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History's Claims On Memory: A Remedy Or A Poison?

The dispute about the relationship between memory and history was put in philosophical perspective by the French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur (b. 1913). After reviewing the many routes of scholarly inquiry into the idea of memory at the turn of the twenty-first century, he closes his analysis with a meditation on the concerns of the historians of the Holocaust about history's premature claims on memory. In considering why history must first beg pardon of memory, he guides our attention to Plato's philosophical dialogue Phaedrus, an evocation of the debate among the ancients about differences between the remembered and the written word that provides an analogy with the current debate about memory's relationship to history. In this dialogue, Plato's teacher Socrates ruminates on whether efforts to tame memory to the critical perspectives of writing have merit. He poses the question: Is writing as an aid to memory a remedy or a poison? The written word can be a remedy in the sense that it secures knowledge in an enduring form. But it does so by setting limits on the depiction of the past and so discards with a certain finality alternate ways of evoking its presence. Memory, by contrast, may at any moment rescue the past from oblivion. Its uses reside not only in its resources for preservation but also in those for creation. Its virtue lies in its ontological claim to body forth the imaginative forms that make conscious knowledge of human experience possible. History at its best deepens human understanding in its accurate reporting and intelligent interpretation of the past, and it strives to be conclusive. But memory's fidelity to the experience of the past is the basis of its openness toward the future, and it resists closure. Memory stands "as a little miracle" in its distinctive capacity to trigger the creative imagination in a way no other faculty of mind can.

The U.S. intellectual historian David Gross (b. 1940) adapts that insight to consider the status of memory in the twenty-first century. He notes the readiness of society to consign to oblivion all that stands in the way of present-minded expectations. He sorts out the intellectuals of late modernity into those who would discard and those who would value the past remembered. He highlights modern "rememberers" who have argued persuasively for the importance of the past to their present concerns—among them Proust and Freud, but also the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and the twentieth-century German literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940).

Benjamin in particular fascinated scholars because of his aphoristic insight into memory's remedy for the deficiencies of the timeworn claims of the modern vision of history on the contemporary age. Especially provocative is his interpretation of the painting Angelus Novus (1920) by the surrealist artist Paul Klee, a tableau of the angel of history looking back sadly on the events of the modern age, not as milestones of civilization's advance but rather as remnants of its failed projects and endless disappointments. A disillusioned socialist nostalgic for the heroics of the nineteenth-century revolutionary tradition, Benjamin longed for memory's spark to jump-start an alternative future. Neglected memories, he maintained, respond to our imaginative gaze like heliotropes opening to the sun.

Although assailed by all the pressures of present-minded perspectives that deny the importance of recollecting the past, the rememberers appeal to the present age by calling to mind the striking diversity and rich complexity of past human experience, and so deepen understanding of the timefulness of the human condition in its manifold meanings. Memory's claim on the past, they argue, lies in its creative capacity to resurrect lost worlds worthy of our consideration. Their insight recalls the ancients' reverence for the goddess Mnemosyne, who out of the eons of humankind's lost primordial past brought into consciousness the imaginative forms from which all the arts and sciences would spring.


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Patrick H. Hutton

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMemory - The Ancient Art Of Memory, Modern Memory And Personal Identity, The Social Frameworks Of Collective Memory