The sublime dissociation of the past: Or how to be(come) what one is no longer

History and Theory 40 (3):295–323 (2001)
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Forgetting has rarely been investigated in historical theory. Insofar as it attracted the attention of theorists at all, forgetting has ordinarily been considered to be a defect in our relationship to the past that should be overcome in one way or another. The only exception is Nietzsche who so provocatively sung the praises of forgetting in his On the Use and Abuse of History . But Nietzsche's conception is the easy victim of a consistent historicism and therefore in need of correction. Four types of forgetting are identified in this essay. Central in the essay's argument is the fourth type. This is the kind of forgetting taking place when a civilization "commits suicide" by exchanging a previous identity for a new one. Hegel's moving account of the conflict between Socrates and the Athenian state is presented as the paradigmatic example of this kind of forgetting. Two conclusions follow from an analysis of this type of forgetting. First, we can now understand what should be recognized as a civilization's historical sublime and how the notions of the historical sublime and of collective trauma are related. Second, it follows that myth and history do not exclude each other; on the contrary, history creates myth. This should not be taken to be a defect of history, for this is precisely how it should be



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