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The Ethics of Memory
The Ethics of Memory
Avishai Margalit
Harvard University Press, 2002
240 pp., 24.95

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Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy
Carlos Eire
Free Press, 2004
400 pp., 18.00

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by Miroslav Volf

Kissing the Lizard

On memory and forgiveness.

A soldier was killed by friendly fire and, during a public interview about the incident, the commander of the soldier's small unit could not remember his name. According to newspaper reports, people were incensed. The name of this fallen soldier should have been "scorched in iron letters" on his commander's heart, they thought. But was the commander's failure a moral one or just a case of embarrassing but innocent forgetfulness? Avishai Margalit's book Ethics of Memory, he tells us, was occasioned by this incident. Thus provoked, Margalit, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, set out to investigate the obligation to remember. Do we have a duty to remember people's names, their stories, or major events in their lives? If we do, what kind of duty is that? In recent decades, many books have been written on memory. Most of them simply assume that such a duty exists. Margalit's is one of the very few explicit treatments of this thorny question.

Margalit offers a two-part proposal. It builds on his distinction between ethics and morality. Ethics, he proposes, regulates "thick" relations, that is, "our relation to the near and dear." Morality regulates "thin" relations, "our relations to the strange and remote." According to Margalit, in the "Christian project," all relations are thick (every person is a neighbor); in the "Jewish project," a version of which he advocates, the distinction is kept between neighbor and stranger and therefore between ethics and morality. I'll leave aside here whether in the "Christian project" all relations are "thick" in Margalit's sense or whether the "Christian project" can accommodate various degrees of "thickness" and "thinness," making room for the moral significance of special relations (such as relations to family members, coreligionists, members of the same nation, etc.). When Margalit applies the distinction between ethics and morality to the duty to remember, he concludes that "while there is an ethics of memory, there is very little morality of memory."

What ought we to remember about those to whom we are "thinly" related? Margalit's question is not what might be desirable to remember (say, if you want to consider yourself an educated or considerate person) but what you have a moral obligation to remember. His answer is simple: of the acts of people to whom you are thinly related, you are morally obliged to remember only those "that undermine the very foundation of morality itself." The case in point is Nazi eliminative biologism, as exercised in extermination of Jews and Gypsies on the grounds that they are subhuman. This, Margalit believes, "was a direct onslaught on the very idea of shared humanity," and therefore ought to be remembered by all people.

Why ought we to remember such acts? Margalit offers only a vague appeal to the need to protect morality itself from being undermined. But why does morality need the protection of this kind of memory? What would the memory of inhumanity add to what our moral sense already tells us—namely, that every being born of a human is a human being and ought to be treated as such? Memory could make us wise, teaching us how to protect ourselves and others or to be more vigilant in keeping before us the frequency with which morality's foundations are undermined. But it would be hard to derive a moral obligation to remember from the need for such wisdom or vigilance. Moreover, it is not clear why all onslaughts on the idea of shared humanity ought to be remembered by all people. Is it a moral failure on the part of a 75-year-old man living on the Croatian island Ugljan not to remember that European colonialists have slaughtered indigenous American populations partly because they deemed them subhuman? Similarly, why would a Mongol herdsman be morally obligated to remember the Holocaust? Unfortunately, Margalit explores none of these critical issues.

In the case of thick relations regulated by ethics, the obligation to remember persons and the history of our relation with them is both weaker and broader than in the case of thin relations. It is weaker because the obligation to remember is conditional (or, in Kant's terms, hypothetical): if you want to be in thick relations, then you ought to remember. Memories are a constitutive part of thick relations, hence one ought to remember. But since, according to Margalit, no one has a moral obligation to be engaged in ethical relations, the "ought" is conditional. At the same time, in the case of thick relations, the obligation to remember is more encompassing. Far from just remembering acts that undermine humanity, if the community matters to us, we will want to remember individual persons and their stories. The sense of obligation to remember will vary, depending on how close to us the people in question are. On the whole, however, the better we remember, the richer our thick relations will be.

Here the argument about the ethics of memory seems plausible, except that it is not clear how to draw the line between thick and thin relations. Margalit suggests that thick relations encompass not only family but also nation (which he conceives in analogy to family). But it is not clear why such relations should be neither narrower nor wider than a nation (especially since he recognizes that, ideally but unrealizably, they should encompass all of humanity).

And should we remember everything about the near and dear? What about the memory of wounds we inflict upon them or they upon us? Though he is a secular thinker, Margalit draws on the traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures to reflect on the issue. At its center is the relation between forgiveness and memory. He makes two central claims. First, we should forgive, but there is no duty to forgive. Forgiveness is a gift. The purpose of forgiveness is the same as the purpose of gifts in general: to strengthen social ties. Forgiveness is governed by the same logic as remembering: if you want good thick relations, then you'll forgive. But you are not obliged to be in such relations. If I see things rightly, this amounts to saying that you are not obliged to love anyone. For if you were, then, arguably, you would be also obliged—paradoxically or not—to give them the gift of forgiveness if they have offended against you.

Second, forgiveness does not involve forgetting. Margalit is well aware that there is at least an important strand in the Hebrew Scriptures in which forgiveness is closely tied to forgetting. The metaphor of "blotting out," which "depicts forgiving as absolutely forgetting the sinful act," sums up this strand, he claims. But he prefers the strand expressed by the metaphor of "covering up," which, according to Margalit, "suggests disregarding the offense without forgetting it." That strand is "conceptually, psychologically, and morally preferable to the picture of blotting out."

It is possible, however, that the two strands may amount to just one. Unless one occasionally uncovers what one has covered up through forgiveness, it will remain out of one's mind. Margalit himself cannot quite abandon the idea of forgetting (just as he cannot bring himself to fully give up the Christian universalism of love). In the ideal sense, he claims, forgiveness is "overcoming all traces and scars of the act to be forgiven." Hence God's forgiveness is "blotting-out forgiveness," whereas human forgiveness—presumably on account of human limitations—is "covering-up forgiveness." Margalit does not believe in everlasting life; the dead live only in the memory of the living. If he did, maybe he could imagine how for humans the blotting-out forgiveness might not be an unattainable ideal, but a divine gift in the world to come.

A moral witness, argues Margalit in a chapter with the same title, witnesses "suffering inflicted by an unmitigated evil regime." A paradigmatic moral witness "is one who experiences the suffering—one who is not just an observer but also a sufferer." Carlos Eire, Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, is a moral witness. His book is a memoir of childhood and exile, the recollections of a privileged boy who, at the age of 11, was one of 14,000 children airlifted from Cuba, separated from his parents and, with only a small suitcase in hand, dropped off in a land in which he did not know a soul. Some might dispute Eire's right to the title of moral witness because they don't consider Fidel's regime evil. And yet, even if one grants that the Cuban revolution served a greater good, the suffering it inflicted on thousands of innocent people still remains undeniable and can only be described as evil. Eire gives us a window into that suffering as experienced by a boy.

The book is, however, more than just a record of suffering endured at the hands of evildoers. As its subtitle indicates, Eire writes in the style of confession. Unlike Elie Wiesel, for instance, he does not mainly register evil and suffering to honor the sufferers and warn future generations or to accomplish an inner catharsis. He probes deeply into the warping that evil produces in the souls of victims and struggles with frightening honesty, born of faith, on a journey of redemption from its sinister power.

It has been long since I read a memoir so unpredictable and yet so moving, so wildly humorous and yet so stern in its moral judgment, so concentrated on the self but so concerned with others and their redemption, a story so rooted in a specific time and place and yet so universal in import. Evil keeps appearing in the shape of a lizard, and the lizard of lizards is Fidel, who destroyed everything Eire knew as boy, wrecked it "in the name of fairness, … progress, … the oppressed, and of love for the gods Marx and Lenin." Contrary to what one might expect, the redemption toward which Eire is groping bears the face not of a political figure or a social program but of Jesus, who "wept with joy upon seeing all the world's sins embedded in those mean, raw pieces of wood that meant death for Him at the age of thirty-three." A Cuban nun taught him the meaning of redemption. She was wise enough to talk to the orphaned and exiled children not "about their present situation," utterly dire as it was, but "in universal terms about [their] faults and about redemption from them."

In his search for redemption, Eire wrestles with two issues. First, what to do with desire bereft of a precious object, a boy's desire that yearns for what it could have had as much as for what it lost. "In the past thirty-eight years I've seen eight thousand nine hundred and seventeen clouds in the shape of the island Cuba," writes Eire, an exiled man in his early fifties. Second, how does one make peace with enemies, even more, how does one love them? "My dream of dreams," writes Eire toward the end of the book, is to "kiss [the lizard] fondly, and let go forever." The original title of the book, rejected by the publisher as too offensive, was Kiss the Lizard, Jesus (Jesus Rubio was the main character in that first version of the book, conceived as a novel rather than a memoir). Much of what Eire is after as he sifts through recollections and the emotions stirred by the recollected events can be described as the redemption of memories: "imagine the sound of memories that have nothing to do with Batista or Fidel."

So how does Eire's journey toward redemption look? You must read the book yourself. One thing that will strike you immediately is the style. Here is its unforgettable first sentence: "The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me." Then there is the perspective. Eire combines a way of seeing the world often associated with magical realism (except that it is "all true," or "at least 98.6% of it," as he told me) with a humor the likes of which I've never seen before—a humor that is not garnish but a way of life and itself a vehicle of redemption.

An even more important element of redemption than humor—an element which lets humor do the redemptive work and not just relieve Eire temporarily of life's burdens—is his robust faith in God. His own peculiar "proofs of God's existence" (proof no. 5, "the ultimate proof": desire) structure the whole text, and he repeatedly reads his own story within the framework of salvation history (e.g., the exiled children of Cuba are the slaughtered children of Bethlehem; as a fatherless boy he sees himself in the image of God's Son abandoned by the Father). The aftereffects of that nun's talk, which left him in a "stupor, wondering what had hit [him]," are felt throughout the book.

There is no trace of cheap religiosity in this memoir, however. Like Jacob in his dream, Eire struggles with his God—and with himself. He narrates his seven proofs of God's existence but wonders if lizards may be "an argument against the existence of God." He wants to kiss the lizards that did him harm but also yearns to see them condemned to "lick Satan's razor-studded butt forever and ever, with their tongues." He is troubled not only by big evildoers but also by the little ones, like himself.

Yet Eire believes that redemption will come. He will make peace with his enemies and he, an exiled island boy, will watch "a tangerine sunrise that never ends, forever hovering over a swirling cloud of parrot fish in the turquoise sea." Just when and how will he embrace his enemies and see his desires reach their goal? Reared spiritually as he was in the school of Catholic mystics and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, he trusts that the "hidden God" of his past will be the manifest God of the world's future. The God with whom we are destined "to abide for eternity" will bring eternal redemption. This allows Eire, among other things, to integrate "oblivion" into the redemption of memories: one can let go of memories—consign them to the "vault of oblivion"—and thereby not lose oneself but gain oneself anew. All of this, and much more, is not just suggested or said in the book; the story pulls the reader toward that divine end without end.

Can one get no redemption before the dawn of the world to come? One can. Eire writes as a man who has tasted the sweet savor of a new life even as he is drinking from the bitter cup of evil's memories. He has kissed many lizards, he says. That is why when he condemns Ernesto, a lizard slightly trailing Fidel in ugliness and wickedness, the worst punishment he can think of is for him to be embraced by Jesus eternally. So writes a man who has admittedly not yet been freed from anger but has offered it up to God and is "letting Jesus take care of it."

Margalit's and Eire's are two very different books. Most obviously, one is a philosophical treatise and the other a memoir (and a memoir at that in which the greatest modern philosopher, Immanuel Kant, belongs to the lizard trinity along with Fidel and Ernesto because Eire reads Kant as an exponent of Enlightenment rationality, whose one political embodiment is the Cuban revolution!). More important, the two books pursue different questions and offer diverging answers.

Margalit's questions are ethical: How do we honor our near and dear who have come before us, especially those who suffered? What is the role of memory in thick relations and how do we create a community of caring? What obligations to remember do we have toward distant others? Eire's questions are spiritual: How do we live with memories of irretrievable loss and violation, given that for victims, memories are not so much a solution as a problem? How do we relate to the perpetrators? How do we find healing of losses and redemption from evil?

Though he draws on sacred texts (primarily the Hebrew Scriptures), Margalit's answers are secular: the dead will live in the memories of the living, and if we remember the dead and their deeds we will foster better communities. Margalit offers an ethics of memory. Eire's answers are religious: we find redemption by having our stories inserted into God's story and in everlasting life with God, the source of our life and salvation and the telos of all our desires.

"Secular" and "religious" are alternatives, but the ethics of memory and the redemption of memories need not be. If Margalit seems to leave us with wounded memories and no resources to heal them—especially since he has, at the beginning of the book, rightly discarded a prevalent belief "in the healing power wrought by bringing repressed memories to the light of consciousness"—the advantage of Eire's religious struggle for the redemption of memories is that, if pressed, he can integrate the ethics of memory into his perspective. Eire offers redemption of memories—and redemption of people who remember.

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale University Divinity School.

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