The struggle of memory against forgetting

The great Czech writer Milan Kundera of The unbearable lightness of being fame died on 11 July, inspiring people to share a number of famous quotes from his books, including the following epic line:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

The words are from Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where his character, Mirek, laments the ravages of communism in his native Czechoslovakia.

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“If Franz Kafka was the prophet of a country without memory, Gustav Husak is its creator,” Kundera writes, characterising Communist Party secretary Husak as the “president of forgetting.”

Or as Kundera’s historian friend, Milan Hübl, explains it:

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.

Hence the struggle of Kundera’s character, who keeps a diary, preserves his correspondence and takes notes at meetings discussing the current situation of the country, all in an effort to combat the collective forgetting that communism sought to impose.

Well, my dad, Jan Gigacz, was a refugee from communism in Czechoslovakia. So Kundera’s reflections certainly resonate with me at that level.

But I’m also convinced that the “struggle of memory against forgetting” did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

On the contrary, in my work as a historian, I’ve observed that there’s a constant struggle of memory against forgetting in almost every aspect of social life.

In a sense, the whole purpose of a historian’s or archivist’s work is precisely that struggle of Mirek to maintain memory against forgetting.

In the case of my own research and writing, I’m thinking of the life and work of Alphonse GratryLéon Ollé-LapruneMarc Sangnier and his movement, Le Sillon, indeed even Cardijn himself, incredible figures whose enormous contributions have faded into obscurity.

In the context of this blog, I’m thinking of Cardijn’s concept of lay apostolate, endorsed by Vatican II but since all but forgotten.

And I’m also thinking of the role of the lay movements which rose to prominence at the Council but which have since all but disappeared from sight in a Church that seemingly cannot see beyond its hierarchical structures.

The struggle of memory against forgetting goes on!

Stefan Gigacz