Ways of Transition: Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Controversial Strategies for Dealing with Past Violence in Societies in Transition

By Reif-Hülser, Monika | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ways of Transition: Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Controversial Strategies for Dealing with Past Violence in Societies in Transition


Reif-Hülser, Monika, Cross / Cultures


It will sometimes be necessary to choose between truth and justice. We should choose truth [...]. Truth does not bring back the dead, but releases them from silence.1

Literary scholars and philosophers have become increasingly interested in transitional justice, restoration, memory, and forgiveness. Inevitably connected with memory is the topic of the past, the weight that we are ready to ascribe to it, and its influence on the present. This is by no means a new debate; it acquires new significance, however, when applied to political processes of transition which we witness in so many countries today.

Literary texts mirror the societies from which they spring; they evoke the life-world, the politics, the moral systems, and the land of which they are a part. Hence, processes of transition, their forms, and the emotional strain they put on people's lives have moved to centre stage in literatures of and about cultures in distress. I want to discuss two of those texts - one from South Africa and one from Zimbabwe - and compare their approach to questions of narrative, truth, reconciliation, and forgiving.

Memory is the mode in which past events are reconsidered in these processes. I will accordingly begin with some reflections on the intricate relationship between memory and history.

I. Untimely Reflections

To determine this degree, and through it the limit beyond which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, one would have to know precisely how great the plastic power of a man, a people or a culture is. I mean the power distinctively to grow out of itself, transforming and assimilating everything past and alien, to heal wounds, replace what is lost and reshape broken forms out of itself.2

Thus Friedrich Nietzsche writes in the second section of his Untimely Meditations, titled On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. He published his Meditations in the year 1874, at a time when his mind was still sharp and he wanted to draw attention to what he thought were the dangerous consequences of the heyday of historicism. The historicists' argument that everything in human life and thought had its causes in historical processes, and the claim that it would therefore be the knowledge of history that held the promise of answers to a problematical present, was unacceptable to Nietzsche. He turned the focus around, and claimed that overburdening human action and human life with history would hinder creativity. By making the relativity of existence an ever-present issue, young people would rather choke on history than experience it as enabling.

Nietzsche, a fervent admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas about the damaging impact of history on the human mind, was strongly influenced by the American poet and philosopher. In his essay Nature, published in 1836, Emerson warned his fellow countrymen against making too much room for the memory of old times and forgetting the future. "Our age is retrospective," is the laconic first sentence of the whole essay. With the following lines Emerson creates one of the most memorable literary passages about the Janus-faced phenomenon of history. He writes:

It [our age] builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?3

Reading both passages, one can sense the community of concern between the two writers, although they write from an historical distance of forty years and out of somewhat different cultural and political contexts.

In Emerson's text, the main focus lies on authenticity of experience. His attack is directed at scholars who supplant physical and sensual experience through book learning - a kind of knowledge Emerson does not reject entirely, but wants to be seen as only one possibility among others to experience the world. …

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