Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and The Ethics of Memory

by Leanne Ogasawara

TJ-luxury-full1An elderly couple embark on a quest. Wandering the countryside in which a mysterious mist has robbed everyone of their memories, the two are unable to recall exactly what they are doing at any given moment. This makes for a challenge since they know they are on a quest– but it is never completely clear where they are going and what exactly happened in the first place.

And what is made even worse than being on a quest where you can't keep the facts straight is that each wonders whether their loss of memory will not mark the end of their marriage–for without shared memories, what will be left to bind them together? The elderly wife wonders. But at the same time, she also cannot help but worry whether in reality they are not better off not remembering?

In the early pages of Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, I assumed it would be a very different story. Like this reviewer here, at first I was sure the book would be about the sadness of a life ending in memory loss; about dementia in the elderly and love falling apart. But then (also just like the reviewer) I wondered if the novel wasn't actually some kind of exploration about the myth-making we do collectively –for indeed, it is not just the elderly couple but all the characters in the book who are suffering from memory loss as they struggle to recall what it means, for example, to be a Christian Briton or pagan Saxon, in the wake of the Roman withdrawal.

Is it glorious King Arthur or Arthur the mass murderer?

It all depends on how you remember things, right?

A coincidence (or maybe he is reading the same book) but a friend on Facebook (deliciously literary Mikhail Iossel) today wrote this:

We all know, or at least suspect, that many of the memories dearest to our hearts have never happened. To a considerable degree, our lives are the products of our own imagination — for that's what memory is, by and large: an introspective, inward-bound imagination.

It's true, but then what to do in the face of trauma? Ishiguro in several interviews wrote of wanting to write about Rwanda or Yugoslavia. He wondered how it was possible that groups of people, who up till then had been living in relative harmony, turn so savagely upon each other? What kinds of repressed hatred had to be cultivated over the years (or generations) within them, he asks. And likewise, what of our personal traumas?

Drone operators recently talk about experiencing memory loops in their minds whereby they cannot stop replaying the atrocities they witnessed and participated in.

My astronomer says that someday they will perfect a pill to let you forget specific groups of memories. (Sometimes it feels like Americans think there should be a pill to solve everything).

But memory is not contained just within one person's mind, is it? And indeed more and more it seems people are becoming cut off from the collective traditions that allowed them to seek shared meaning (and forgiveness) in terms of the past. It is indeed a slippery slope –since in the process of personal meaning-making, one can get stuck in just the kinds of memory loops that the drone operators describe… or worse, in a complete burying one's head in the sand about things. For as Ishiguro says in this interview:

It might seem the best thing to just bury them. With something like a marriage you have to ask, if you just deny that something’s happened, and you literally forget it, what does that do to the love? Is it somehow inauthentic? Is it “real” love still? On the other hand, if you do actually go back and look at it squarely, would that destroy the love as well?

The more I read his novel the more questions arose. And without any real answers I started to realize just how crucial the questions themselves are.

What is the cost of remembering; what is the cost of forgetting? Asks Ishiguro. But maybe a better question is to ask: What is the obligation to remember?


I really like Avishai Margalit's book, The Ethics of Memory. I wonder if anyone else out there read it?

Without so much as a word about Palestinian memories of humiliation (!), Margalit uses the lens of the holocaust to explore questions regarding the obligations to remember.

The book has an absolutely haunting beginning in which Margalit recalls a conversation that took place between his mother and his father when he was an adolescent. In the face of what amounted to the obliteration of both their extended families during the holocaust, his mother suggests that all that is left to them as the survivors is to become vessels of memories, like candles for the dead, she says. It is a beautiful image that struck me very much. His father, however, not surprisingly recoils at the suggestion saying–we are not candles! “We must turn our eyes to the future and become strong,” he insists.

In The Buried Giant, uncovering the truth could lead to what is not just the collapse of what appears to be a very beautiful marriage but it could also lead to the resumption (resurrection) of war, thereby causing death and destruction to come to the land again. With this in mind, the author wonders whether it is, therefore, not more moral (and ethical) to repress and leave the giant buried?

Margalit, being a philosopher, is tentative when it comes to drawing conclusions on this same topic–though reading the book, one feels he must believe (like Thoreau) that human beings crave truth above everything, so that a future not consciously informed by the past will lead to a repetition of past wrongs. A future based on a lie will also be inauthentic, like being hooked up to a happiness machine (for isn't that what the happy elderly couple is doing–standing in for “ignorance is bliss”?) That is to say, when it comes down to it, most people would not choose a happy marriage if it is based on a lie? Or a peace based on a lie if that peace can turn to savage butchery in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Sins of the father.
Margalit's Ethics of Memory is continental style philosophy, and is written in the classical form of a meditation. Philosopher Galen Strawson picked out his three central premises to the book as follows: 1) it is care, or caring, that lies at the core of thick (or particular) relations; 2) memory is the cement that holds thick relations together; and 3) “we dread the idea of dying without leaving a trace.” (David Mitchell's project as well).

Strawson's rebuttal to Magalit's points is great. Obviously as Strawson insists, not everyone will agree that care is based on shared memories or requires any remembering after death. And some will even dismiss the so-called horror of dying without leaving a trace. Personally, while I myself readily accept all three of Margalit's points, I can at least imagine there are people who don't feel dread at the idea of not leaving a trace. Not to mention those enlightened beings who are truly capable of living in the present tense without anxiety toward the future or angst concerning the past, as Strawson suggests. David Mitchell is very interesting here, I think, in the way he portrays the way our past (each and every action) reverberates into our present thereby becoming our future. Every action is like a ripple across time. So, even if one forgets, it doesn't change the facts.

Whatever one might think about memory informing human care and the traces of time (humans as “bone clocks”), Margalit makes one move at the end of his book that is very interesting. Like Ian Buruma's classic book Wages of Guilt, which compares the reaction of the Germans versus that of the Japanese to wartime guilt, Margalit also examines both of these cases to illuminate the different approaches countries can take in examining past transgressions.

He uses the analogy of gift giving to make his point. He begins by explaining that some academics have looked at the gift-giving practices of some cultures as being transactional (give and take). But this simply is not accurate, Margalit says. Gift-giving is an almost ritualized practice for re-enforcing relationships, he insists. I think this is true.

In the Japanese countryside, it seemed like an endless cycle. Where I lived, such exchanges with neighbors and family were constant and never-ending. For me, there was stress in living up to my side because I am not that organized and get overwhelmed by finer details but after two decades I came to see it as like a cement to bond people to one another–the constant exchanges were simply small shows of care and over time it turned into something reassuring (in the US, I dearly miss those small signs of care that kept me feeling busy when I lived in Japan, because it kept me from feeling lonely).

Margalit uses this as an analogy of how one should look at memory and forgiveness. To keep the giant buried (by hiding things under the rug), one is not processing things. This we all can probably agree to. But instead of focusing on the perpetrator or the victim, perhaps we should concentrate on the relationship between the two agents. In this way, for example, if one side of the relationship is angry (Korea or Japan), it is neither here nor there to say “we dealt with this already” or worse to brush it under the rug. What is needed is another session of remembering since remembering is a form of mercy and grace, says Margalit. This occurs first and that is the obligation of the side who wronged. The other side then has a choice to overcome their resentment and anger or to push for more discussion on the remembering.

Whether forgiveness happens or not is not up to us, the obligation is only to address issues, rather than brushing things under the rug. That is, not to ignore the pain of the other side and to step up in recalling things and making honest reparations as a commitment to real peace until peace is achieved. Dialogue as a commitment to the relationship and to truth is what matters. For as David Mitchell says in Bone Clocks:

Nothing lasts and yet nothing passes either, and nothing passes just because nothing lasts.

In this way, Ishiguro's novel ends the only way it could.

World Order: Permanent Revolution

Image: Trudi Ludwig Johnson, Woodcut based on Agnolo Bronzino’s painting An Allegory with Venus and Cupid.