By Dermot Quinn.

This essay was delivered as a memorial lecture at Fordham University, New York, on November 15, 2023.

One of the easiest ways of remembering Gerald Russello is to listen to him. So here he is, in that powerful, reasonable, humane, wise voice of his, talking, appropriately enough, about memory:

In my current job, I spend much of my time exploring people’s memories. I listen to people tell me about events that happened weeks, months, or even years before. In most of the stories I hear, something bad happened and most people don’t want to take the blame. So they construct memories of what happened—out of embarrassment, to protect themselves or others, or to avoid getting involved. We all perform hundreds of individual tasks, hundreds of actions every day: how could one remember them all? My job is to go over the memories of many different people to try to find a reasonable facsimile of what really occurred. Sometimes one detail sticks out that makes the rest of the story make sense and helps you separate what likely happened from what likely didn’t. But sometimes you never really know.[1]

So much in this passage recalls the man we commemorate tonight. First, he was a listener, a collector of stories. Then he was an interpreter, a maker of meaning. Then he was a counselor, a dispenser of advice. Finally, and in all these things, he was a man of hope. Listening, interpreting, advising, encouraging: Gerald’s great gifts of mind and heart and spirit were eagerly sought and generously shared. That is why we are here tonight. He was, in every way, a memorable man, a devoted son, husband, father, and friend. “He was funny and erudite and full of zest,” wrote one of his friends, Susannah Black Roberts, when she heard of his death. “I think he was pretty holy, too.”[2] No-one who knew him could doubt it.  

Sorting through the memories of others, Gerald brought a sympathetic but properly skeptical intelligence to a task that others might have found tedious or impossible. He knew that memory has its limits, that it is, in Hobbes’s phrase, “decaying sense,” that it is partial and subjective. He knew that it is reliable, until it becomes conveniently or inconveniently unreliable. He knew not to expect too much of it. In this sifting through the past, he was part of a very long tradition. Nearly two centuries ago, Leopold von Ranke proposed that the historian’s task is to discover “what actually happened.” Gerald, more modestly, was prepared to settle for a “reasonable facsimile” of what happened, counting himself lucky if got even that. Perhaps that’s the difference between the Germans and the Italians, between the scientists and the artists. Gerald was interested in the art of memory. Science he left to others.  

Gerald knew, to put the point more precisely, that to excavate memory is to become aware of its complex fabrications. Memories are made. We construct them, deconstruct them, reconstruct them, deconstruct them again, so that, in the end, we remember not so much events as the memories of events, the completed versions in narrative form of happenings we store away for later  retrieval. We tell the same story over again in almost the same way, pausing for effect, anticipating a reaction, knowing how it ends, so that it becomes a performance of the past for which the past provides merely the pretext. It is what Oscar Wilde meant when he said that he had entered his anecdotage. Polish a story often enough and what you get is not the story but the polish.  

Gerald’s reflections were prompted by an effort to explore a memory of his own, a story he told in the Harvard Review in December 2020. It was about the occasion when, as a child in Brooklyn in the 1970s, he was almost abducted, and it suggests, among other things, that Gerald could have had a career as a novelist: 

As I recall, my mother told me the story of what happened only once. My grandmother and great-aunt were arguing with the butcher. They were poor despite their house, which was bought by their parents with loans from friends and was in a steady state of collapse. We were poor too. We sometimes got free milk and big blocks of government-issued cheese from my grandmother, who had worked out some complicated plan to get more than her share at the food bank. Anyway, one sister followed shortly by the other, went into the butcher’s shop. I was left outside, a hand on the stroller holding my sister.[3]    

As the sisters were in the shop, a friendly stranger extended his hand and Gerald, an introverted and unsuspecting child, accepted it. Off he walked, innocent of danger. How long was he gone? A few minutes at most, perhaps not even that. His grandmother emerged from the shop, discovered him gone, panicked, looked around, and finally found him. That was the day Gerald was almost abducted. That was the day he never forgot. 

Yet what he never forgot was not the day itself but the memories of others which then became a kind of memory of his own. One memory was retrievable—that of holding someone’s hand—but only when he had been told the rest of the story. His own memory, if such it was, made no sense without the memories of others. As for the abduction, his mother told him about it later, and then, in a nice twist, forgot about it. Gerald did not remember being told the story but he remembered its details, so that, as an adult, in another neat twist, he could remind others of what he had never known and what they had partly forgotten. Bit by bit several stories were pieced together into one—the story of what had happened, of what was remembered, of what was forgotten, of what had been told, of what had been retold, of what it all meant. “The red balloon,” his mother said to him when Gerald reminded her of the episode forty years later. “That was how your grandmother found you. You weren’t with your sister where you were supposed to be. She saw it bobbing down the street and she went after it.”[4] It is a brilliantly cinematic detail, rather like that scene in The Third Man in which another balloon-wielding toddler wanders through the streets of post-war Vienna. Chesterton has a poem in which he instructs a youngster not to believe in any story that can’t be told in colored pictures. The butcher’s shop, the government cheese, the bobbing balloon: there was no shortage of colored pictures that day. Gerald was almost abducted, and he almost remembered it. Almost remembering, he seems to suggest, is as important as remembering. At least it shows effort. 

The writers Gerald admired were memory-keepers—Saint Augustine, Edmund Burke, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, David Jones, Giuseppe di Lampedusa—for whom the partial, the fragmentary, the half-understood, were not impediments but incentives to historical imagination. Augustine spoke of the “large and boundless chamber” of memory, so vast that it hinted at treasures beyond itself. Burke insisted that society is a contract between the living, the dead, and the yet to be born. “People will not look forward to posterity,” he said, “who never look backward to their ancestors.”[5]  Dawson said that he learned more history in Winchester Cathedral than Winchester College, its tombs of Saxon kings and medieval statesmen-bishops giving him “a greater sense of the magnitude of the religious element in our culture and the depths of its roots in our national life than anything one could learn from books.”[6] Kirk saw in the past “variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful…I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments [he said] for one poor battered gargoyle.”[7] David Jones understood the Western tradition as a deposit of myth and artifact, a treasury from which we can “fetch things new and old…the things come down from heaven together with the kept memorials, the things lifted up and the venerated trinkets.”[8] Giuseppe di Lampedusa recognized that memories of early childhood “consist of a series of visual impressions, many very clear but lacking any sense of chronology.”[9] He could have been talking of Gerald’s near abduction. For of them, memory held a central place in their thinking.

Gerald was a member in good standing of this intellectual tradition. He liked to explore what Saint Augustine called the “vast court of my memory” not only because it contained “heaven, earth, [and] sea” but also because it contained the faculties by which such things could be understood. Each memory has its own room. Different memories have different rooms. To assign a memory to a room is to categorize it, give it a place, begin to understand it. In fact, the more he puzzled about it, the more Augustine came to recognize that the retrieval of memory is an act of the conscious will. “I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory,” he said, “[and] when I enter there, I require what I will to be brought up, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched as it were out of some inner receptacle…Other things come up readily, in unbroken order, as they are called for…ready to come when I will.” We do not surrender to our memories. We master them. 

The Jesuits, who trained Gerald well, also knew this. One of the greatest of them, Matteo Ricci, was famous for his “memory palace,” a mnemonic system with which he astonished and converted his Chinese hosts in the late sixteenth century and which operated, among other things, as a way of examining conscience and deepening the spiritual life. To its critics, such memory systems were little more than conjuring tricks to astonish the gullible. But they were much more than that. St. Thomas Aquinas approved of them because what he called “corporeal similitudes”—that is to say, memory images in bodily form—could prevent “subtle and spiritual things” falling away from the soul.[10] (Nowadays we might render that as “keep your eyes on the prize”.) St. Ignatius went even further. “The memory’s part,” he wrote, “is to recall how the angels were created in grace, but refused to make the most of their free-will…[and] were plunged from heaven to hell.”[11] I imagine that Gerald did not quote that line as he escorted his clients through the chambers of their memories but, in his own way, he was conducting a version of the Ignatian exercises. According to Ignatius, memory includes the entire content of his consciousness, those things exterior to experience (the fallen angels) as well as forgotten or repressed. Saint Augustine had his Confessions, Ignatius his Exercises, Matteo Ricci his Memory-Place, Gerald his yellow writing pad: they were all doing the same thing—re-presenting the past, making it present again, and thus making it representative of all experience. They seemed to be looking backward. In fact, they were looking inward.    

Looking inward by looking backward might also describe the scholarly project of another of Gerald’s heroes, Christopher Dawson. For Dawson—as for Augustine, Ignatius, and Aquinas—we need to remember why we remember. In Dawson’s case, to understand the past—certainly the European past—was to “refresh the theological and historical resources of Christian belief in order to build the foundations of a new Christian culture.” He doubted if the mid-twentieth century western world “had the spiritual depth required for such a task, and he turned especially to the early centuries of Christianity for guidance.”[12] By collecting and expounding his ideas, Gerald was a brilliant advocate for Dawson’s extraordinarily ambitious effort at civilizational renewal. He, too, lamented Europe’s “loss of historical memory,” its spiritual amnesia, its unawareness of its Judeo-Christian roots, indeed of any roots at all. But lamentation was not enough. Gerald understood that Dawson’s project implied a kind of theology of memory, certainly a theology of history. Precisely because he “saw history essentially as a creative process,” a communion of living and dead, the past not completed action but active and embodied in the world, Dawson feared that its erasure was a form of cultural suicide. “The essential task is to understand Christian culture as a whole,” he wrote. “If we try to ignore or explain away this creative process in order to enhance the importance of our own national achievement or that of some contemporary political ideology, we deprive ourselves of our own cultural inheritance and narrow the intelligibility of history.”[13] Churches, buildings, monuments, gravestones, customs, habits of thought: none of them make any sense without the historical grammar by which to interpret them. We become strangers in a strange land, wandering alone in a kind of aphasia, unable to communicate with the dead who have much to communicate to us. 

When we narrow the intelligibility of history, when we forget or dismiss the past, when we seek solutions in a kind of rootless metaphysics, we become prey to bad actors and political charlatans. Dawson distrusted those who speak of Humanity while paying little attention to human beings. As Joseph De Maistre said of the French Revolution: “During my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on: thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian: but I must say, as for man, I have never come across him anywhere; if he exists, he is completely unknown to me.” Gerald was of the same mind. Humanitarianism, he noticed, “is itself a religion [with] its own eschatology, its own sacraments and holidays, and various prohibitions and commandments, usually centered around specific groups. [It represents] a retreat from rational reflection of politics.”[14] That is what happens with loss of historical memory. 

The quasi-religiosity is not an accident. Gerald deplored not only loss of memory (which can happen to all of us) but also its conscious eradication. The results of the latter are almost always disastrous. Such was the impulse of French Revolutionaries who proclaimed Year One in 1792, followed almost immediately in Year Two by the Reign of Terror. Such was the impulse of Marx, for whom history would achieve its consummation with “a total loss of humanity capable of redeeming itself only by a total redemption of humanity” (whatever that means). Such was the impulse of Hitler, for whom the German Reich would last a thousand years, a target he missed by only 988. Such was the impulse of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia who proclaimed the Year Zero in 1975, “the dawn of an age,” its historian puts it, “in which there [would be] be no families, no sentiment, no expressions of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no music, no song, no post, no money – only work and death.”[15] Such was the impulse of Francis Fukuyama who proclaimed the “End of History” in 1989, only to see it return like a bad sequel a few years later. 

Millennial thinking is always the same—from darkness to light, from vice to virtue, from death to life. Norman Cohn described it well in The Pursuit of the Millennium 60 years ago: “It will be a just world where the poor are protected, and a harmonious and peaceful world, where wild and dangerous beasts have become tame and harmless…Deserts and wastelands will become fertile and beautiful…There will be abundance of corn and wine and fish and fruit…Freed from disease and sorrow of every kind, doing no more iniquity but living according to the law if Yahweh now written in their hearts, the Chosen People will live in joy and gladness.”[16] Fukuyama was less florid: everyone will go to the mall.

By claiming to know the direction of history, its ineluctable laws, its inevitable outcomes, such thinking empties the past of complexity, turns it into a cartoon, and wields it as a weapon of war. It is History with all the history taken out—no human agency, no freedom, no variety, no accidental happenings, no mystery. It is History, instead, as a moral force, a metaphysical axiom, an instrument of power. The people who think this way will tell you, with every appearance of seriousness, that it is possible to be on the “wrong side of History”—an accusation that is almost invariably the last refuge of the scoundrel. History does not take sides. It has better things to do with its time.

Gerald had important things to say about this erasure or manipulation of historical memory. In fact, he wrote a brilliant book about it, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, which for its philosophical sophistication and literary elegance ought to be required reading in history doctoral programs. Gerald’s re-reading of Kirk as, in some respects, a postmodern thinker is a striking illustration both of his wide range of reference and his genuine originality of thought. He took pains to exempt Kirk from “the despair or silliness of a lot of postmodern writing” but he was right to place him among those with “a fundamental antipathy towards the Enlightenment project” and a suspicion of the grandiose claims made on behalf of science and technology. Hubris comes in many forms and Kirk reminded us that modernity was saturated in it. 

In Gerald’s telling, Kirk shared the postmodern suspicion of grand statements about the meaning of history, insisting rather that history “because it is related to the individual historian and the individual reader can have multiple meanings.” Taken to its extreme, of course, this sounds like solipsism. Postmodern history as practiced by its avatars in the current academy is frequently “reduced to an infinite number of personal histories that cannot be communicated from one person to another; each is stranded in his own universe, and any attempt to reach out is rebuked as intellectual colonization or the construction of another false metanarrative.” Kirk did not go that far but he sometimes seemed to perform a high-wire act between the partial subjectivity of historical facts and the objective truths of natural law instantiated by them. He was certainly no relativist but he was acutely aware of historical circumstances and particularities. Gerald, like a good defense lawyer, rescued him from this dilemma:

The multiplicity of human action and motivation…forces us to recognize mystery as a central element of the historical past and our understanding of it. The historian is faced with the limits of knowledge [and] the recognition of these limits imbue [him] with a sense of humility…History is the memory of humanity and its interpretation is an attempt to plumb the mysteries of the human condition. Indeed, Kirk contended that the writing and interpretation of history required the historian to participate, as it were, in the explanation of the past; a historian who seeks to explain the past “cannot stand outside it.” When pressed, [he] largely refrained from offering any but the most tentative conclusions about the “nature of history” and…almost always took refuge in particular instances and individuals that gave flesh to larger principles.[17]

That epistemological modesty was wise. Kirk—like Dawson, like Burke, like Augustine—recognized that to demand to know the unknowable is to commit the sin of our first parents. The last person he should be made to resemble is the wonderfully pompous Professor Welsh in Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim who, if you remember, answered the departmental telephone with the line “History speaking.” History, if it speaks at all, does not do so in such oracular or univocal tones. Kirk believed that it had providential purposes but that they rarely reveal themselves in plain and simple terms. 

But this modesty was also a kind of confidence. Some things are not knowable; but some things are. Wisdom lies in being able to tell the difference. What is needed, Gerald thought, is a greater respect for the role of imagination in historical knowledge and a deeper understanding of the nature of historical consciousness itself. The mistake of Ranke (and others like him) was not to think that history is a science. Their mistake was to think that science is a science—that science does what it claims to do when offering descriptions and explanations of the world. The brilliance of Gerald was to place Kirk in conversation with postmodernism’s dismantling of that claim. Even science, after all, has discovered the uncertainty principle. Why not also history? Even science has discovered the observer effect. Why not also history? As John Lukacs pointed out, an idea highly congenial to Kirk, the historian is a participant in the subject he studies; a person not outside the past looking in, but inside the past, looking out. The same might be said of the scientist. Scientific facts are no more self-arranging than historical facts. They need scientists and historians to arrange them. “Subject and object, self and the world, are not discrete entities separate from one another but are parts of the unified continuum we often call experience.”[18]

As for historical consciousness, that requires us to enter what Wilfred McClay calls a “community of memory,” a kind of collective memory palace in which one’s own experiences and the experiences of others become common property enabling us to have “memories of things one never experienced firsthand.”[19] For Kirk, historical consciousness is bound up with “the mystery of personal consciousness” and is almost a larger version of it. “Every past moment,” he thought, [is] “in a very real sense also a present moment”—“the past” is an object of consciousness here and now. It is also a moment to be carried into the future—“the past” has instructive value (which is one reason why we choose to remember it). “Our present private condition and knowledge,” writes Kirk, “depend on what we were yesterday, a year ago, a decade gone; if we reject the lessons of our personal past, we cannot subsist for another hour.”[20] The same is true for societies. To forget the past is to forget the future. It is to have no future at all.

If historical facts are not self-arranging, how then do we arrange them? By piecing them together, by constructing a chronology, by seeing what fits, by linking causes to effects, by finding a detail, by telling a story. Narrative history is not a novel, but it is like a novel. Memory is not a novel, but it is like a novel. Take away the artful constructions—in history, in the novel, in memory—and you are left with nothing. 

And so, by way of conclusion, we return to that mysterious day in Brooklyn nearly fifty years ago. Even as a personal memory, Gerald’s near abduction was also, in a way, the product of a community of memory. His mother’s memory, his sisters’ memory, his grandmother’s memory, his own memory— all were artfully put together into a story, or several stories, to become a form of family property which has now become, because of Gerald’s superb writing, our property, too. We thank him for it and we hope that, even now, he knows that thanks.  

But Gerald did more than tell a story. He also reflected on it. His own memory, he noticed, made no sense without other memories. Those other memories, in other words, helped to rescue him from total subjectivity. Memory, precisely because it is constructed, may also be corrected.  

All sorts of memories need correction—private memories, collective memories, the memories of a church or nation. Gerald’s brilliance, and the brilliance of the Jesuits who taught him, was to recognize that the retrieval of memory is essentially a moral act. If we do it well—as individuals, as communities, as societies—we will be the better for it. If we do it badly—or if we fail to do it at all—so much the worse for us.

Perhaps, Gerald suggests, we can tell a person by the memories he chooses to retrieve. In his own case, he chose to remember Italian grandmothers praying in Brooklyn churches. He chose to remember the “achingly beautiful” landscapes of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Sicily.[21] He chose to remember his teachers and friends. He chose to remember us. It is right, then, that we should choose to remember him—this enormously kind, likable, friendly, intelligent, wise, and, yes, holy man.    

Dermot Quinn is editor of The Chesterton Review and Professor of History at Seton Hall University. 

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[1] Gerald Russello, “Almost Abducted”, Harvard Review Online, December 2020 

[2] Susannah Black Roberts, “In memoriam: Gerald Russello” in Mere Orthodoxy, 9 November 2021,

[3] Gerald Russello, “Almost Abducted”, Harvard Review Online, December 2020

[4] Ibid.

[5] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Penguin Classics: New York 1986), p.119.

[6] Christina Scott, A Historian and his World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992), p. 33.

[7] Quoted James Panero, “The Ghosts of Russell Kirk” in The New Criterion, January 2019

[8] Gerald Russello, “David Jones and the Sacrament of Art” in The Chesterton Review Volume XXXIII, Nos. 3 and 4, p. 759.

[9] Gerald Russello, “Chesterton and The Leopard” in The Chesterton Review, Vol. XXI, August 1995, p. 364.

[10] Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Penguin Books: New York 185), p. 13

[11] Ibid., p.16.

[12] Gerald Russello (ed.), Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (Catholic University of America Press: Washington, DC, 1998), ix.

[13] Christopher Dawson, Understanding Europe (Image books: New York 1960), p. 30.

[14] Gerald Russello, “Our New Religion” in City Journal 6 December 2018

[15] John Pilger, Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (1975) 

[16] Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press 1970), p. 20.

[17] Gerald Russello, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007), pp.71-72.

[18] Michael Gubser, “Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy” in Church Life Journal: A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, June 2020

[19] Gerald Russello, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press: 2007), p. 86.

[20] Gerald Russello, “Time and Timeless: The Historical Imagination of Russell Kirk” in Modern Age, (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, October 2014)

[21] Gerald Russello, “Chesterton and The Leopard” in The Chesterton Review, Vol. XXI, August 1995, p. 361.