Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia by Francis O'Gorman - review by Patricia Duncker

Patricia Duncker

Memory Slain

Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia


Bloomsbury Academic 185pp £13.99 order from our bookshop

This provocative and engaging little book should be read as a personal essay. Francis O’Gorman makes his own voice and lived experience visible, which transforms his argument into a conversation with the reader. Thus, controversial and surprising ideas are presented with the armchair authority of a scholarly gentleman. The personal voice provides the illusion of presence and spontaneity, of someone thinking on paper before us. O’Gorman doesn’t provide extensive evidence and scatters his high-minded learning across the narrative. He manages to be both erudite and accessible, which is something of a feat.

Forgetting and remembering, both for cultures and for individuals, are Janus-faced. One suggests the other. O’Gorman’s primary focus is on what is widely considered to be the suspect concept of ‘collective memories’ and our irresponsible abandonment of them and the values they embody. Historical memory and place are intimately connected. He begins with a hole in the ground at Mycenae, supposedly the tomb of Agamemnon. Was it? How reliable was Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th-century archaeologist who first excavated the site? And was the death mask found in that tomb really the image of Agamemnon? The ancient Greeks treasured memory; they revered the stories of their ancestors as vital histories, a past that informed their present.

O’Gorman has heroes and villains in every chapter. The Greeks are praised for remembering, the villains are St Augustine and, through him, Christianity, which values the Kingdom of Heaven over this world, encouraging practitioners to invest not in the past or the present but in what is to

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