Friday, March 02, 2012

Vladimir Jankélévitch on Forgiving and Forgetting

Vladimir Jankélévitch, photo by Marion Kalter
This excerpt, originally from Vladimir Jankélévitch's 1967 Le Pardon, might make us think twice about the flippancy with which we sometimes treat the subject of forgiveness - perhaps concerning ourselves with its therapeutic usefulness, ascribing it a definition similar to forgetfulness.

"The sentiment that we [Jews] experience is not called rancor but horror insurmountable, horror over what happened, horror of the fanatics who perpetrated this thing, of the passive who accepted it, and the indifferent who have already forgotten it. This is our 'resentment' [ressentiment].

For ressentiment can also be the renewed and intensely lived feeling of the inexpiable thing; it protests against a moral amnesty that is nothing but shameful amnesia; it maintains the sacred flame of disquiet and faith to invisible things. Forgetfulness here would be a grave insult to those who died in the camps and whose ashes are forever mixed in the earth. It would be a lapse of seriousness and dignity, a shameful frivolity.

Yes, the memory of what happened is indelible in us, indelible like the tattoos that the survivors still wear on their arms. Each spring the trees bloom at Auschwitz as they do everywhere, for the grass is not too disgusted to grow in those accursed fields; springtime does not distinguish between our gardens and those places of inexpressible misery. Today when the sophists recommend forgetfulness, we will forcefully mark our mute and impotent horror before the dogs of hate; we will think hard about the agony of the deportees without sepulchers and of the little children who did not come back. Because this agony will last until the end of the world."

- Vladimir Jankélévitch, "Should We Pardon Them?" translated by
Ann Hobart in Critical Inquiry vol. 22, no. 3 (Spring 1996), p. 572.

(For more, see my essay on forgiveness and memory published here).


Geordie said...

This is a timely post Jon, as i read something by F.W. Camfield this morning in which he speaks about Kierkegaard's existential requirement for his own sense of inner peace that God must not only forgive his sin, but also forget it. That kind of description of God's forgiveness has always seemed fanciful to me, though there are a couple proof texts which are regularly cited in its favour.

Assuming you wouldn't want to ascribe forgetfulness to God, what do you think would be a more theologically appropriate way to speak of God's relation to our sin?

Jon Coutts said...

hmmm, probably something like knowingly overcoming it for us, but see that article I linked to. I think I deal with those texts a little bit in there.

Dale Harris said...

this is a very significant word for me, too, as I'm right now reading Volf's Exclusion and Embrace again, and wrestling with his idea of eschatological forgetfulness...

Also because I'm working on a sermon on Lamentations 2 and the agony of inexpressible misery is throbbing there, but its hard to handle it theologically well....

BTW: I hope this all means that there's going to be renewed musing over at "this side"... oh how I've missed it!

Jon Coutts said...

I think I'm sort of back, Dale, although mostly I am just throwing some quotes up here, not coming up with stuff on my own. I miss the venues of our interaction too so it'll be good.

When you are done with Volf check out the essay I linked to and tell me what you think!