A writer cancels her novel set in Russia. Is this outrage taken too far?
Eat, Pray, Love author and the notion of collective guilt
When Elizabeth Gilbert cancelled her own forthcoming novel set in Russia, it could be argued that she was practising an extreme form of damnatio memoriae.
These so-called memory sanctions were literally meant to prevent people from remembering or being able to remember someone.
According to historian Harriet Flower, a disgraced aristocrat in the Roman empire could be denied a funerary mask or the accompaniment of the masks of his ancestors at his burial. All portraits could be banned as well and enemies of the state were dealt with by excision from memory.
Here’s Oxford art historian Jaś Elsner: There was “a discourse of image destruction and memory erasure for those who were rivals or former favorites of emperors, including women”. There was the “destruction, demolition, and recutting of portraits in the cases of disgraced former emperors.” This damnatio memoriae (a modern term, not one used by the Romans) involved all kinds of monuments and inscriptions but “centered on statues, which might be demolished, or have their heads recut, or simply have new inscriptions added to replace those of the disgraced”.
This wasn’t far removed from Byzantine political strategy. As Professor Elsner notes, on the fall of an emperor, his images would be removed, or if his throne had been usurped, they would be replaced with images of the new Basileus.
By preventing a novel set in Russia from being published, does Ms Gilbert imagine that the landmass of Russia, its cultural presence and historical imprint will simply disappear?
And here’s another question: Is Russia as a whole and are all forms of Russianness now subject to collective guilt? Perhaps in the case of Ms Gilbert’s actions on Russia, it’s almost as if the country is being burdened with existential guilt. But where does national culpability end? We’ll look at that next.