The Mortality of Grief


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana’s adage has long been part of the conventional wisdom of the age. And in the immediate aftermath of the ninth anniversary of 9/11, questioning whether morality has memory inscribed on its DNA has to seem like the cruelest kind of nihilism. But there is remembering and remembering. For the families of those murdered on 9/11 to lead public ceremonies of remembrance–at ground zero, at the Pentagon, in Shanksville, Pa.–is not just appropriate; it’s necessary. This is not because of any psychobabble about closure. To the contrary, for real loss, there can never be anything of the sort; that is precisely why the need of the living to memorialize their dead has such commanding authority over us, as it should. But we also need to understand that, at ground zero, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, as the raw emotional freshness of the memory fades, as it must, life will go on.

That is the problem with Santayana’s epigram. Reality check: Sooner or later, much as we might wish it otherwise, we will forget the past. Looking up at the sky, Pascal wrote, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” The eternal silence of time would have frightened him–and should frighten and sober us–just as much. The stark truth is that remembrance has a shelf life (civilizations do, too, and ours may well be expiring, though that is a subject for another day). While we who walked on the same earth as the dead of 9/11 are ourselves still alive, remembrance is a moral imperative. That is no empty piety: It is no more than what we owe as a national community to those who died. But in 100 years, 200, a thousand? To think that our distant descendants will share our grief is not morality; it’s vanity.

None of this was at issue last Saturday. One of the most moving parts of the commemoration at ground zero was the reading of the names of those who died. The names themselves (and the photographs of the dead that were shown on television as their names were read at the site) made us weep. More heartbreaking still was the fact that those reading out the names were relatives of those who died. When it was time to read the names of their dear ones, each paused in the reading to deliver a message to them–an expression of love, homely news of children, words of admiration and grief. No physical monument could have the power of this heartfelt expression. And for once, the expression “living memory” had real meaning.

But that is just the point: living memory. For memory is mortal. We need not dwell on the fact, but we must not delude ourselves about it, either. Think of the celebration of Memorial Day, which was originally called Decoration Day. Proclaimed in 1868 on his own initiative by General John Logan, the head of the organization of Union army veterans, to honor the dead of the Civil War, and marked that same year by the laying of wreaths on the graves of soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery, it was officially celebrated by all Northern states by 1890, every May 30th. African-Americans in the South celebrated, too, and at no small risk to themselves, since in 10 of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, a rival day of remembrance, June 3, had been decreed to memorialize the Confederate dead. By 1910, celebrations were on the wane all over the United States. It was only after World War I, when the remembrance was expanded to include the dead of all of America’s wars, that public participation in the event began to expand again.

Today, despite the fact that Congress made Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971, and that we are fighting two wars (no, Iraq is not over, whatever President Obama, in his “Mission Accomplished Lite” speech, may have claimed), this remembrance is again on the wane. Perhaps, when the Long War against the jihadis ends–and all wars end eventually, however hard it is today to imagine the end of this one–a third version of Decoration Day will be devised that will again capture the public’s imagination. But if this does not happen, if we do forget the past, this does not mean we are condemned to repeat it. Santayana was wrong, and so was Marx when he made his absurd claim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Repeating itself is precisely what the past does not do, and to claim that it does is to project our own fears and desires–including our fear not just of our own personal extinction but also that of civilization, including its most cherished memories–upon it.

So all honor to those who weep in front of the names of comrades, or loved ones, or fellow citizens at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, and, at least if the architects and the builders don’t screw the thing up, to those who will do so at the memorial to the dead of the twin towers at ground zero. Let us indeed weep now, and, indeed, for the rest of our lives. But let us weep without illusion. One day, whether we like or not, those names will be as distant from us as the dead whose names we read as tourists in the vaults of medieval cathedrals. And this forgetting does not doom us to future wars or catastrophes any more than remembering inoculates us against them. There may even be a saving grace in that as living memories fade and become part of history, anger fades as well, and collective wounds stop their aching. In any case, Santayana said far smarter things than the remark about forgetting the past. One that comes to mind is this: “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”

David Rieff is currently writing a book on the global food crisis. The Mortality of Grief