The Unsurpassable Dissensus

My intention in this paper is to briefly take up a few of the questions that Memory, History, Forgetting suggested to me, as though on the margins of the work. Nevertheless, my intention is also to briefly deepen two of them. The first (paragraphs 3-4) approaches the question of credibility, which seems to me to be one of the deepest themes of the book, with the idea that our era is characterized more by an excess of incredulity and distrust than by an excess of credulity, notably in the testimony of memory. The second (paragraphs 5-7) addresses the epilogue on forgiveness, where some wanted to see the real sense or topic as a Christian history. Before coming to this place of forgiveness in the economy of the book I would like to mobilize, in the central theme of the representation of the past, everything that touches on the problem of the politics of memory and forgetting, and which culminates in the question of the witness’s credibility. In passing, I will try to reposition Memory, History, Forgetting within the larger horizon of the other works of Paul Ricœur.


1. The Past Represented

I would say immediately that in distinguishing the cognitive problem (one remembers what, how?) from the pragmatic problem (who remembers and why?), Ricœur repeats an old gesture of his, that of the separation-articulation of the modes (semiotic, semantic, hermeneutic in The Rule of Metaphor; or semantic, pragmatic, narrative, ethical, in Oneself as Another). To the power to speak, to act, to impute to oneself actions, here is added the power to form memory (p. 344) or to remember (p. 57). In this gigantic eidetic variation on the subject that constitutes Ricœur’s work, we must renounce with him the search for a variant idem, and to concern ourselves with the variations themselves, where the gaps indicate a selfhood that is never entirely recognized. It enters by way of the theme, always at once epistemic and ethical, of recognition, of a face for example, of the sense of a being or a moment: plain experience, and yet a small miracle of recollection. Ricœur speaks meaningfully at the end of the book of an odyssey of the spirit of forgiveness, and of the incognito of forgiveness (p. 489 and p. 491), to designate precisely in forgiveness this major theme of recognition, here both paradoxical and negative, not by binding a subject to his or her history or actions, but by unbinding.

In the representation of the past, Ricœur will then privilege the variations of scale, of points of view, of genres of representation (in the quasi-literary sense, (p. 209 and p. 280). On the one hand because variation itself displays (fait voir) that which otherwise would not be discerned, in a somehow stereoscopic vision that casts the until then unperceived into sharp relief. On the other hand, because it is the gap itself that is representative and the anomaly normal language, as Ricœur had already shown in The Rule of Metaphor and as he constantly reaffirms:

instead we must return to them from the Bergsonian method of division which invites us to consider the opposite extremes of the spectrum of phenomena before reconstructing the everyday experience whose complexity and disorder hinder clear description as a mixture. (p.439)

Speaking of the representation of the past by history, he writes:

the assertive vehemence of the historian’s representation as standing for the past is authorized by nothing other than the positive of the event having seen intended across the negativity of the being that no longer. (p.280)

In a similar manner, in La Métaphore vive he speaks of:

paradoxe indépassable qui s’attache à une conception métaphorique de vérité. Le paradoxe consiste en ceci qu’il n’est pas d’autre façon de rendre justice à la notion de vérité métaphorique que d’inclure la pointe critique du ‘n’est pas’ (littéralement) dans la véhémence ontologique du ‘est’ (métaphoriquement).[1]

This touches on the proximity and distance between historic representation and poetic fiction: precisely because it is not about the same absence, it cannot be precisely about the same affirmation, of the same vehemence, of the same attestation. We will come back to this when speaking of confidence and the forms of credibility.

To bring us a step closer to our topic, we must note that the critical gesture of the distinction of register is not separated in Ricœur, as we have just seen, from their re-articulation in a somehow broken dialectic, or rather in a zigzag without a determined end. In this sense the historical problem of representation is always already also a political, pragmatic and practical problem. Since the task is “to make human interactions intelligible” (p. 184), it is not enough to blend the external order of their causes and the internal order of their reasons, it is necessary to understand their ties and their history woven of discordances as much as of concordances[2], of conflicts as much as of agreements:

just as macrohistory is attentive to the weight of structural constraints exercised over the long time span, to a similar degree microhistory is attentive to the initiative and capacity for negotiation of historical agents in situations marked by uncertainty. (p. 187)

Ricœur nonetheless refuses to let uncertainty in its turn become a category that explains everything. (p. 226) It is why Ricœur, after having recognized the unpredictability in which the historical actor moves[3], faithful to the Arendtian polarity between promise and forgiveness, balances uncertainty and unpredictability by the irreparable and irreversible. At this point he passes perhaps a little quickly over the dispute and the conflict, irreducible to a simple rational competition between choices, through which this very actor has to struggle, to interpret his or her situation and to differ from others. The historiographic conflict of interpretations and systems of historicity is thus founded on the historical disputes themselves. On the other hand Ricœur makes, it seems to me, the irreparable a central category not only for historic representation but for the historical actors, whom we sometimes forget carried with them their own mournings, their own irreparable –and their own disputes about the irreparable.

It is one of the centers of gravity of Memory, History, Forgetting, to hold (with Michel de Certeau) historical writing as that which makes room for death (p. 550 no. 1), for the irrevocable (p. 364), to that which cannot be acted on, to the not-at-hand according to Heidegger. Facing loss, memory, individual or collective, oscillates between the too much of melancholy that loses the sense of the present, or the too little of the easy exorcism. History has for deaths these gestures of burial, of entombment, that accomplishes in detail the work of memory, which is also a work of mourning, the acceptance of a purely interior presence of that which will never return. (p. 366 and p.499)

If resemblance, recognition, or recollection are about a kind of presence of the absent, the absence of the mourning is not the absence of fiction. This is the big difference in perspective between Time and Narrative and Memory, History, Forgetting: the latter exercises a real uncoupling of imagination and memory. Not that Ricœur renounces the work of imaginative variation[4] by which, relying on a few traces, the historian imagines the past (p. 211) and seeks to understand it. The temptation is to configure the plot in this, taking from literary convention the forms that best display the past and absent reality that is to be retrieved. Ricœur elsewhere writes of fiction:

La véritable mimésis de l’action est à chercher dans les œuvres d’art les moins soucieuses de refléter leur époque. L’imitation, au sens vulgaire du terme, est ici l’ennemi par excellence de la mimésis. C’est précisément lorsqu’une œuvre d’art rompt avec cette sorte de vraisemblance qu’elle déploie sa véritable fonction mimétique … S’il est vrai qu’une des fonctions de la fiction mêlée à l’histoire est de libérer rétrospectivement certaines possibilités non effectuées du passé historique, c’est à la faveur de son caractère quasi-historique que la fiction elle-même peut exercer après coup sa fonction libératrice. Le quasi-passé de la fiction devient ainsi le détecteur des possibles enfouis dans le passé effectif.[5]

In these pages of Time And Narrative, Ricœur pushes the point as far as investing imagination with the difficult task of making room, in a history that explains and rereads, for the horror that is attached to unique, incomparable events that must never be forgotten and that the fiction designates and keeps:

En fusionnant ainsi avec l’histoire, la fiction ramène celle-ci à leur origine commune dans l’épopée. Plus exactement ce que l’épopée avait fait dans la dimension de l’admirable, la légende des victimes le fait dans celle de l’horrible. Cette épopée en quelque sorte négative préserve la mémoire de la souffrance à l’échelle des peuples comme l’épopée et l’histoire à ses débuts avaient transformé la gloire éphémère des héros en renommée durable; dans les deux cas la fiction se met au service de l’inoubliable … il y a peut-être des crimes qu’il ne faut pas oublier, des victimes dont la souffrance crie moins vengeance que récit. Seule la volonté de ne pas oublier peut faire que ces crimes ne reviennent plus jamais.

All this remains in the terms of Time And Narrative, but I think that in Memory, History, Forgetting, Ricœur divides up the limits of narrative identity and narration, of which he wrote that it must join the non-narrative components of the formation of the subject that is acting, suffering, etc.[7]  What are these non-narrative components? One could introduce here, pointing to another path Ricœur explores elsewhere, the ample variation of literary kinds that constitute the Bible: myths, codes of rules or laws, stories, prophecies, psalms, chronicles, proverbs, letters, dramas conversed, considerably widen the figures and the positions of the subject. For memory and history, it is as if the absence of mourning could not be satisfied with a representation that is only narrative. In Memory, History, Forgetting, it is about reclassifying narration among other processes of representing the past:

But, in reclassifying narrativity in the way we are going to discuss, I want to [put an end to] one misunderstanding suggested by the upholders of the narrativist school and taken for granted by its detractors, the misunderstanding that the configuring act that characterizes emplotment would as such constitute an alternative in principle to causal explanation. (p. 186)

It is not that historical causal explanation is a positivistic block inimical to plot. On the contrary, it is that it includes as much interpretation as any narrative. Ricœur thus aims to show that interpretation is in play at all levels, from the documentary research through to the historiographic representation by way of the various hypotheses that enable us to make human interactions intelligible. And that narrative is one figure among others of the representation of absence. It is perhaps that the epic, that others tell of us in the third person, must sometimes give way to tragedy, where the witness and even the actor comes forward personally, who can say: “I was there,” even though they are no longer there, and to share the responsibility of giving back to the past that which is owed.

2. Just Memory

We will now move ahead one more step in our topic, even though we have not lost sight of it from the outset. I spoke of the political problem of just memory, as the second (but not secondary) thread that runs through Memory, History, Forgetting. It is here that Ricœur has attracted the most critical readings to this point, with regard to his notion of the “duty of memory.” Not that he rejects it categorically like Todorov. The duty of memory has an importance for him, and is a concern for a project of justice, even imperative if it is about returning justice to the other. (pp. 86-92). Moreover, one will notice that for Ricœur there is no symmetry between memory and forgetting, and that he objects to the idea of a “duty of forgetting,” not only with regard to amnesty (pp. 500­506), but even in the political project of restoring civil peace. I will note in passing that something like a duty to forget still exists, mentioned in the beginning of the text of the Edict of Nantes, which took France out of the wars of religion, or in the oath not to remember the misfortunes, which led Athens out of civil war.[8] It is why, as a purely political concept, which I would distinguish from a metapolitical or even antipolitical conception appropriate to tragedy, I would readily propose a moderate advocacy of amnesty, in spite of Ricœur’s criticism.

But this last here prefers to put forward the acceptance of the divided city, if not actual civic dissensus. We will come back to this. Whence then this polemic against the duty of memory, beyond the fact that most detractors didn’t read the book and are themselves limited to allusions? It is that Ricœur expresses reservations regarding the duty of memory, when it is excessively expanded beyond the sphere that we just addressed: these reservations arise from the difficulties in controlling memory, and from the danger of implementing a politics of memory that is inscribed in terms of obligations, rights and prohibitions. This is why there are not only abuses of forgetting but also abuses of memory. There are false memories, cardboard memories. And this is why he prefers to speak of a “work of memory,” where the memory of misfortune, far from deadening us to the misfortunes of others, opens us to them. This is how the indispensable and vital memory does not short-circuit history and critical distanciation, but rather releases repressed memories with its touch.

This is an old theme in Ricœur, and the heart of his critical hermeneutics (p. 373, see Du texte á l’action (pp. 101-117 and pp. 362ff.), that is also to say, against a romantic or ontological hermeneutics, the autonomy of history in relation to memory, and against a critical positivism, the irreducible dependence of history on memory (Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 106). This double arena of affiliation and distance makes delicate all discussion of Memory, History, Forgetting that would pick on one of the two sides as isolated and supposedly static (p. 458). The autonomy of history with respect to memory

(p. 136 and 182) follows the autonomization of written and textual traces, which are like “the paradigm of distance in communication.”[9] It is by this that a text orphaned from its author no longer answers questions that are sedimented and extinct, but opens up to new questions –here perhaps we are again very near the dialectics of mourning and birth, when it prepares a dialectics of emancipation and attachment. On the other hand, however, the dependence of history, with respect to memory, could not be abolished entirely:

Having arrived at this extreme point of the historiographical reduction of memory, we allowed a protest to be heard, one in which the power of the attestation of memory concerning the past is lodged. History can expand, complete, correct, even refute the testimony of memory regarding the past; it cannot abolish it. (p. 498)

Emancipation never abolishes childhood, and what was but is no more always demands to be told.

One sees, in this mutual overlapping of history and memory, this double connection, the extreme care that Ricœur always takes to maintain both the continuity and the dis­continuity of the problems. Not only are the problems of fidelity and truth irreducible, but they are also inseparable. It is this requirement that refuses the dogmatic synthesis just as it refuses the relativistic juxtaposition, and which sustains the theme of civic dissensus. It is time to linger a moment on this superb theme.

To properly situate this notion it seems necessary to retrieve what Ricœur calls the overlapping constitution of individual and collective memory: on the one hand one does not remember all alone, (p. 121) but on the other hand only singular points of view exist within the collective memory. (p. 123) The intermediate and central category here is the one of the memory of close relations, those about whom I can offer my testimony, those who can attest on my behalf, those that can deplore my death, and those whose death I can deplore just as they could rejoice in my birth or I could rejoice in theirs. But close relations are not only in an intermediate sociological category between the individual and the collective. It is a quasi-ontological dynamic of possible closeness and the remoteness: the close relation is the one who makes herself close, or who is suddenly drawn close by some event. Proximity indicates a vital, ethical, or contemplative impulse. Somewhat in the sense of what Kierkegaard calls the contemporary, close relations are those that can make one a contemporary, even if their coexistence seems anachronistic and they belong to different language worlds and generations. Ricœur goes so far at to define them as those who can disapprove of my acts but not of my existence. (p. 132) Into this mutual attestation slips a plurality, most notably an acceptance that my history can be recounted in diverse ways, represented by others. (p. 299) Moreover, it is in this intermediate time and the indirectness of the connection to close relations that the range of our differences of points of view in relation to an event is shaped, a gap that is the very shape of our temporality: what makes us contemporary can also make us anachronistic –and the “petit miracle de la reconnaissance” or of recollection is perhaps just such an experience of anachronistic contemporaneousness.

The civic dissensus appears then, just as it does with contemporaries, somewhere between the judge and the historian, in a common rhetorical space open to discussion. A discussion that works our memory, argument, and even our imaginations tireless, and of which we only know that the rules, boundaries, and audience are not the same, depending on the spheres. The historians and the judges both must certainly at times find support in the finality of the facts and on this practical perspective according to which history is not finished; but they do it differently. And there is no absolute third party that allows them to settle this. (p. 314f)

However, it is exactly this dissensus that forms citizens capable of standing in the absence of a last judgment, capable of holding the tension of the sharing of the responsibility between the singular imputation of fault to the guilty individuals, and the political imputation to a consenting community. The citizen appears in the refusal that guilt be so tightly focused that all others can unload it onto a few guilty emissaries. But the citizen also appears in the refusal that responsibility is so diluted, explained, compared, and relativized, that no one is responsible for anything. (p. 330) The citizen is moved to take the responsibility on herself and share it.

3. The Credibility and Conflict of the Good Witness

We will to come back to this point, as we now go far afield, and it will be our first long digression. One of the main problems that Paul Ricœur faces in this book, and which is found as much on the major side of representing of the past as on the minor side of just memory (neither too much nor too little), is the one of the credibility. In this he connects with the alternative that frightened Giovanni Levi, that men believe they can know every­thing, represent everything, say everything, and thus tumble into general skepticism, either by impossibility or, worse, with the feeling that any hypothesis, if well enough equipped, can be verified. Ricœur writes:

What finally brings about the crisis in testimony is that its irruption clashes with the conquest made by Lorenzo Valla in The Donation of Constatine. Then it was a matter of struggling against credulity and imposture, now it is one of struggling against incredulity and the will to forget. (p. 176)

It is this remark that I would like to meditate on in the lines that follow, because Ricœur makes a sensible point about the contemporary condition, not only the historic condition, but language and politics in general. And I believe it important to point out everything in the book that bears on it because I believe that it is one of the main questions that the book leaves us with, a common question that it opens.

In the cited passage Ricœur spoke of archives. But more broadly it is of course about the credibility of the testimonies, that asks, beyond the critical confrontation, a minimum of mutual approval, the acceptance that there can be for each something indubitable: “we have nothing better than testimony, in the final analysis, to assure ourselves that something did happen in the past.” (p. 147) It is the foundational thesis of the book.

I first say mutual approval, because the fabric of confidence in this institution of institutions that is speech, in the possibility to speak and to act, is woven of a mutual and fundamental confidence in the simple existence of each other.

This mutual approbation expresses the shared assurance that each one makes regarding his or her powers and lack of powers, what I termed attestation in Oneself as Another. What I expect from my close relations is that they approve of what I attest: that I am able to speak, act, recount, impute to myself the responsibility for my actions… In my turn, I include among my close relations those who disapprove of my actions, but not my existence. (p. 132)

Testimony presupposes this mutual attestation. This confidence doesn’t disarm critical thought, rather it authorizes it: one can really only criticize on a foundation of confidence. This confidence is ever nourished by two signs never really filled: the first is the internal consistency of the testimonies, the second is their pluralism, the fact that they shift to make room for other witnesses:

Before underscoring the most obvious oppositions that distinguish the use of testimony in court from its use in archives, let us pause to examine two features common to both uses: the concern with proof and the critical examination of the credibility of the witnesses. (p. 316)

Common to both the judge and the historian is certainly their practice of confronting and controlled handling of suspicion, but also the installation of common rhetorical space, even if the rules and the institution do not always take the same shape. The courthouses cannot decree historic truth, and history, concerned as it is to render to all their due, is not to be decided in a courthouse.

With regard to the credibility of a witness, it is necessary to carry the doubt to the heart of the witness and of the testimony itself, if one wants to get hold of the feeling of indubitable certainty that carries with it the experience of the recognizing the past:

Upon this converge the presumptions of reliability or unreliability directed to memories. Perhaps we have placed a foot in the wrong imprint or grabbed the wrong ring dove in the coop. Perhaps we were the victims of a false recognition, as when from afar we take a tree to be a person we know. And yet, who, by casting suspicions from outside, could shake the certainty attached to the pleasure of the sort of recognition we know in our hearts to be indubitable? Who could claim never to have trusted memory’s finds in this way? (p. 430)

It is not by chance that Ricœur begins this chapter on “Forgetting and the Persistence of Traces” and the small miracle of recognition (p. 427), by expansive discussion on the confidence and distrust in the possibilities of memory, that accompany and mutually approve each other without definitively overriding the other.

4. The Historic Dissensus

Confidence is inseparable from suspicion, and this “question of confidence” (p. 172) is bound to the frightening but unavoidable possibility, not only of the lie, but of the impotence of testifying, to make oneself heard:

What confidence in the word of others reinforces is not just the interdependence, but the shared common humanity, of the members of a community. This needs to be said in fine to compensate for the excessive accent placed on the theme of difference in many contemporary theories of the social bond. Reciprocity corrects for the unsubstitut­ability of actors. Reciprocal exchange consolidates the feelings of existing along with other humans – inter homines esse, as Hannah Arendt liked to put it. This “between­ness” opens the field to dissensus as much as to consensus. And it is the dissensus that the critique of potentially divergent testimonies will introduce on the pathway from testimony to the archive. To conclude, in the final analysis, the middle level of security of language of a society depends on the trustworthiness, hence on the biographical attestation, of each witness taken one by one. It is against this background of assumed confidence that tragically stands out the solitude of those “historical witnesses” whose extraordinary experience stymies the capacity for average ordinary understanding. But there are also witnesses who never encounter an audience capable of listening to them or hearing what they have to say. (p. 166)

I think that here we have a firm grasp of the disturbing point, that keeps us in suspense and requires the courageous response of attestation: to testify in spite of the feeling that it is not heard. But this requires and calls for no less the courage to hear, to listen. And it is also necessary that the listeners be believable, capable of rebuilding their existential consistency as listeners while really taking account of what they heard, and capable of making it so that this experience, far from closing them, opens them to the possibility of other experiences of listening. The reception of the testimony is as important a critical element as its reliability. The whole question is to increase the public’s ability to actually receive the testimony. This point seems quite important to me, and it seems legitimate to me to consider that Ricœur suggests it implicitly.

In the lonely anguish to which we have just pointed, a thoroughly terrible philosophical question slips in, the question of skepticism, that is also the one of solipsism. One comes closer here to Wittgenstein, and to the question of skepticism, i.e., the withdrawal of each into one’s private language, doubting that whatever it is can really be known or com­municated. We need not believe that we can share our experiences so easily, and even less to impose them on others. However, one does not remember all alone, and history is the work of many.

In this regard, the earliest memories encountered along this path are shared memories, common memories (what Edward Casey places under the title “Reminiscing”). They allow us to affirm that “in reality, we are never alone”; and in this way the thesis of solipsism is set aside, even as a temporary hypothesis… In other words, one does not remember alone. (p. 121-122)

It is precisely in the section on the exteriority of memory according to Maurice Halbwachs that this formula intervenes. Ricœur follows this up with the important remark that “it is the connectedness of memory, dear to Dilthey…that has to be abandoned” and by the quasi-Leibnizian idea that “each memory is a viewpoint on the Collective Memory, that this viewpoint changes as my position changes.” (p. 122, 124)

Credibility appears from then on as indissolubly linked to the test and exercise of dissensus, of the feeling of discordant voices. This discordance can be mapped onto the great historical processes:

Osiel is drawn to the dissensus provoked by the trials’ public proceedings and to the educational function exerted by this very dissensus on the level of public opinion and collective memory, which is expressed and shaped on this level. The trust he places in the benefits expected to follow from this culture of controversy is related to his moral and political credo on behalf of a liberal society – in the political sense that English-speaking authors give to the term “liberal.” (p. 323)

It is, however, not only about the credibility of the testimonies in the juridical space of a lawsuit, but also about the reciprocal credibility (and of the incredulity) of history and memory. Here we find once again Ricœur’s classic oscillation between a hermeneutic pole of belonging to the world already and a critical pole of distance and pluralism –with this double connection of the autonomy of critical and comparative history with respect to memory, and of the dependence of history with respect to the memory of the incom­parable, of that which was and “demande a être raconté.” The rehabilitation of memory in history proposes to find a point of balance, before the excess of credulity in the one drags the other into total skepticism. In passing we note, to complete the previous quote, that it is necessary to re-establish the balance between the liberalism of trust and the critique of suppressed dissensus:

Of course, not everything historical can be included within situations of conflict or denunciation. Nor do they all come down to situations of the restoration of confidence through the creation of new rules, through the establishment of new uses, or the renovation of old ones. These situations only illustrate the successful appropriation of the past. Inadaptation contrary to the fitting act, too, stems from the present of history, in the sense of the present of the agents of history. Appropriation and denial of relevance are there to attest that the present of history does include a dialectical structure. (p. 226)

It is because of this delicate balance between trust and dissensus that the historian must broaden the range and what Ricœur calls “l’échelle des aspects non quantitatifs des temps sociaux.” He thus mentions authors such as Bernard Lepetit to show how the slow continuity and discontinuity of changes, with regard to the agreements and deep disagreements of a society, should be treated as the opposite ends of the same spectrum.

The dialectical structure of the historical present, which is more a practical exercise of initiative than a theoretical representation, acts as intersection between the horizon of expectation and the experiential space so dear to Kosseleck, but without being able to designate, at the intersection of the legal and the historical, an absolute third party. The judicial lawsuit proposes a form of a third party, and historiographic narration also, certainly. To retrieve and pursue the four categories of responsibility that Ricœur previously borrowed from Jaspers, there would also be the narrative one tells a friend, and the somehow metaphysical responsibility of the “survivors” before God. But these different faces of “party” do not comprise a system: “The vow of impartiality must thus be considered in light of the impossibility of an absolute third party.” (p. 314)

As with the philosophy of ordinary language, the solution to the problem is not found in an assured certainty, but in the confident acceptance of this uncertain situation, of this troubling strangeness of the ordinary, in the wonder that we nevertheless so often mange to understand one another, trust one another, without ever being able to force it to happen. Recall the formula: “we have nothing better than testimony, in the final analysis, to assure ourselves that something did happen in the past.” (p. 147) I would gladly bring it closer to the famous words of J. L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words: “Our speech is our action.” How to trust language, but not to put our trust in it? How do we not credit the capacity of the ordinary actors, speakers, and narrators to express more or less what they do and feel, and to understand and want what they say?

From where, perhaps, the place of the forgiveness to stop the increase of useless words, to start again by grounding ourselves anew in the possibility of speech:

Forgiveness raises a question that in its principle is distinct from the one that…has motivated our entire undertaking… On the one hand, it is the enigma of a fault held to paralyze the empowerment to act of the “capable being” that “we are”; and it is, in reply, the enigma of the possible lifting of this existential incapacity, designated by the term “forgiveness.” This double enigma runs diagonally through that of the representation of the past. (p. 457)

5. The Horizon of Forgiveness

Can we make a last step toward our topic without this, turning suddenly toward us, sending us back to the gate, forcing us to start again on a different path? We are going to come back to the point where we were while going off in quite a different direction, and this will be our second digression. The place granted to difficult forgiveness in the epilogue of Memory, History, Forgetting, touches very near to some very old concerns of mine, and I am very sensitive to the remarkable ambiguousness in which Ricœur places forgiveness, because he situates it well inside his book as something that comes down from its unconditional height to move across the set of institutions (legal imprescriptibility, citizenship of historical responsibility) and exchanges (restoration of a possible reciprocity) before coming back to that which I called the negative recognition of the release: an order to be bound by a promise, the subject of an action must also be able to be released from it through forgiveness. (p. 459) In this difficult moment, forgiveness must pass through the test of justice, not short-circuit it, (p. 473) and Ricœur speaks of the conditionality of the demand of forgiveness, against the unconditionality of a forgiveness granted.

But at exactly the same time, he speaks of forgiveness as an exceptional, unconditional, extraordinary, impossible act there is, because it is addressed to the unforgivable. (p. 471f) He speaks of gestures incapable of being transformed into institutions (p. 458), and he speaks of the abuse of forgiveness just as there are abuses of memory. (p.469) The link between the epilogue to the book is then very uncertain, like a supplement where one does not know if and how it is connected to the rest: Ricœur announces immediately that it is a question other than the one of representing the past that motivated the book as a whole: if forgiveness gives shape of the epilogue, it is rather like a figure of tragic wisdom or like:

an eschatology of the representation of the past. Forgiveness, if it has a sense, and if it exists, constitutes the horizon common to memory, history and forgetting. Always in re­treat, this horizon slips away from my grasp. It makes forgiving difficult: not easy but not impossible. It places a seal of incompleteness on the entire enterprise. (p. 593[10])

Ricœur declared earlier in the text that it was necessary to place forgiveness “outside of the text.” In the optics of the book, the depth of “fault belongs to the parerga, the ‘asides,’” (p. 461) like all limit situations he addresses in the epilogue. We might object that if it is no longer about the major question of the representation of the absent past, we are nevertheless involved in the other big question, the one of a just politics of memory and forgetting. But Ricœur challenges the idea of a politics of forgiveness: the collective is incapable of forgiveness, of escaping from the friend-enemy relationship. (p. 476-477) And there are no doubt things that are not so decided, and on which coercion has no hold.

To understand this point properly, it is important to note Ricœur’s extreme distrust with respect to love, and more precisely with respect to all premature synthesis between religious ethics of reconciliation or even merely of the compassionate agape, and the ethics of the magistrate. If there is no politics of forgiveness, it is that love “proves to be foreign to the world and, for this reason, not only apolitical but antipolitical.” (p. 488) Ricœur, as always by another path, converges here with Hannah Arendt, in this distrust regarding compassion that does not leave any room for debate, distance, plurality, for conflict itself –and therefore for its rules. On the other hand, neither is it about bringing back all unity in history or justice under the sign of synthesis; it is precisely that there are different forms of impartiality, there is no absolute third, as if it were so important to allow room for an antipolitical fringe. The gap is irreducible, and perhaps it is this anachronism that makes time human.

I would guess, and this is what I would like to explore in the pages that come, that the word parerga, parergon, can help us to think through the ambiguous position of forgive­ness and love in the epilogue. An epilogue is not a conclusion. Ricœur speaks of incom­pleteness. I will add that it is less about a step in the same direction or a reconnection that enables a consolidation of all that has been achieved along the way, than of a kind of “de­totalization,” of a return to the beginning –but of course then, one does not begin again in the same way. The term of parerga is used by Kant in the final note that completes the first of the four general remarks that finishes the four parts of The Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. These four remarks are about grace, understood as that which is confined to religion, and give it its frame but would not know how to become an integral part of it. The inactivity of grace must remain an outside limit to religion. In the same way, it seems to me that Ricœur places his epilogue under the title of forgiveness (and of an economy of the gift and the loss), to situate it on this margin that is neither inside nor outside.

In a small book on the ethics of Ricœur,[11] I myself slipped in an epilogue on “Love and Justice” where I tried to show this ambiguous, the living tension, the twist he puts on the golden rule (not to do unto others what one would not want done to oneself). Sometimes it works like an old promise that constantly reopens the rules of procedural justice:

détachée du contexte de la règle d’or, la règle du maximin resterait un argument purement prudentiel, caractéristique de tout jeu de marchandage. Non seulement la visée déontologique, mais même la dimension historique du sens de la justice, ne sont pas simplement intuitives, mais résultent d’une longue Bildung issue de la tradition juive et chrétienne, aussi bien que grecque et romaine. Séparée de cette histoire culturelle, la règle du maximin perdrait sa caractérisation éthique.[12]

Sometimes it formulates a principle of justice and reciprocity that, separated from love, becomes perverse in its turn. It is no doubt why the just can sometimes understand the opposition of the legal and the good, and sometimes be opposed to the good that would then point toward infinite love. Love then exceeds all justice in all ways:

Sans le correctif du commandement d’amour, en effet, la règle d’or serait sans cesse tirée dans le sens d’une maxime utilitaire dont la formule serait do ut des, je donne pour que tu donnes. La règle: donne parce qu’il t’a été donné, corrige le “afin que” de la maxime utilitaire et sauve la règle d’or d’une interprétation perverse toujours possible.[13]

Likewise, here forgiveness works horizontally like a demand of reciprocity submitted to rules and conditions. Sometime it works vertically as the unconditional that can appear but cannot be forced to appear, but is attempted –thinking ourselves capable. It is thus necessary to move constantly to assume the responsibility of the demands of forgiveness, to make oneself capable of it (which is submitted to conditions), while at the same time also to accept oneself as incapable, impotent (it would be necessary for the forgiveness to be entirely selfless and one never knows if it is).

As always, and a little like a Platonic dialogue, Ricœur stages this disproportion through readings that he opposes and conjoins, by which he lets them somehow conspire before arranging them and bending them to his plan. It is in this way that he borrows some elements of my analysis of the moral dilemmas of horizontal forgiveness, and borrows from Derrida some of the essential characteristics of the height of vertical forgiveness. And this is how he constructs his frame, which is like the limit idea of the whole book. It is a Kantian idea, and it is as if he defended a Kantian concept using human history.

6. A Kantian Frame

Now Derrida some time ago wrote a very beautiful text on the parerga, by which I would like to make a detour. There he analyzed the notion of disinterested pleasure, defending the disinterestedness against Nietzsche and the pleasure against Heidegger; but he also noted Kant’s distrust of the parerga, this non-organic supplement to the work, as the frame for the pictures or the garments for the statues, this superfluous supplement. This frame, that is neither interior nor exterior, a little like the player who is neither inside his game nor outside his game if he is really playing, Derrida recovers it in the very structure of the Critique of Judgment, where Kant imports into the analytics of aesthetic judgment the set of judgments that issued from the Critique of pure Reason. The frame fits poorly:

on transpose et fait entrer de force un cadre logique pour l’imposer d’une structure non logique, une structure qui ne concerne plus essentiellement un rapport de l’objet comme objet de connaissance. Le jugement esthétique, Kant y insiste, n’est pas un jugement de connaissance.[14]

According to Derrida, the only justification of this transposition resides in a hypothetical link with understanding. Making allusion to the Critique of Judgment (paragraph 1, p. 49), Derrida comments:

Le cadre de cette analytique du beau, avec ses quatre moments, est donc fourni par l’analytique transcendantale pour la seule et mauvaise raison que l’imagination, ressource essentielle du rapport à la beauté, se lie peut-être à l’entendement.[15]

A hypothetical link, therefore uncertain, confused:

le rapport à l’entendement, qui n’est ni sûr, ni essentiel, fournit donc le cadre à tout ce discours; et en lui le discours sur le cadre … tout le cadre de l’analytique du beau fonctionne, par rapport à ce dont il s’agit de déterminer le contenu ou la structure interne, comme un parergon.[16]

The frame becomes in its turn an example of that which permits its consideration as an example, a parerga of that which permits its consideration as a parerga. It is toward this bizarre composition of settings in the depths that Derrida is heading. For him, if Kant dismisses a supplementary frame based on another supplementary frame, it is because the judgment of beauty remains spellbound by the model of pure presence, released from all supplement, and that this presence gives way –from whence the mourning, that means disinterestedness (the possible).

Derrida speaks of a kind of grief-stricken connection to beauty –a theme extensively developed on pages 92-94, where aesthetic experience, “a tulip without color and without perfume,” is already itself a work of the mourning. A little later, Derrida, observing that the beautiful no longer depends on empirical existence (neither that of the object, nor the subject), writes:

le plaisir suppose non pas la disparition pure et simple, mais la neutralisation, non pas simplement la mise à mort mais la mise en crypte de tout ce qui existe en tant qu’il existe.[17]

We know, we have just recounted, that Ricœur considers the notion of a “work of memory” as more sufficient than one of a “duty of memory.” He relates it to the work of mourning, and we have seen how pervasive the notions of mourning and burial were in Memory, History, Forgetting. There would be thus, as in La Recherche du temps perdu, a kind of memory that comes back from mourning, an orphism of memory. We recover in memory only that which was truly lost. There is however another side of the work of memory, more lively, inchoate, a side of memory somehow newborn. And it is there that Ricœur parts ways with Derrida: one could bring the work of memory, of that which he esteems in The Rule of Metaphor as the work of resemblance –which in turn does not seem to be very far from what he calls “the small miracle of recognition,” closer to this fundamental notion that recognition almost no longer works. We will come back to this.

What is this sought after resemblance? In a superb text “Sur un autoportrait de Rembrand,”[18] Ricœur suddenly asks what allows thought that the represented face is that of the painter himself. Because the date and the signature of the picture say the painter’s name, but it is an external legend that indicates that it is regarding a self-portrait. The canvas represents one who is absent, the author of the canvas died, and we are told that they are identical. What is this identity? Faithful to his hermeneutics, Ricœur insists on the fact that while doing this “painting examination” (in 1660, a difficult moment in his life), Rembrandt proposes an interpretation of himself, and that the work is henceforth orphaned from its author and its context.

Just as living speech made room for writing, the work is unglued, unmoored, and there is nothing to look for around or behind it other than the absence of the one that rendered in this portrait what he saw of his face, and that he died. And this portrait, precisely because it is orphaned (I would say unmoored), looks at us today, made of us its contem­poraries. It makes us see new resemblances.

There is, in the numerous attempts of van Gogh to paint some shoes, the pairs sometimes lovingly odd, something that is at the level of a self-portrait. That is the appraisal of Jacques Derrida, in the text of “Restitution”:

Dans un autoportrait, on se rend soi-même. À soi-même. … Mais rendre n’a pas le même sens dans les deux locutions: se rendre en peinture et se rendre quelque chose à soi-même, se payer. … et se rendre à quelqu’un serait pour qui se livre dans une reddition, un quatrième sens. Van Gogh a rendu ses chaussures, il s’est rendu dans ses chaussures, il s’est rendu avec ses chaussures, il s’est rendu à ses chaussures, il s’est rendu ses chaussures.[19]

What would be the differend between Derrida and Ricœur? I don’t know. Mourning is not the same, maybe, but do we ever have the same mourning, and is it not just this that makes it irreparable? In La métaphore vive Ricœur discussed the deconstruction by which Derrida, in his Mythologie blanche, sees a western metaphysical bias acting on the whole of modern philosophical discourse with metaphors that are worn-out, sedimented, eroded, apparently abolished, but that conceal themselves of it.[20]

Le coup de maître, ici, est d’entrer dans le métaphorique, non par la porte de la naissance, mais, si j’ose dire, par la porte de la mort. Le concept d’usure implique tout autre chose que le concept d’abus que nous avons vu opposer à celui d’usage par les auteurs anglo-saxons.[21]

But it is not enough to resuscitate metaphor under a concept, to show its reproductive mechanism: first because, it seems to me, wearing down itself could produce new signif­ications, through the crumbling of semantic spheres, or setting in relief the sense that emerges in ordinary use. And then there is that which Ricœur, in a sort of secondary Kantianism, calls “le schématisme de l’attribution métaphorique,” the possibility that original gaps slip into an old metaphor, reopening it, and to making it say something quite new; finally because there exists, constantly, always already taking support from the network of sedimented metaphors, the invention of new living metaphors.

Ricœur’s protest would be that one cannot separate mourning and birth, and that under history and forgetting themselves there is life. We can here recall that birth is a decisive philosophical theme on which Ricœur rejoins Arendt:

must this not be understood as a discreet yet stubborn protest addressed to the Heideggerian philosophy of being-toward-death? Should we not see action as “an ever present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin”? In this respect, “action… looks like a miracle. (p. 246)

The evocation of the miracle of action, at the origin of the miracle of forgiveness, seriously calls into question the entire analysis of the faculty of forgiveness. How can the mastery of time be joined to the miracle of natality? It is precisely this question that sets our entire enterprise into motion again and invites us to pursue the odyssey of forgiveness to the center of selfhood. In my opinion, what is lacking in the political interpretation of forgiveness, which assures its symmetry with promising on the same level of exchange, is any reflection on the very active binding proposed as the condition for the act of binding.” (p. 636)

7. The Faculty of Unbinding

Forgiveness introduces at once a link, a bond of debt and mourning, and an unbinding, a rupture, the faculty to start over.[22] It is why there is no need to raise the birth to the point of making it a triumph of life, like an unending process of renewal, which would completely lack the tragic.[23] The theme of birth appears since Le volontaire et l’involontaire as even more radical than that of death, and comprised at the same time of the vigorous joy in the new, and of mourning. Birth is also orphaned, it is a necessary facet of all experience, a fundamental limit. And I would quickly point out that the last pages of Memory, History, Forgetting, which foreground the undecidable character of the polarity that divides forgetting between the grief-stricken entropy of erasure and the joyful confidence in that which he calls the forgetting in reserve, brings this equivocation to its paroxysm.

If we give credit to the competence of ordinary beings in the face of time, we will not then think of mourning without thinking of birth, that is to say the desire to be –it is here that the Bergsonianism probably conceals a discreet Spinozism, a deeply affirmative orientation, approving of the thought of Paul Ricœur, who ends his book on the notion of life, of incompleteness. But this living continuity that one recovers with the astonishing idea of a forgetting in reserve that he opposes to the forgetting of erasure, to the discontinuity of deaths and births, as being of the same strength, does not designate something that would be at our disposal (otherwise this would not be of the order of forgetting), but something that arranges us. Moreover: in this respect, there is no representation of the past that could be a resurrection of it, that would no doubt require a finished work of memory (p. 499) –mourning is there to separate the past from the present and to make room for the future, that is to say for being carefree, for forgetting oneself. Whence comes the final Kierkegaardian note.

It is indeed a point where one can speak of a stilled forgetting, (oubli d vr) and Ricœur then cites the magnificent pages of Kierkegaard on the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky, who do not work, do not compare, who forget themselves. This insouciance, this unbinding of the care of self, is again a theme of the forgiveness, not only as a place made for oneself as another, but also as an erasing of oneself before another, and who comes to be, to appear in world.

It is exactly because there is the melancholy, the very impossibility of completing the task of mourning, that there is birth that neither finishes nor supplements this work, but stills it. The difficulty of forgiveness is to yield neither to the vertigo of entropy, the wear of forgetting, the habituation that relativizes all and by which all returns to indifference[24]; nor to yield to the prestige of negentropy, of this negative entropy by which memory would wish to be able to reclaim everything, to sort out and calculate with no remainder, in a total recollection and redemption of the past in its entirety.[25] It is to the point that it seems to me possible to drive the idea, that the epilogue on forgiveness in parergon of Memory, History, Forgetting, is a limit, a paradox, a horizon, the place of tension, of torsion or the about-face of all discourses.

Ricœur’s epilogue puts forgiveness on a limit, a notion that is made very Kantian -­in the sense of the question: “What am I permitted to hope?” To take the philosophical approximation of the theological vocabulary of Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, we could say with Ricœur that: “forgiveness offers itself as the best eschatological horizon of the entire problematic of memory, history, and forgetting.” Would forgiveness finally be like the eschatological horizon of the appeased memory, of the happy forgetting? But this must immediately be understood as a limit idea, which is why Ricœur continues: “But this approximation of eskhaton guarantees no happy ending for our enterprise as a whole: this is why it will be question only of a difficult forgiveness (epilogue).” (p. 285) It is just why it is necessary “to examine it and side of the text, so to speak, in the form of an epilogue.” (p. 285)

This horizon is less defined as a fusion of horizons in Gadamer’s sense than as a flight (fuite) of horizons, and an incompleteness. (p. 538) The eskhaton is not the Last Judgment, which Ricœur greatly mistrusts (it is for him a contradictory notion, and even then there is no absolute third). And the odyssey of forgiveness ever reaches the promised land. It is that which Ricœur shows in his magnificent reading of hope in Kant.[26]

To really grasp this point, I would say that Ricœur doesn’t conceive of forgiveness at all as the crowning or teleological reconciliation of history, but as an eskhaton,a constituent limit, and I would almost call it an ordinary condition.[27] And it is why in my small article on “Le pardon ou comment revenir au monde ordinaire,”[28] I protest against a way of pushing forgiveness too far, outside the world, into an impossible extraordinary, and attempt to come back from a sublime and inaccessible forgiveness to one that is less dramatic. The eskhaton, in fact, is not the end of the world, just the opposite. It is elsewhere also the main argument of Ricœur against a deconstruction that wants to be total: it is not necessary to construct a metaphysics of the original and the metaphorical on the duality of the figurative sense and the literal sense, because the latter means only current, usual.[29] And if ordinary language is likewise entirely metaphorical, how do we get out of it, how do we not trust these normal anomalies of language that are our metaphors, all not-yet-lexicalized usage?[30]

I wrote above that if forgiveness appeared as this detotalization, a return to the beginning, one did not begin again the same way. If it was necessary to begin again, I would begin with Kant’s emphasis, in The Critique of Judgment, on the questions of receptiveness. This is not only the feeling that beauty speaks, but that we do not know what it says (this is no doubt hope). This is not only that in the absence of a third we can make room in ourselves for the possibility of another point of view, in a sort of enlarging of the imagination. (p. 414) It is the fact that my judgments, my memory, even my testimony, cannot be forced, obligated, ordered, nor imposed, and that their credibility and their very communicability rests, fragile, on the manner of which they are confided in their receivers. But as with pleasure, joy, or love, if forgiveness cannot be imposed (p. 471), is still works as something of a traversing of distrust and skepticism, not toward an assured and absolute confidence, but toward a confidence in the possibility of acting and speaking, and the indubitable recognition that “this was.” (p. 429-430) This zigzag of confidence in one’s own testimony, which renders to the testimony of others the confidence that is due, seems to me the beating heart the work that has been given us here to discuss and reflect on together.

Olivier Abel
Translated by Boyd Blundell
Version anglaise de cet article

Notes :

[1] Paul Ricœur, La métaphore vive (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 321. Translator note: As the primary text, quotations from Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting, are taken from the Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). All secondary quotations have been left in the original.

[2] Paul Ricœur, Temps et Récit 1 (Paris: Seuil, 1983). See the entire first part on emplotment.

[3] Who looks to reduce uncertainty and who exists only in somehow formulating vows or promises. See the work of Arendt and Nietzsche on promising.

[4] Paul Ricœur, Temps et Récit 3 (Paris: Seuil, 1984-85), 198f.

[5] Ibid., 278.

[6] Ibid., 274-275.

[7] Ibid., 358-359. These are the pages that had struck me ever since they appeared.

[8] See Nicole Loraux, La cit divis (Paris: Payot, 1997), 256 and 277, and idem, La voix en deuil (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

[9] Paul Ricœur, Du texte á l’action (Paris: Seuil, 1986), 102 and 193.

[10] See also p. 646. Ricœur is speaking of the horizon of accomplishment of a historical knowledge that is aware of its own limits.

[11] Olivier Abel, Paul Ricœur, la promesse et la règle (Paris: Michalon, 1996).

[12] “Une théorie purement procédurale de la justice est-elle possible?” Paul Ricœur, Le juste (Paris: Esprit, 1995), 96.

[13] Paul Ricœur, Amour et justice (Paris: PUF, 1997), 56-58.

[14] Ibid., 81.

[15] Ibid., 83.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 54.

[18] Paul Ricœur, Lectures III (Paris: Seuil, 1994), 13f.

[19] Jacques Derrida, La Vérité en peinture (Paris: Flammarion, 1978), 435.

[20] “Ce sont les grandes métaphores ontologiques de la présence, de la demeure, du sol, du soleil, vers lesquelles se retournent les figures de la philosophie depuis Platon (cited in Ricœur, La métaphore vive, 367).

[21] Ibid., 362.

[22] This unbinding is a completely primary metapolitical theme, hearkening back to the Puritan Reformation, on the right of breaking alliances and contracts. At the same time it is a comic theme, a theme of wisdom: thus Ricœur develops elsewhere more tragic and epic theses, which do not allow us as easily to think the binding of the agent and his act that Badiou attributes to Ricœur as a Christian conception of the subject. Since then I have explained this in an article appearing in the Herne journals.

[23] This would also be a mistaken reading of Hannah Arendt.

[24] It is the sense of the protest of Jankélévitch but also of Nietzsche’s criticism of Schopenhauerian detachment.

[25] It is by this double movement, no doubt also influenced by a reading of a great essay by Jean-François Lyotard on Hannah Arendt (entitled Survivant, in his Lectures d’enfance), that I achieved my “Tables de Pardon,” in the appendix to Le Pardon, briser la dette et l’oubli (Paris: Autrement, 1992).

[26] There he asks: “ajouter à l’objet de sa visée, pour qu’il soit entier, ce qu’elle a exclu de son principe, pour qu’il soit pur.” And radical evil “n’aît sur la voie de la totalisation, il n’apparaît que dans une pathologie de l’espérance, comme la perversion inhérente à la problématique de l’accomplissement et de la totalisation.” See Paul Ricœur, “La liberté selon l’espérance,” in idem, Le Conflit des interprétations (Paris: Seuil, 1969), 407, 414.

[27] Grace does not come as the crowning moment of nature or history, it precedes them as a first unlinking, a recommencement, a first gift, a free giving, an offer where forgiveness is but gratitude and recognition. It is why, during a 1996 course I gave in Lausanne on “Le pardon, l’histoire, l’oubli,” I adopted this alternate syntax (also used in my Esprit article in 1993: “Ce que le pardon vient faire dans l’Histoire”). Starting from an unconditional and impossible forgiveness, passing by way of the pragmatics of conditional forgiveness, I then moved toward an anthropolgoy of a necessary forgiveness. It is this first forgiveness that I then confronted with two kinds of tragedy, the tragedy of conflict with respect to disagreements in history, and the formidable work of emplotment they require. The tragedy of the irreparable with respect to the double work of memory and forgetting culminated in moderate praise for forgetting.

[28] Esprit (août-septembre 2000).

[29] See Ricœur, La métaphore vive, 369.

[30] Ibid., 365-366.