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On Commemoration

Global Reflections upon Remembering War

Edited By Catherine Gilbert, Kate McLoughlin and Niall Munro

How, in the twenty-first century, can we do commemoration better? In particular, how can commemoration contribute to post-war reconciliation and reconstruction? In this book, a global roster of distinguished writers, artists, musicians, religious leaders, military veterans and scholars debate these questions and ponder the future of commemoration. They include the world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz, the award-winning novelists Aminatta Forna and Rachel Seiffert, and the human rights lawyer and Gifford Baillie Prize-winner Philippe Sands. Polemics and reflections together with poetry and creative prose movingly illuminate a subject that speaks to our common humanity.

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Introduction: Words Fail Us (Catherine Gilbert)


catherine gilbert

In his autobiographical novel Contraataque (1938), published in English as The War in Spain, the novelist and journalist Ramón J. Sender wrote of the Spanish Civil War:

The words I could use have not been spoken, and I wish to keep them in the realm of words that have not been created, in the recesses of the soul in which everyone keeps dead hopes.1

One of the problems with textual commemoration is that words fail us: they can never do justice to the horror, pain and loss caused by armed conflict. And yet, people keep writing. The forms that written commemoration takes are impressively varied: not just novels and poems and histories and the words engraved onto monuments, but names scratched on pebbles, brass words set into the ground, graffiti sprayed onto walls, witness-statements submitted to law-courts. And then there are the words that Sender imagines – words that have not yet been spoken or created but that everyone still knows.

Should we attempt to utter such words? The cynical history teacher in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys (2004) believes that official remembrance of the war dead ‘veils the truth’ about those responsible for mass death.2 ‘There is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it,’ he declares.3 But what about those for whom there is no commemoration? For many individuals and societies, there is nothing ←13 | 14→more urgent than to remember how and why...

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