Memory is a loaded word. It can mean joy, nostalgia for a time that has passed. It can also be painful, something that the rememberer tries their best to avoid. Memories can be imagined, too – distance from them can cause them to become distorted, foggy. Remembering, and misremembering, are acts that shape all of our lives.
Memory also operates on different levels. One of those is national – and memories of this kind have been central to the UK and US as of late.
A recent memorial event occurred last weekend, on Saturday 5th November. Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night, has been celebrated nationwide since the early 1600s. Its origins come from a failed plot to blow up Westminster Palace in 1605.
Guy Fawkes was a Catholic living under the oppression of the intolerant Church of England. He plotted, along with other Catholic activists, to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the King. The plot failed and Fawkes and his accomplices were discovered. After being tortured into a written confession, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Fawkes escaped this particular fate by jumping from the scaffold where he was held, breaking his neck and dying.
The meaning of lighting bonfires to remember Guy Fawkes has been blurred over centuries. At the time, the King encouraged Londoners to celebrate the thwarting of the plot by lighting them across the city.
Now, the memory is used to reflect different viewpoints. Some use it to celebrate Fawkes’ legacy of taking a stand against the power of the state – revellers at the annual Lewes Bonfire celebrations, for example, burn effigies of powerful politicians, showing lasting support for what Fawkes stands for – the challenging of dominant ideas.
Elsewhere, people burn effigies of Fawkes himself, celebrating the survival of the King and the Church of England’s power.
Formal remembering also occurred yesterday, on Remembrance Sunday, or Armistice Day. The day marks the end of the First World War in 1918, and is now used to remember all the people who have died in wars since. The symbol of remembrance is a red poppy; the first flower that grew on the battlefields when the conflict was over.
Remembrance Day has evolved to mean different things depending on how you look at it. Memories – especially those on a national level – can be adopted for political purposes and manipulated
This memorial too, is perceived differently depending on your standpoint. The British Legion, who call themselves the “custodians of remembrance,” say that Remembrance Sunday is a day “for the nation to remember and honour those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom.” This reflects the view of most dominant political parties and institutions – public figures who do not wear poppies during the remembrance period are often heavily criticised.
Others condemn the tradition, and the poppy symbol, for romanticising war in general and justifying the UK’s involvement in many brutal conflicts.
In 2014, an art installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies was installed at the Tower of London to mark the hundred-year anniversary of the First World War – each poppy marked a British military fatality during the conflict.
Jonathan Jones, an art critic writing for the Guardian, was highly critical of the installation, saying that it was a “Ukip-style,” nationalistic and inward-looking work. Jones presented the argument of many who interpret the remembrance tradition as an opportunity to justify war.
“The first world war was not noble. War is not noble,” he said. “An adequate work of art about the war has to show its horror, not sweep the grisly facts under a red carpet of artificial flowers.”
When the poppy first emerged, it was only a short time after the first world war ended. The flower was a symbol of mourning and regret, and was adopted by a society whose memories of loss were vivid and all-consuming. For many, the poppy served as a pledge that war must never happen again.
Since, it has taken on an additional meaning that has complicated the memories of war. The poppy has become patriotic, a symbol of national pride, and ultimately a pride in the wars fought by the UK government.
Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” used the idea of some utopian past that could be rejuvenated. His nativist, authoritarian agenda was sugar-coated by the idea of a return to a better time.
As well was remembering loss of life, the remembrance tradition now also presents war as a justified mechanism for operating in the global arena. The poppy, in romanticising and simplifying the realities of war, now serves as an annual reminder that war is necessary for freedom, and therefore serves to justify involvement in conflicts across the world.
Like Guy Fawkes Night, Remembrance Day has evolved to mean different things depending on how you look at it. Memories – especially ones on a national level – can be adopted for various political purposes. Because the act of memorial causes emotional attachment, manipulating a memory can be a huge tool to draw attention to a particular view.
A recent and extreme example of this came from Donald Trump’s successful election campaign. His slogan “Make America Great Again” used the idea of some utopian past that could be rejuvenated. His nativist, authoritarian agenda was sugar-coated by the idea of a return to a better time.
During Trump’s campaign, illusions of solutions to America’s economic and social problems were created under a blanket of memory. In reality, those solutions never existed – nor did the uncomplicated and “great” past that Trump alludes to.
As well as shaping us as individuals, memories can also influence entire nations. Their politicisation has proved, as of late, to have harmful consequences.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons