of these numbers, these figures, the statistics - the millions' and millions upon millions. It is possible that our careless, our casual, use of these 'millions' is one of the reasons for brutality, for cruelty?

Writing this, I have been haunted by some words of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who died in the Gulag:

'and only my own kind will kill me'

. This book was written in late 80s. Our memories of spanish flu have been resurrected in recent times because of bird flu epidemics.
I would like to opine that there are two types of memory - one "connecting" memory where every event falls into its place and the understood connection between various events hold the whole structured memory- and second an episodic memory - e.g.,memory of a startled look on a face.

And our memories of the past colour our perception of the present and so shape our future.

About  neurosis "The term essentially describes an "invisible injury" and the resulting condition".  C.G.Jung - “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Curing neurosis through analysis has always involved digging out some episodic memory which challenges the existing perception and shifts the emphasis ever so slightly here and there and the person is able to make contact with creative life again.

About communalism, we as a nation do not have much of a memory. What we do have in plenty is juvenile posturings. But things are changing. The reports of various enquiry commissions are available on the internet. Not only official enquiry commissions but by various groups and individuals. What is special about Gujarat is so much of 'episodic' past is available in the form of television footage or documentaries. In case of Bombay riots, the documentaries ( I could not get Suma Josson's Bombay Blood Yatra on youtube but that is also very good) - bring alive the ground situations and the 'feel' of the times absent in newspaper reportage. Gujarat, there are many reports, documentaries (Rakesh Sharma )  and a film (Parzania). That is why Gujarat is so important - How we deal with our collective neurosis - Somewhere along the path we will have to learn to deal with Truth and Reconciliation.

There are people who need their "Comrade Napoleon". 'Comrade Napoleon is always right' and will see Snowball everywhere.(Reference is to George Orwell's Animal Farm )

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