“The essence of a nation is, that all its individual members should have many things in common; and also, that all of them should hold many things in oblivion.”
Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation” (1882)
It is easy to found national feeling on the shared memory of glorious victories over the nation’s enemies. It is just as easy to found it in the shared memory of the nation’s humiliation by hateful oppressors. But it is impossible to found national feeling in the shared memory of a glorious victory of one half of the nation over a humiliated other half. When a nation has been torn by internecine strife, as most nations eventually are, national feeling must be founded on mutual and common forgetting.
There is no nation if there is no national history, and there is no national history if there is no agreement in what members of the nation remember and forget. Note that I do not say agreement about what they ought to remember or forget. A nation that pretends to share common memories is pretending to be a nation. A national past is most certainly a fiction, but national feeling requires a common insensibility to the fact that it is a fiction.
If you individually remember what the nation has forgotten, you have lost national feeling and parted from the nation. If there are others like you, you and they have formed a new nation. It makes no difference if prudential policy causes you to counterfeit the national amnesia, since you have not forgotten unless you truly forget both what and that you have forgotten.
In the essay quoted in my epigraph, the great French historian says,
“Forgetfulness, and I shall even say historical error, form an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”
You should not read that word “forgetfulness” to mean nothing but “whitewashing,” “papering over,” “sanitizing,” “bowdlerizing” or “romanticizing” the past. But you probably do read the word “forgetfulness” this way, because we have all been conditioned by the revisionist prejudice that national memory forgets only national crimes. If you consider the niggardly nature of human gratitude, however, you will realize that we humans forget our benefactors far more quickly than we forget our victims. If you consider our robust relish of resentment, you will see that we humans whitewash the virtues of our enemies far more quickly than we whitewash the vices in ourselves.
New nations have been created in the disintegrating carcass of American national feeling. This should be evident to anyone who understands the meaning of our profound disagreement in what we remember and what we forget. Note again that I do not say profound disagreement over what we ought to remember or ought to forget, although there is certainly, nowadays, a great deal of sound and fury about that. All of us remember what we remember and have forgotten both what and that we have forgotten.
Those who remember and forget as I do are my nation.