Syndromes and Sensibility

The publicity given by the media to Arkiv was pleasing. Unfortunately, there was a tendency to associate its purpose and its recommendation exclusively with unionism. For example, we were obliged to correct the inadvertent impression in the Newsletter editorial that Arkiv’s intention is to challenge a nationalist reading of the past. Our letter, published on 1 November stated:

Our concern is not to ‘de-legitimise’ any single interpretation of the past. Anyway, it is not in our gift to do so. It is to question, by reference to the public record, reducing the past to any one dominant narrative. For example, though it is true that so-called armed conflict was distinctive of Northern Ireland’s recent past it was never representative of it. A history which would diminish in its account the majority within nationalist and unionist politics, churches and society who did not subscribe to violence is an example of what Lord Bew, in a report in the Newsletter, termed an ‘infantilised view of history’. 

Moreover, some comment in the social media argued that the proposal for a Historical Commission was equivalent to being patronised by the academics who feel they’re the only ones in a position to tell everyone where it all went wrong. It was assumed that the proposal was either ‘pompous’ or ‘smug’ based on the assumption that historians were superior in knowledge and understanding than anyone else. Indeed, one criticism was that the grievance and hurt is so deep that neither history nor the historians can help. It is worth clarifying the way we understand the public function of history in this proposal.


Stendhal and other syndromes

Take as the starting point the following passage in Julian Barnes’ recent book: Nothing To Be Frightened Of:

Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

This is something we would all agree on. It is presented here as a reflection on the life of an individual but it applies equally in Northern Ireland to claims made on behalf of the group or community. And what are identity politics if not the politics of collective memory? We are presently living through a decade in which the respective commemorations of those identities are prominent public events.

One of the recurring references in Barnes’s book is to the Stendhal Syndrome, a recognised and documented condition of dizziness and fainting and confusion brought on by exposure to a surfeit of great art in a single location – supposedly in Stendhal’s case by Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Whenever he does a little bit of digging into this story and cross references the story Stendhal relates in 1826 with his diary of 1811 things look rather different. We learn from the diary that he does indeed enter Florence at the date recalled but, as Barnes puts it, ‘memory took one road and truth another’. The evidence of what happened and – from the historical record of the details what could have happened – doesn’t match up to the story. In short, ‘all reliable evidence for Stendhal’s Syndrome effectively dissolves before our eyes’. The important and sensitive qualification which Barnes makes is this. To point out the discrepancies is not to condemn Stendhal as a mere fabulist (at best) or liar (at worst). What it shows is the way narrative and memory work to impose a distinctive coherence upon the past.

Indeed – speaking historically – we might rename the syndrome as the Chevalier syndrome recalling Maurice Chevalier’s nostalgic duet with Hermione Gingold in Gigi:

We met at nine/We met at eight/I was on time/No, you were late/ Ah, yes, I remember it well.

In other words, we remember everything so well coherently that we can get things wrong in particular. And this makes explicit what is implicit in all our remembering: that we weave events into a retrospective narrative which may have little to do with the truth of the past but much to do with our sense of ourselves in the present. This is not, as with Stendhal, necessarily deliberate fabrication; rather it is about making sense of a complex history in order to justify our role in or association with it – our identity if you like. If this is what individuals do, so too do communities. For example, this syndrome may help to explain some of Gerry Adams’ lapses (for example, about his time in the Maze) where the retrospective narrative of his role in history trumps the accuracy of his memory. On the other hand, there are more calculated narrative strategies, involving deliberate falsification.

One reasonably benign example can be called the Vidal syndrome. Gore Vidal once related how failed Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey complained that he couldn’t get on the lucrative university lecture circuit because Americans do not like losers. Vidal’s reply was: ‘Just tell them you’ve won. This is after all the United States of Amnesia’. Recently, that ‘telling them we’ve won’ strategy has been commonplace in Northern Ireland politics. Again, it is not to be dismissed entirely because it may be deemed useful. There may be a political rule of thumb: that pulling the wool over one’s own eyes as well as others’ can be conducive to pragmatism and flexibility and therefore socially and politically constructive. This is particularly valid if the objective of the parties is to secure the conditions for peace. It was once called in Northern Ireland ‘constructive ambiguity’. To achieve the proper end of peace historical evidence, one could argue, is neither here nor there. Unfortunately, there is another syndrome which is less benign, politically or historically. This is the abstraction syndrome.

The abstraction syndrome can be described as things we forget to remember or the way in which individual and collective memory can conceal, ignore or gloss uncomfortable truths. To put that otherwise, what is forgotten out of context is often as important as what is remembered in abstraction. Today, for many in Northern Ireland, this selective recall about what happened during the Troubles is the Vidal syndrome without the humour, the Chevalier syndrome without the compensating charm. In this case it is abstraction which is at the heart of our political problem – picking out particular moments of the past not in order to secure peace but to win old arguments. This is not the ‘truth’ of the past, certainly not history, but a distortion of it through partisan construction. From which one can detect a further and related syndrome.

This is the split-mind syndrome, an unstable relationship between a disposition to ‘overcome the past’ (let’s move on) and the need to ‘come to terms with the past’ (let’s go back). It isn’t a case of unionists on one side of this debate and nationalists on the other. Many unionists and nationalists want at one and the same time to move on (to their ground) and to go back (to attribute blame). Put into that mix the trauma and suffering which families have experienced and it is no wonder that an ‘us and them’ division about the past continues: ‘They are asking us to move on and forget our pain while at the same time they want to remember their grievances and get restitution’.

So when we encounter the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s famous aphorism: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ we need to be careful about exactly what we take from it. It is usually understood to mean that a continuation of political conflict will be the consequence of ignoring ‘the lessons of history’. But Santayana was not talking about history but about the past – and implying a distinction between them. For the real danger may be that by abstracting and remembering only one’s own past (as an ‘identity of memories’) we do risk condemning ourselves to repeat it.

Can we, in other words, choose an approach to the past which is not fated to be one-upmanship in old political arguments? For what hovers over all of this is the infantilising syndrome. Lord Bew argued recently for a ‘more realistic conception’ of events to substitute for the ‘infantilised version of the past’ held in popular consciousness. We think this requires a more disciplined and serious approach to historical evidence than the public debate has permitted hitherto.

Associative coherence and the problem of memory

How the linkage between the various syndromes function in memory is captured by a posting: How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Our Intuition in the blog Brain Pickings. It comprises a review of an essay by Daniel Kahneman, ‘The Marvels and Flaws of Intuitive Thinking’ Thinking: The New Science of decision-making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (ed John Brockman) Harper Perennial 2013.

Kahneman identifies what he calls ‘associative coherence’ – the notion that ‘everything reinforces everything else’. In short, this is remembering, which reinforces existing patterns of association, deliberately discounts contradictory evidence. According to Kahnemann:

The thing about the system is that it settles into a stable representation of reality, and that is just a marvellous accomplishment. … That’s not a flaw, that’s a marvel. [But] coherence has its cost. Coherence means that you’re going to adopt one interpretation in general. Ambiguity tends to be suppressed. This is part of the mechanism that you have here that ideas activate other ideas and the more coherent they are, the more likely they are to activate each other. Other things that don’t fit fall away by the wayside. We’re enforcing coherent interpretations. We see the world as much more coherent than it is.

Kahnemann goes on:

This is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of the information currently available, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have. So what you get are people jumping to conclusions. I call this a “machine for jumping to conclusions.”

The narratives of memory and their syndromes issue in problems, not because of lies and misrepresentations – although that is possible as a strategy – but because of over-confidence in the truth of our respective narratives.

The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

Arkiv’s concern about ‘truth recovery’ based mainly on individual testimony alone, especially one in which there is no sanction for false testimony (under amnesty for example), is that there will develop a contest of politicised remembering based on very little evidence. Moreover, the language has become confused already. When even the outgoing head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is reported in the Irish Times as saying: ‘The lack of a truth recovery process means that tribal myths will continue to trump actual memory’, then one senses that something is amiss.


A role for historians?

Arkiv’s proposal is that the profession of history provides a way, if not to eliminate the problems of narratives – which are present-focused rather than focused on the past – then to be aware of the evidential limitations of those narratives and their seductive syndromes.

A very different quality of ‘associative coherence’ is proposed, a procedure which is the opposite of a machine for jumping to conclusions. The association is not one of simple cause and effect but one of interpretative caution, the maxim of which reads (after the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott) only to report ‘what the evidence obliges us to believe’ in terms of ‘circumstantially and significantly related historical events’. In short, according to Oakeshott, ‘teleological history is, in principle, a self-contradiction’. This is ‘presentism’ at its most unhistorical and is associated with the politicisation of ‘memory’. Historians, of course, cannot entirely remove present concerns from historical inquiry but the professional requirement is to avoid, as far as possible, these concerns distorting the evidence uncovered. As one scholar (Smith 1996) observes of Oakeshott’s own historical associative coherence

The image of historical construction that Oakeshott evokes is that of a country ‘dry wall’, a fabrication of no pre meditated design whose stones are held together not by mortar, but by their roughly inter locking shapes. If the wall should totter or rifts appear, these eccentricities are recognized not as defects but as characteristics of history

It is not that one cannot narrate a story about history – one cannot avoid it – but the task of the historian is to avoid transgression into myth. For myth, like the associative coherence of memory is ‘a drama from which all that is casual, secondary and unresolved is excluded; it has a clear outline, a unity of feeling and in it everything is exact except place and time’. Moreover, ‘every component is known and is intelligible in respect of its relation to a favoured present’ (Oakeshott 1962: 166). To use one of Lord Bew’s expressions, it is history without footnotes – or rather it is history as a mere footnote to a political project. The task of the historian, in this context, is to re-introduce the complexity which, intentionally or unintentionally, others exclude from their stories.

This may appear elitist and exclusive. The point Arkiv makes is that is simple:  the sort of Historical Commission we propose is absolutely necessary but alone not sufficient. It does not rule out other, more horizontal approaches, involving oral testimony. We admit that the Troubles did not just exist in papers and archives so the process must sift widely, to capture other experiences. But these cannot be self-standing. That is why engaging the contextualising skills and professional integrity of historians formally and centrally in any publicly funded and officially sponsored ‘process of dealing with the past’ is so important.


T W Smith ‘Michael Oakeshott on history, practice and political theory’ History of Political Thought, 17(4), 1996 591-614

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics London: Methuen, 1962