Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Down memory lane

For some obscure (though probably deeply relevant) reason, I've always remembered that one of my former colleagues used to have a Canadian maple leaf tattoo on his arm. I could almost picture it in mind, a rather small red-and-white rectangular. That is, until today, when my colleague remarked that it was never a maple leaf, but rather a flame. A flame?!? Not a maple leaf?!?!

Down memory lane, things are always in a flux. You think you remember what has happened, what you felt, what you did. But it is only a reconstruction in your mind. Occasionally, you are reminded that memory is not a faithful mirror of a past lived experience, but a contextual instant of symbolic reconstruction.

I guess I should explain why I think this is important: lately I've heard a lot of talk about the return to one's community, to one's culture. The importance of the past, the past that marks you and your community as distinct from others. I, for one, fear this return and this excessive focus on one's past. Ivaylo Ditchev, in a remarkable essay (The Machines of Forgetting, 1998), wrote: "to remember means to forget, you remember one thing insofar as you forget another".

So, when we go down memory lane, not only are the memories we recover relying on our present purpose and state, but we also seem to be unable to take in everything. We want to recover our communal past, but what is it that we forget? I've never felt part of a community in the sense of identifying with it. I think we do integrate a lot of our surroundings in our personality, but I also think we are not tied through an invisible umbilical cord with an elusive community. When we buy into the communal past, we forget about what type of community we are talking about. We choose to ignore the fact that we might not be tied to everyone in that community; we choose to ignore the plurality of communities within communities and cultures within cultures; hell, we choose to ignore the wrongdoings, the violence, the hierarchy within that group.

I listened to a BBC podcast about the ancient Greek myths which made me think that our view of the past, of the communal history is very much different from the ways in which the past was taken as a point of reference by the ancient, pre-nation-state communities. For the ancient tribes in Greece, mythology served as a remembrance of the past and as an ethical repertoire for human behavior in particular situations; but this mythology was never stable. Myths had different endings, offered different perspectives - in today's words, they were incoherent, because they did not offer one single view of the events or the people/gods. I thought that was interesting, cause today, in our thirst for the roots, for our 'communities' and our 'culture' we look for a frozen past, a frozen repository of culture which would indicate with clarity who we are today.

Identity is now constructed in a quite different way...Memory can be foreseen, hence the identity based on it is also predictable... Memory becomes predictable, identity is collective, the risks of uncontrolled emotions are reduced to the minimum. In front of the monument we are all supposed to feel in debt towards the heroes, at a commemoration we tell the best we know about the deceased, the family album will make us feel happy together." (Ivaylo Ditchev, 1998)

Photo credits: alicepopkorn


Lindsay said...

That's really funny about the maple leaf/flame tattoo. Though now I'm trying to imagine a way to draw a flame that would also look like a maple leaf and not coming up with anything ....

I also second what you say about the Greek myths. I used to be (and still am, to a somewhat lesser degree) obsessed with Greek myths, to the point of committing lots and lots of them to memory, and little inconsistencies would drive me *crazy*. But now I have come to see that the myths were never meant to be memorized, so much as taken to heart and retold in a way that conveys one's own understanding of the world. I think the way we use stories changed some with the democratization of literacy; when we used to remember the gist of the story and wing it, making the story our own with each telling, now we try to remember every little detail of the Original. Which isn't bad, because it allows us to notice when a story is told differently than we would tell it, and wonder why the author would make it end that way.


thinkingdifference said...

Yes, I sometimes thing story telling used to be contextual. There's an interesting book by Mario Vargas Llosa called "The Storyteller".

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