In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera discusses the attempt of the Communist Party to erase historical events and people (including himself) from the public memory of Czechoslovakia. He believes that ‘the first step in liquidating a people … is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.’ But Kundera finds such an attempt the ultimate absurdist endeavor, for the constant street-name changes and air-brushing of official photographs indicate a desire not only to erase history but to change it:
'People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.'
Kundera reflects the standard European horror of pastlessness: to live without a history is to be nothing; to live with an invented history is, even worse, to be a joke. Invented histories, however, have rarely posed existential problems for Americans. The denial of the past has always been part of the ‘package deal’ of the American Dream. If, to the European, the past offers spiritual ballast in the face of the contingent and the unknown, to the American it is discardable dead weight. Cutting one’s losses has been the pragmatic, and even romantic, creed of our greatest fictional heroes (think only of Huckleberry Finn, Gatsby, John Wayne in countless westerns), for whom name and address changes symbolize a proud refusal to acknowledge social and even physical limits to experience. It is hardly novel to point out the decay of this myth; if one theme pervades post-World War II American film and fiction it is the slow, sad death of the ‘unattached’ frontier spirit in an increasingly claustrophobic and standardized nation. But if the spirit has died, its form has survived in the style of constant change, change which embodies no greater organic principle than change itself."
— Allison Graham in her essay “History, Nostalgia, and the Criminality of Popular Culture” (1984)