Politics of Memory - Conceptions and perceptions on ‘the past and ‘history’ –Part two By Dilshan Boange

Continuing from the previous week’s article of what conceptions can be analysed of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting on memories of the ‘past’ and ‘history’, the discussion now looks at aspects such as ‘individual memory’ and ‘collective memory’ and also the concept of ‘official memory’ which takes highly political dimensions. British novelist and short story writer L.P Hartley’s words “The past is a foreign country” seems to resonate how the past can be viewed as ‘a place’ which man possibly yearns for, but has become estranged from him as a result of not being part of his material/physical present. But ‘the past’ is activated to the present through memory, as Elizabeth Jelin points out, and therefore the space which we conceive as ‘the past’ can be understood as a space of memory.

‘Individual memory’, ‘Collective memory’ and ‘Official memory’ In discussing politics of memory the idea of ‘individual memory’ and ‘collective memory’ should be looked at for the differing dynamics and potentials they may possess. The idea of collective memory as discussed by Jelin gives different perspectives on the matter.
“…[T]he collective aspect of memory is the interweaving of traditions and individual memories in dialogue with others and in a state of constant flux”

While a certain social element or basis is brought in to play in the above extract in grounding ‘collective memory’ Jelin’s cites the views of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in her academic article to trace attributes/features that are incorporated in history as being a basis on which ‘collective memory’ can be understood. Following is an excerpt of what Jelin has cited of Ricoeur.
“[C]ollective memory simply consists of the set of traces left by events that have shaped the course of history of those social groups that, in later times, have the capacity to stage these shared recollections through holidays, rituals, and public celebrations.”

In this respect one could argue that memory is a basis on which history is built. And it is interesting to note how the idea of history construction through affecting memory is indicated in the very opening of The Book of laughter and Forgetting, by presenting what the author expresses as a landmark event in the history of Prague. This very section is discussed in Jelin’s article in relation to voids/gaps in memory which take on the facet of representing ‘the absent’ or the oblivion as Jelin calls it. Following is an extract from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting which demonstrates how the idea of how propaganda machinery of a regime first perpetuates memory through historicizing an incident. “In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia…Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.” (P.3)

The fact that the ‘propaganda section’ made the photograph almost a site to mark an event which Kundera marks as the initiation point of communist Bohemia, shows how a state agency can create ‘documents of history.’ And this ‘document’ becoming commonly known as a marker of history, contributes to the citizenry’s memories of this event. Though witnessed it as individuals they would each hold a similar memory verified by a corroborative ‘document’ which can be interwoven into each individual to create a ‘collective memory.’ Yet one could argue whether the individuals who carry a memory of the event by virtue of seeing a photograph of that event would in fact have an experience of having ‘lived it’ personally. Here once again one can observe how (mass) media methods come into play. It is very much the media that dictates to the masses of what can be made memory worthy and what is forgettable. Subsequently Kundera shows how documents of history devised by the state authorities can be manipulated to suit political ends. And thereby ‘official memory’ is manipulated to rewrite the past. In the following extract Kundera demonstrates how ‘absence’ can be created and made to serve political ends.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. (P.3-4)

The disappearance of Clementis from the photograph shows how political machinery would act to manipulate documents of history, and reinterpret events which are sought to be reshaped as official memory. In such a case history would obviously be rewritten and official memory can alter to suit the ‘historicity’ which suits the historian. Therefore, an absence can be political. Referring once again to Kundera’s words on the character of Mirek-“Mirek rewrote history just like the communist party, like all political parties…”(p.30) History is apt to be written and rewritten in the will of an authority. And ‘the past’ it appears is a space that needs to be controlled for the formulation of history.

Memory entrepreneurs In the academic essay “Political struggles for Memory” Jelin speaks of ‘memory entrepreneurs’, who are rebels of sorts against the regime and carry on a struggle over memories presenting interpretations and narratives of their own of the past. These individuals may be seen as creating ‘alterity’ to the established narratives of history and official memory of the past. Is Kundera’s novel an act of memory entrepreneurship? Jelin in her essay says of the nature and motive of the memory entrepreneur“We will also find them engaged and concerned with maintaining and promoting active and visible social and political attention on their enterprise.”

Taking in to consideration what is said in the above extract, once again the question can be asked -is Kundera a memory entrepreneur? The fact that Kundera in his novel delivers a voice against communism posits his novel as a work which calls attention to a narrative outside the master narrative of the state. And through his analysis of what state machinations are found in the production of documents of history that reinterpret ‘the past,’ Kundera seems to be critical of the regime’s politics over memory and

history writing, while subtly indicating a conscious effort or enterprise of his own to challenge the authenticity and the authority of the history constructed by the Communist party in Prague.

Kundera’s Novel as a ‘vehicle of memory’ If Kundera can be viewed as a memory entrepreneur who has presented a narrative of the past which seeks to preserve certain memories that are sought to be controlled, such as the photograph of Klement Gottwald from which Clementis was made to disappear, then is it possible that The Book of Laughter and forgetting is a vessel in which memory seems to be preserved? Thereby making the novel a document of history that is outside the official space? Jelin’s article with its scholarly analysis appears to lend an understanding about the matter by stating“Memory, then, is produced whenever and wherever there are subjects who share a culture, social agents who try to “materialize” the meanings of the past in different cultural products that are conceived as, or can be converted into, “vehicles for memory” such as books, museums, monuments, films, and history books.”

This perspective of Jelin’s may allow Kundera’s novel to be viewed as a cultural product produced by a social agent that attempts to materialize the past (and the memory in which it lies) in a text that may serve as a vehicle to carry ‘memory.’ The politics of the historian can be aligned with the needs of those who would in the words of Kundera “want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” And historicity would seem to lie in memory that is private and official, individual and collective. The discussion of this article looked at how memory would constitute ‘the past’ and what politics become attached to such spaces. Manipulation of ‘the past’ or its control would be accomplished by distorting spaces of memory, and remembrance, such as the photograph of Klement Gottwald in Kundera’s novel. Thus collective memory could be manipulated to suit the political necessity of a regime that would through the device of history control ‘the past.’ And if indeed one were to evoke once again the words of L.P Hartley –“The past is a foreign country” then no doubt any who designs mastership over territories must view the past as a land that needs to be conquered.

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