Damnatio memoriae & the duty of remembering

In the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace, Venice, there is a curious painting that, once noticed, slowly lures you in. The room is disconcertingly vast and visually stunning. It was built to comfortably accommodate meetings of 2000 aristocrats at a time. The walls and ceiling are covered in gold-framed High Renaissance paintings including at one end Tintoretto’s Paradiso, reputedly the largest oil painting on canvas in existence. In the midst of cavalcades of angels and sea battles, there’s still that strange dark painting near the corner of the room that catches the eye.

Along the length of the hall in pairs, some staring each other out for all eternity, are the portraits of the Doges, the elected leaders of the Most Serene republic of Venice, which lasted for over a thousand years. There are many intriguing figures among the Doges. The further you go back in time, the more dangerous it seems to have been to be one. There were three in a row in the eighth century who were overthrown and had their eyes gouged out before being exiled. Obelerio degli Antenori ended up with his head being detached, somewhat against his will, and left on a stall in the marketplace. Pietro IV Candiano was locked in his palace with his son, by a mob that proceeded to set the building on fire, burning down half the city in the process. The charred corpses of the pair ended up unceremoniously dumped in the abattoir. Beyond morbid curiosity, there were a great many Doges who were superior statesmen, master military tacticians, shrewd double-crossers and marketeers. Hence the survival of Venice as the ‘Queen of the Adriatic’ while other city-states and empires around it crumbled or were consumed. Yet it’s not to any of these figures you’re primarily drawn. Instead it’s to a painting of a dark shroud, with a cryptic message inscribed across it. Black as a Malevich ikon. A gothic image that jars with the baroque extravagance of its neighbours. After a while, in a room that demands your attention like some mad Liberace fever-dream, the simplicity and silence of the picture outweighs everything else. You come back to it and, despite all the excesses that surround it, find it’s the one thing that you remember vividly years later.

It marks, with a paradox Borges would have relished, the non-existence of a person: Marin Falier, the cursed fifty-fifth Doge. The Emperor Palpatine of the Republic. The victors, of course, write history and we’re led to believe Falier was a megalomaniac intent on imperial grandeur and usurping control of the city-state before some plucky democrats put paid to his heinous plans and detached his troublesome head from his shoulders. In retrospect, he seems perhaps a man more sinned against than sinning. Having lived a long-life in service of Venice, it’s not unreasonable he should have sought some rewards or at least a modicum of respect in return. Elected Doge at the age of 76, he began to take offence at the uncouthness of those around him. Having thrown a drunken young aristocrat out of a banquet, he returned to find a letter with an obscene poem on it left on his throne, accusing him of being a cuckold. Typical of the sons of a ruling elite, their unruly behaviour continued, to the extent Falier’s authority was becoming undermined. He needed to act. Unfortunately, he overstepped the mark by some distance. He planned to spread rumours and disinformation that Venice was about to be invaded by their great rival Genoa. During the ensuing panic, he would dispatch soldiers to assassinate the young noblemen in question. In what would become a fatal error, he would then declare himself Prince of Venice, crossing the Rubicon and bringing the Republic to an end. Alarmed at the coup d’état and dictatorship that beckoned, the plans were passed onto the Council of Ten who staged a preemptive coup of their own. Falier was decapitated in the courtyard of the palace. His portrait was painted over with black drapes bearing the words, Hic est locus Marini Faletro decapitati pro criminibus – ‘This is the space reserved for Marin Falier, beheaded for his crimes.’ From that point on, his name was forbidden, subject to the tradition of damnatio memoriae – ‘condemned from memory’.

Such practices seem to belong to more barbaric times. We are modern after all we think, forgetting that everyone who came before us believed they were modern too. In fact, damnatio memoriae still exists and always will. When the Berlin Wall fell, we saw in a multitude of cities across the former Eastern Bloc, statues of Stalin, Lenin and Marx being pulled down. The same with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq. The population could excise all that came before from their memory. They could try to gain, in that impossible example of wish-fulfillment, closure. Perhaps the Taliban, in their deranged little theocratic minds, were gaining some form of closure when they dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the Khmer Rouge when they slaughtered the Cambodian Buddhist patriarch Huot Tat and threw his graven image into the Tonlé Sap River before transforming a city of two million people into a ghost town. What they most certainly were saying was the old ways are over, this is Year Zero, a new epoch and there is no going back. Amateur radicals renamed streets, ambitious radicals renamed months of the year. To mention what or who came before becomes anathema. It is condemned from memory at the point of rifle or machete. This is the crucial difference between ‘totalitarians’ and ‘the free world’. We are not obliged to forget. We are free to remember even, if we’re especially masochistic, free to feel nostalgia.

We are also free to forget, or rather try to forget, if we so wish. It’s demonstrably unwise but we have the option. Under the rule of Islamists, Fascists or Stalinists, as Orwell so rightly prophesised in 1984, they will seek to reorder not just your thoughts but your memories. It’s a symbiotic process, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Though an ancient tradition, damnatio memoriae informs our behaviours today, whether we realise it or not. It most likely goes back to prehistory. The Ancient Israelites passed on a curse, still used today (in reference to the German architects of the Shoah), “yimakh shemo, yimakh shemo vezikhro” translating roughly as “May his name and memory be wiped out.” As recounted in the Book of Judges, when Abimelech destroyed the city of Schechem, he scattered salt where it had once stood, an event which was later ascribed to Scipio and the armies of Rome following the defeat of Carthage. It was not enough that the city be destroyed and its inhabitants killed or sold as slaves, all traces of it having ever existed must be erased. The irony being that sowing the site with salt would ensure nothing could grow on the soil, leaving a permanent ghostly trace of that which had once stood there. The Romans did, in fact, inflict damnatio memoriae on those who’d fallen from favour or disgraced themselves in battle or intrigue. Those ‘on the wrong side of history’ were written out of it. Again there’s a paradox that the only cases we can cite are those which failed. The successful airbrushing we will never know of. Perhaps there are generals and politicians, philosophers and writers we will never know of, who became nonpersons in the Orwellian sense. In a more inexact but effective means of erasure, what lives and worlds did we lose when the Library of Alexandria and all the knowledge it contained was cremated by this same Rome?

We know that it was a man called Herostratus who burned down the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seventh Wonders of the World (a considerable feat given it was built from marble). We know that he did it so he’d be remembered in infamy forever and so, to deny him that dubious glory, the authorities declared his name to be taboo. We only know this because the historian Theopompous smuggled us the once-forbidden information in his Hellenics, under penalty of death. Without it, Herostratus, his act and even our knowledge of the attempted cover-up, evaporates. The temptation must have been there in Norway when the right-wing child-killer Anders Breivik revealed his massacre of 69 youngsters on the island of Utøya (as well as 8 people in Oslo) was a platform from which to broadcast his manifesto A European Declaration of Independence to the world’s media. It’s a testament to Norwegian society that the main question was whether the murderer should be starved of the oxygen of publicity. The less civilised of us would have argued for Breivik to be starved simply of oxygen.

These days, damnatio memoriae is largely reserved for less grandiose and more squalid acts and individuals than torching one of the Wonders of the World. Politicians do it continually euthanising then revising election pledges to suggest they’d never actually been made. Historians often aid their grander purposes, according to ideology or self-benefit. Selective editing is a form of rewriting after all. All the evils of empire can be rebranded as benefits. The headcounts of genocides bartered down. The allegiances of sacred long-dead figures can be granted and the existence of troublesome guilty ones erased. Sometimes the omission is blatant. Never trust a space in any photograph of Lenin or Stalin. Therein lie ghosts and secrets, men shot in the nape of the neck in NKVD basements or starved and frozen in the gulag. Sometimes the omission is subtle but sweeping: take the Great Man Theory of history exposed as a fabrication of sorts by Bertolt Brecht in his poem, ‘A Worker Reads History’,

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time?
(…)
And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

We need only look in the daily newspapers to find other examples. When the open secret that Sir Jimmy Savile was a serial predatory rapist and paedophile posthumously came to light, a strange yet understandable process started to take place. Damnatio memoriae through shame. Friends and family, afraid of being judged by association and most probably feeling disgusted and betrayed, begin to distance themselves from the figure. Statues are pulled down, charities renamed, knighthoods revoked. They remove his headstone, a fairly monomaniacal construction more befitting to a slain Russian Mafioso, and have it smashed into landfill. They’re considering digging up his body to be desposed of in a secret location (reminiscent of other hate figures like Bin Laden cast in the sea or the ashes of the hanged Nazis of Nuremberg scattered in an unnamed river, later revealed as the Isar).

In America, a similar situation has occurred with the Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky repeatedly molesting young boys over many years, even being directly caught by a colleague raping a ten year old boy in the showers. This was reported to superiors who buried the information. Sandusky has not escaped justice by dying as Savile did and will see out the rest of his days in Pennsylvania state prison. A mural near the campus has been painted over replacing his portrait with that of Dora McQuaid, a poet, graduate of the university and a campaigner for victims of sexual abuse. A bronze statue of his now deceased boss, and effective enabler, Joe Paterno has been removed. Once the somewhat lurid tabloid frenzy dies down, the world, we will be told, should forget wretched degenerates like Savile and Sandusky ever existed. This however is a mistake and underlines not just the fallacy of damnatio memoriae but the danger of it.

Removing Savile from the collective memory seems all-too-appealing, not least for his victims who should never have to see his image again. To forget him completely would be to forget not just what he did but crucially who let him do it. It would absolve ourselves of responsibility. All the people who’ve now spoken out, who witnessed Savile’s abuse take place (and Sandusky’s), who allowed it to continue through their silence, are to varying degrees morally culpable. Why did they not speak when they witnessed the acts, when they could have stopped the abuse? Are we in a position to judge them? When you have an institution that gives individuals power and access, there may be abuse. When you add a culture of deference, impunity and an absence of transparency, you guarantee it. We’ve seen this from the Catholic Church’s sorry history in my native Ireland, as well as Germany, the United Statesand elsewhere though it’s far from a uniquely papal problem. We’ve seen it in countless schools, care homes, orphanages and now Penn State and the BBC. It is always committed by a warped and minuscule minority but it continues thanks to the silent majority. The crucial ingredients are fear and power.

The Milgram experiment famously demonstrated that our submission to authority will overrule, in the majority of people, our conscience and even induce us to greviously harm others. We all like to think we’d be in the tiny minority who would say no, voice our opposition, make a stand. The chances are we wouldn’t. Primo Levi wrote of how he’d witnessed, in the concentration camps, when a person was pushed to the absolute lowest point, they discovered how deep their inner strength really was. It was often a surprise; supposedly strong men would disintegrate before him, weaklings would prove resilient. It seems to me there is a similar reserve of moral courage or compassion in us. We indulge ourselves and imagine it to be of heroic proportions. It’s part of our innate egotism. We all like to think we care more than others. It’s the flip side of feeling more hurt than others when aggrieved. We feel more because we are more, at least to ourselves.

We can indulge ourselves with fantasies of ‘I would have’ precisely because we know these things will not come to pass and we will not be tested. ‘Had I been alive then, I would have signed up for the International Brigades and fought in Spain like Orwell did. Or in the Easter Rising. Or against the Nazis. Or during the Troubles.’ I genuinely used to think these things as a foolhardy young man, knowing in the back of my mind I was protected from ever having to test the claims by vast swathes of time and circumstance. Others, men and women I know, were not so lucky. In truth, we can barely even passively do the right thing, let alone actively do it. “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous.” Levi wrote, “More dangerous are… the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” These functionaries, whether we like it or not, whether we have fooled ourselves otherwise, comprise the great mass of humanity, I fear myself included. Most when faced with authority or consensus will keep their head down and choose a quiet life. It works this way from the monumental (in the case of the White Rose and the infinitesimal proportion of incredibly brave Germans who fought against the Nazis) to the everyday (simply standing up for a colleague who’s bullied or alienated in work or voicing real opposition to unjust laws, which these days are plentiful). It’s the herd instinct answered by a cowardly voice of self-preservation in your head that says, ‘Don’t get yourself noticed.’

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” is a quote attributed to Edmund Burke, it actually comes from a Soviet adaptation of War and Peace. Like all clichés, it’s a truth we’ve grown embarrassed by through overuse and under-implementation. Everything does indeed depend on the person who says ‘Enough.’ For this reason, we must remember the very people we most want to forget.

Let the Stalins, Hitlers and Pol Pots have their immortality and the mini tyrants further and further down the line, the Husseins, the Assads, the Breiviks, Saviles and Sanduskys. Let them have it but never on their own terms. Let us remember them as examples of the depths to which individuals can sink and how we, the self-appointed ‘good men’, allowed it to happen. Let them remind us of our shame in turning a blind eye, in kowtowing to authority, in allowing them to oppress the vulnerable because of our fear and misplaced respect for wealth, accident of birth, privilege, faith and dogma. Let them shame us into saying ‘never again.’ Let them also keep their absurd awards, titles and knighthoods to demonstrate the corruption of such decorations. Let them be defended as their apologists may try to do so that we see the imbecility of canonising any human being (even the saints weren’t saints). Let us expose the ‘race to the bottom’ decrepitude of a moral relativism that excuses any crime against women or children if it happens in another time or culture or is committed by someone we’ve deemed untouchable. Revile and defile them by all means but don’t let the bastards be forgotten. As everyone can quote but few bother to apply, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Of course the Venetians got there centuries before us. They knew we’d be drawn to the black shroud portrait above all the others in the room. They knew all future Doges would be drawn to it too. It was the perfect warning. The black shroud over the portrait of Marin Falier was not an attempt at amnesia or damnatio memoriae. It was precisely the opposite.

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