THE BURDEN OF MEMORY, THE MUSE OF FORGIVENESS by Wole Soyinka

THE BURDEN OF MEMORY, THE MUSE OF FORGIVENESS

KIRKUS REVIEW

A disturbing moral dilemma is explored by the noted Nigerian writer. In the first and by far the weightiest of the three essays that make up this volume, Nobel laureate Soyinka (Art, Dialogue and Outrage, 1994, etc.) struggles with a dilemma: how should societies respond to the commission of despicable acts in public life? These can occur on a systemic level, such as slavery in the US or apartheid in South Africa, or through the hands of an individual tyrant such as the current ruler of Nigeria, Sanni Abacha. In either case, forgiveness, a salve on the wounds to promote healing, would seem to be the morally superior option, even if such generosity is beyond the capabilities of most people. But is excusing morally outrageous behavior moral or simply foolish? Perhaps healing requires revenge, an excising of the cancer. Are we to imagine, for example, a repentant Pol Pot walking the streets like any other man, freed by the forgiveness of those whom he did not manage to kill? Soyinka identifies forgiveness as “a value far more humanly exacting than vengeance” yet cannot swallow the proposition that it will, by itself, suffice. Something is missing from a process which absolves the perpetrators of tyranny so completely that they assume the same moral or civil status as those whose conduct is crime-free. Soyinka’s answer is reparations, a paying back from victimizer to victim, but even this sits somewhat uneasily. As in the remaining essays focusing on negritude, there is a sense that the playwright in Soyinka is building layers of thought not to resolve the issue, but to illustrate its unresolvability. No definitive analysis proving that reparations will solve the moral dilemma is to be found here, and perhaps that is part of the cost of despicable acts: once committed, there are no longer answers with which we should be completely comfortable. Powerful stuff. (For another look at these questions, see Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, p. 1438.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-19-512204-4
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1998




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