It’s been a while since I last read anything of Nietzsche, but his work — even when profoundly wrong — is memorable. There’s a passage from Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, that is, itself, about memory. It’s useful for understanding a certain, irresponsible view about how Whitewater’s politics should work.
Imagine the lack of recollection in a herd animal:
Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest, and leap again; and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored…..
Man may well ask the animal: Why do you not speak to me of your happiness, but only look at me? The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget want I wanted to say – but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so that man could only wonder.
Nietzsche erroneously thinks that some men might envy the animal’s condition; he did not live long enough to see how wrong he was, how perverse is the idea that the condition of animals might be enviable.
But, about the idea of the animal as without memory — at least of the kind that we have — he was surely right. The herd animal (and although he does not specify, I have always imagined Nietzsche wrote of gazelles) does not recall day after day as we do. It can’t even remember a question long enough to utter an answer, as it were.
And yet — and yet — we have a local politics that assumes ordinary people are like this, that they cannot recall from day to day. Memory of an officials’ mistakes, misconduct, and mendacity isn’t supposed to endure from moment to moment; it’s as though every day begins the world anew.
It’s a view both false, shamefully condescending, and utterly irresponsible. In a world where no one recalls, no one will be accountable. It’s the hope of every mediocre career bureaucrat — that there will be no memory of prior, absurd mistakes and lies, and so no consequence for them. Worse than a false view of how the community is, it’s a dark hope of what the community should be, and against a better local politics.
But if some should have this hope, they hope in vain. To disprove the view that we have no memory, and to prevent a time when we should find ourselves without any, it is enough to recount what has happened, as it actually happened.