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Myerhoff B - Life History Among the Elderly

Myerhoff B - Life History Among the Elderly

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Life
History
among
the
Elderly:Performance, Visibility,
and
Re-membering
Slowly
it
comes
out
from
them
their
beginning to their
ending,
slowly
you
can see it in them the nature and the mixtures in them, slowly
everything
comes out
from
each one in the kind of repeating each one
does
in the
different
partsandkindsof
livingthey have
in them,
slowly
thenthehistory ofthem comesout
from
them,slowly thenany one who
looks
well at any one will have the history of the whole of that one.
Slowly
thehistoryof each one comes out of each one.—Gertrude Stein,
Lectures
in America
Karl
Mannheim observed that "individuáis who belong to the samegeneration, who share the same year of birth, are endowed, to thatextent, with a common location in the historical dimensión of thesocial
process"
(1969:290).
Often,
however, membership in a common
cohort
isbackground information,
like
grammatical rules, more inter-esting
to
outside analysts than
members. Outsiders
find and
wantexplanations where the subjects continué unself-consciously in the habits
of
everyday
life.
Sometimes conditions conspire
to
make
a
generationalcohort acutely self-conscious and then they become active participants
in
their own history and provide their own
sharp,
insistent definitions
of
themselves and explanations for their destiny,
past
and
future.
They
are then knowing actors in a historical drama they
script,
rather than
subjects
in someone else's study. They
"make"
themselves, sometimes
even
"make themselves
up,"
an
activity
which is not inevitable orautomatic but reserved for special
people
and special circumstances.
It
is an
artificial
and exhilarating undertaking, this self-construction.
As
with
all
conspicuouslymade-upventures (ritualsareperhapsthebestexample), acute self-consciousness may become destructive, paralyzingactors in a spasm of embarrassed
lack
of conviction. But occasionallyself-consciousness
does
not
interfere
with personal and cultural construc-tion; ratheritprovides another,
fuller
angleof self-understanding.
Then
231
 
232
Remembered
Lives
the
subjects
know
that
their
knowing
is a
component
of
their
conduct.
They
assume
responsibility for inventing
themselves
and yet
maintain
their
sense
of
authenticity
and integrity.
Such
people
exercise
power
overtheir images,
in
their
own
eyes
and to some
extent
in the
eyes
of
whoever
may
be
observing
them.
Sometimes
the image is the
only
part
of
their
Uves
subject
to
control.
But
this
is not asmall
thing
to
control.
It
may
lead to a
realization
of
personal power
and
serve
as a
source
of
pleasure
and
understanding
in the
workings
of
consciousness. Heightened
self-
consciousness—self-awareness—is
not an
essential, omnipresent attain-
ment.It
does
not
always come
with
age and is
probably
not
critical
to
well-being. But
when
it
does occur,
it may
bring
one
into
a
greater
fullness
of
being;
one may
become
a
more
fully
realized example
of the
possibilities
of
being human.
This
is not
small compensation
in
extreme
oíd
age.
The
group described here
is
such
an
acutely
self-conscious
one, making
itself
up,
knowing that this
is
going
on,
doing
it
well,
and
appreciating
the
process. This
is a
subtle
but
distinctive
state
of
consciousness,
revealed in
their personal
and
collective concerns. Many factors enhance
this
self-consciousness,
not the
least
of
which
is
their sense
of
bearing
what
Támara Hareven calis
"generationalmemories."
She
uses this term
to
refer
to
"the memories which individuáis have
of
their
own
families'history,
as
well
as
more generational collective memories about their
past"
(1978).
The
subjects
of
this paper
are
heirs
to a set of
memories
of
a
culture
and
society extinguished during
the
Holocaust. Very
oíd
and
cióse
to
death, they realize that there
will
be no
others
after
themwith
direct
experienceof
their natal
culture. And
because intergenera-tional continuity
has not
been sustained, there
are no
clear heirs
to
theirmemories.
The
oíd
people's sense
of
being memory bearers, carriers
of
a
precious, unique cargo, heightens generational memory
and
intensifies
cohort-consciousness,
giving
a
mission
to the
group that
is at
once urgent
and at the
same
time
unlikely
to be
realized.
Their machinations to
accomplish their task, delivering themselves
of
their memories,
estab-
lishing,
then making
visible
their
own
identities, illuminates several mat-
ters:
the
nature
of
performed
individual
and
collective
definitions,
the
uses
and
kinds
of
witnesses needed
for
these performances,
and the
nature
and
uses
of
memory.
Life
histories
are
seen
here
as
giving
opportunitiesto
allow
people
to
become visible
and to
enhance
reflexive
consciousness.
For the
very
oíd,
in
this population
in
particular, this
may be
construed
as
work essential
to thelast
stage
in the
life
cycle.
Life
History
among
the Elderly 233
Self-Presentationand
Performing: Becoming
Visible
Theoíd
people with whom
I
worked were
a
group
of
elderly Jews
who
had
emigrated
from
Eastern Europe
in the
early
twentieth century. Theywere
an
invisible people, marginal
to
mainstream American
society,
an
impotent
group—economically,physically,and
politically.
But
they knewthey were irreplaceable
and
their consciousness
of
being
the
people
who
remembered
a
culture destroyed
by the
Holocaust
fed
their determination
not to be
extinguished
until
the
last possible
moment.
Nevertheless, theyknew they
would
lose
in
this struggle. Death, impotence,
invisibility
were omnipresent
threats.But the
atmosphere
in the
community
wasnot one of
defeat
or
despair.
On the
contrary,
in it
there
was
intensity
and
vitality,
humor, irony
and
dignity. Always
the
people exuded
a
sense
of
living meaningful
lives.
Despíte
the
evidence
of
their
insignificance
offered
by the
outside
world,
they were quite clear about their
own
importance.
It is my
interpretation that their self-consciousness, pro-
moted by
collective performances
and prívate
self-narration,
their
recounting
of
stories
and
life
histories,
influenced
and
nourished theirsuccess
as oíd
people.Cultures include
in
their
work
self-presentations
to
their members.
On
certain collective
occasions,
cultures
offer
interpretations. They
tell
stories, comment, portray,
and
mirror. Like
all
mirrors, cultures
are not
accurate
reflectors;
there
are
distortions,
contradictions, reversáis, exag-gerations,
and
even lies. Nevertheless,
self-knowledge, for the
individual
and
collectivity,
is the
consequence.
These
portraits range
from
delicate
andoblique allusions through
fully
staged dramatic
productions
in the
course
of
which members embody their place
in the
scheme
of
things,
their
locations
in the
social
structure,
their purposes
and
natures, taking
up the
questions
of who we are and why we are
here, which
as a
species
we
cannot
do
without.
Such
performances
are
opportunities
for
appear-ing,
an
indispensable
ingredient
of
being itself,
for
unless
we
exist
inthe
eyes
of
others,
we may
come
to
doubt even
our own
existence.
Beingis
a
social,
psychological
construct,
made,
not
given.
Thus
it is
erroneous
to
think
of
performances
as
optional, arbitrary,
or
merely decorativeembellishments
as we in
Western societies
are
inclined
to do. In
this
sense,
arenas
for
appearing
are
essential,
and
culture serves
as a
stage
as
well
as
mirror, providing opportunities
for
self-
and
collective
proc-
lamations
of
being.Since these
constructions are
intentionally designed, they
are not
only
 
234
Remembered
Lives
reflections
of
"what is";
they
are
also
opportunities
to
write history
asit
should
be or
should have been,
demonstratinga culture's
notion
of
propriety
and
sense. History
and
accident
are not
permitted
to be
imposed
willy-nilly,
those
badly
written,
haphazard,
incomplete
record-
ings
of occurrences
that
are so unsatisfactory.
Rather
performances areshaped
and
groomed
justifications,
more akin
to
myth
and
religión
trian
lists
of empty
externa!
events we
cali
history or
chronicle.'
The performative
dimensión
of
culture seen
most
often
in
rituals,ceremonies, festivals, celebrations, and the like is properly understood
as
both
instrumental and expressive.
It
blurs
our
overstated dichotomiesbetween
art and
science, myth
and
reality, religión
and
work, subjective
and
objective.
When
such performances are
successful,
we receive experience ratherthan belief. Then
the
invisible
world
is
made manifest, whether this
is
a
prosaic
affair
such
as
demonstrating
the
fact
of a
rearranged
social
relationship,
or a
grander more mysterious presentation involving super-natural beings
or principies. In
all
events
the
performed
order is
explicit,
realized,
and we are
within
it, not
left
merely
to
endlessly wonder
or
talk
aboutit.
2
Any
reality
is
capable
of
being
made
convincing
if it
combines
art, knowledge, authentic symbols
and rituals, and is
validated
by
appropriate witnesses.
Cultural performances
are
reflective
in the
sense
of
showing
our-
selvesto
ourselves.
Theyare
also capable
of
being reflexive, arousingconsciousness of ourselves as we see ourselves. As héroes in our
own
dramas,
we are
made
self-aware,
conscious
of our
consciousness.
At
once
actor
and
audience,
we may
then come into
the
fullness
of our
human
capability—and
perhaps human
desire—to
watch
ourselves
and
enjoy
knowing that
we
know.
All
this requires
skill,
craft,
a
coherent,
consensually validated set of symbols, and social arenas for appearing.
It
also
requires
an audience in addition to
performers. When
cultures
are
fragmented and in serious disarray, proper audiences may be hard
to find. Natural
occasions
may not be
offered
and then
they
must
be
artificially
invented.
I
have called such performances
"Definitional
Cere-monies," understanding
them
to be collective
self-definitions specifically1.
Charlotte Linde
distinguishes
between
"narrative"
that implies an evaluative
dimensión and
"chronicle"
a
list
of
events
that
does
not
imply
evaluation
(1978).2. For a
fuller
discussion of thecapacityof
ritual
to
redefine
social relation-ships, see
Myerhoff
and
Moore
(1977).
Life
History
amongthe
Elderly
235
intended
to
proclaim
an
interpretation
to an
audience
not otherwise
available.
Thelatter
must
becapturedby any meansnecessaryand
made
to see the
truth
of the
group's history
as the
members understand
it.
Socially
marginal people, disdained, ignored
groups,
individuáis
with
what Erving
Goffman
calis
"spoiled
identities,"
regularly seek oppor-
tunities
to appear
before
others
in the
light
of their own internallyprovided interpretation.Attention was the scarce good in the community I studied. Everyonecompeted for it with astonishing fierceness. The sight of a camera ortape recorder,
the
mere possibility that someone
would sit
down
and
listen
to
them, aroused
the members'
appetite
to
have themselves
docu-
mented. One of the
members
was
heartbroken when she
was not
elected
to the
Board
of
Directors.
"How
will
anyone know
I
am
here?" she
asked. If possible, the attention should come
from
outsiders who weremore socially prestigious
and
therefore more capable
ofcertifying
their
existence.
And if
possible, these should
be
younger people, because peerswould
soon
be
gone.
Who
then would
be
left
to
recall their existence?What Sir
Thomas
Browne said in 1658 is
still
true. The threat of oblivion
is
"the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man."
Performance is not
merely
a
vehicle
for
being seen.
Self-definitionis
attained
through it, and
this
is
tantamount
to
being what
one
claims
to
be. "We
become
what we display," says Mircea Eliade in discussing the
transformative
power
of
ritual performances.
The
imposition
of
meaning
occurs
when
we
select from
the
myriad possibilities
a
particular for-
mulation
that
summarizes
and epitomizes. Enactments are intentional,
not
spontaneous, rhetorical
and
didactic, taming
the
chaos
of the
world,
at once asserting existence
and
meaning.Meaning
and "Re-membering"
The
necessity
for
meaning
is
probably ubiquitous.
In the
Center popu-lation
it was
elevated
to apassion.The oíd people
were
¡nclined
naturallytoward self-consciousness by their tradition's emphasis on their unique
statusas a
Chosen People.
The
historical
facts
since
the
dispersión fromthe
Holy
Land exacerbated this tendency, since Jews have spent so much
of
their history as a
pariah
people surrounded by hostile outsiders. TheHolocaust
further
intensified their awareness
of
their distinctiveness
and
promoted among survivors a
search
through the events of their private
and
collective
lives
for an
explanation
of
their destiny.
Lifton
has
,

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