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Memory Plays


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#1 DanBuck

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 10:09 AM

So, Greg posted this in the Official News topic, and without thinking about where it was I anxiously piped in with a response. I realized moments later he was not trying to start a discussion on memory/theory and literature/drama. blushing.gif

But I am... so here we go.

GREG'S POST
QUOTE
"My new book is on the question of memory. My question is, How do those who love remember, especially the injustices that others have done them, or the guilt that they have incurred? Memories can be both a shield and a sword. They are ambiguous. Conflicts around the world are motivated by certain readings of the past. So how does one remember so as to heal wounds rather than deepen them?

"We may need 'eschatological forgetting.' To forgive is to forget. Augustine, at the end of City of God, says that he will remember certain evils -- the ones he has committed, not the ones he has forgiven others for."

Starting with John Locke, Volf says, the West has defined the self by what one remembers. That has been the stable feature of modernity, that we are what our stories are. This means that memories of evil often organize our lives.

"But is that desirable for a world of perfect love?" Volf asks. "Only those who are willing not to remember certain things can remember themselves into the telos of perfect love." Volf does not use the term "forgetting"; his vision is of a messianic age so ennobled by joy, love and embrace of the neighbor that there will be a "not-coming-to-mind," a leave-taking of worldly memories. This, he suggests, is what is meant by Nehemiah's promise of "the joy of Jerusalem." While that day will come only with Jesus' return, we can, in the meantime, strive to approximate that not-coming-to-mind of memories that would provoke anger or aggravate violence.

Miroslav Volf, speaking of his then work-in-progress, now published as The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2006). From an article by Mark Oppenheimer in The Christian Century, January 11, 2003, pp. 18-23. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation.


I just wrote a paper that seems connected to this. It's about postmodern memory plays at the end of history. In it I look at Martin Shledon's beautiful one-woman play "Rose".

Here's the abstract:
QUOTE
ABSTRACT: Postmodern historians have declared the end of history. The narratives which arranged people and events in a series of causal relationships have fallen into ruin. Only memory remains Ė cluttered, subjective, multiplicitous, and only interested in the past inasmuch as it impacts the present. The result of this shift on dramatic storytellers is two-fold. First, they must now pick through the wreckage of the past in order to construct their charactersí present and secondly, their stories have changed shape in order to reflect the wreckage of history. The postmodern memory play is characterized by a wandering narrative rife with contradictions, starts and stops, jump cuts, and deliberate incompletion. Martin Shermanís Rose is a one-woman monologue play where the title character picks through the pieces of her life as a Jew of the Diaspora. Her memories intermingle with movie images and her life account is a series of seemingly wholly disparate lives sloppily spliced together. Yet all her accounts add up to a whole in the person that stands before the audience. She stands at the precipice between the past and the future. And so we have a perfect case study for what memory, at this interesting critical juncture, is meant to do.


It's interesting stuff. While it seems this book is looking more at Volf's imagined scenario for forgiveness, I am interested in the duality that exists between the past and future. We must construct ourselves from memories of the past, and yet, those same memories must be forgotten if we are to enter the future.

How tightly to do we hold to pain of the past? And how freely do we abandon it to enter the future with a clean slate?

#2 DanBuck

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 10:26 AM

As those of you who know what I'm doing in my life right now may have figured out. This paper is warm-up for my thinking about Fuddy Meers - by David Lindsay Abaire - which will be my thesis production in the late fall of this year.

I don't have to tell you that memory theory has been popping up a lot in literature of the novel, stage, and screen.

In film you have memento, 50 First Dates,Eternal Sunshine and even Finding Nemo.
On stage - Krapp's Last Tape, Not I, Lisa Krohn's 2.5 Minute Ride, Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, the plays of Suzan Lori Parks, Anna Deveare Smith, and Heiner Muller.

This is the territory I'm exploring, come along for the ride.

#3 Andy Whitman

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 10:48 AM

My response has nothing to do with theater and dance, unless "dance" is loosely defined as the contortions we put ourselves through to convince ourselves of our own righteousness. Realizing that I am reacting to a small excerpt from a much larger book, I still have to question Miroslav Volf's basic premise. Quoting Volf:

"But is that desirable for a world of perfect love?" Volf asks. "Only those who are willing not to remember certain things can remember themselves into the telos of perfect love." Volf does not use the term "forgetting"; his vision is of a messianic age so ennobled by joy, love and embrace of the neighbor that there will be a "not-coming-to-mind," a leave-taking of worldly memories. This, he suggests, is what is meant by Nehemiah's promise of "the joy of Jerusalem." While that day will come only with Jesus' return, we can, in the meantime, strive to approximate that not-coming-to-mind of memories that would provoke anger or aggravate violence.

While I appreciate and agree with the admonition not to call to mind the hurts of the past, and to consciously strive to set aside the ledger of wrongdoing, it seems to me that "forgetting" is precisely what we cannot do. And by that I mean that, short of senility, it is impossible to forget. Forgiving, it seems to me, involves acknowledging the hurt in very specific ways. It is holding it up, not as a way of dwelling on it, but as a way of offering it to the one who can heal. It is not pretending that the hurt never happened. It is, instead, acknowledging that the hurt is deep, and that the love that cancels our own manifold wrongdoings is deeper. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" is not just a good idea. It is life. But forgiving the wrongs of those who have trespassed against us necessarily involves remembering. And letting go.

#4 DanBuck

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 11:07 AM

I wonder this too Andy. But to be fair...
QUOTE
Volf does not use the term "forgetting"; his vision is of a messianic age so ennobled by joy, love and embrace of the neighbor that there will be a "not-coming-to-mind," a leave-taking of worldly memories.


It still sounds fishy to me. In the context of this play Rose the main character finds herself sitting shivah for a Palestinian girl shot by her Zionist grandson. She undertsands that she "stinks of the 20th century", but at the same time, she has an understanding (as a jew of the Diaspora) that "We do not shoot little girls. We do not occupy." She is speaking with her son about the matter...
QUOTE
I wonít let the rest of the world tell my son if heís wrong or right. And I wonít let you tell me that Jews have to be better than everyone else. But Iím not the rest of the world, I say, Iím part of you. No, youíre part of chopped liver and dybbuks, he replies, thatís something different, thatís the past, this is the future. I know you hate that word, but it is our only future. We have nothing else. Do you understand? Everything else is gone.


She has no place in the future, for she is too tied to the hideous acts of the past (like David that cannot build the temple), but what she's seen MUST not be forgotten or her descendants will only come to take on the evil they've outlived.

Edited by DanBuck, 14 May 2009 - 11:08 AM.


#5 M. Leary

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 11:18 AM

QUOTE (DanBuck @ May 14 2009, 12:26 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I don't have to tell you that memory theory has been popping up a lot in literature of the novel, stage, and screen.


Indeed, and social memory theory (which is a tool of sociological inquiry that has in part developed out of the same trends in intellectual history) is becoming increasingly popular as a legitimate research method. I have spent a long time trying to read the passion narratives through memory theory - tracing all the ways in which early Christian theology and practice are shaped by the way people comprehend tragedy through memory. The resurrection throws an interesting monkey wrench into memory theory applied to early Christianity, but it is an interesting line of thought regardless.

It isn't too far of a hop, skip, and jump to do comparative readings between some early Christian practices and narratives and all the art and film developed around Holocaust memory. In each body of data you have two different approachs to history, and more specifically - the end of history. This interchange between past and present is seen so clearly in Paul's letters for example. A similar tug-of-war happens in much Holocaust literature and film, the pain and promise of being a Jew. And I suppose this is where it gets complicated, as there may be an approach to memory that is inherent to Christian theology that goes all the way back to the earliest experiences of his death and resurrection - as that memory becomes your memory when one enters the Church.

QUOTE (Andy Whitman @ May 14 2009, 12:48 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
short of senility, it is impossible to forget.


I also go back and forth in reading Volf on this. But I think the way he describes the task of forgiving is even more credible when taken in light of his basic concept of justice. We can only have justice in this life because God has promised just judgment in the future. That eschatological promise grants our most ethical attempts at justice any sense of closure or effectiveness. Otherwise, we are just playing a zero sum game in which we all pretend that killing this person or imprisoning that person has any value. The kind of "not-coming-to-mind" that happens in Christian forgiveness is based on the idea that God is both Just and Justifier. Just as our concepts of justice should rely on the eschatological promise of true judgment, so should our concepts of forgiveness rely on the kind of forgetting that happens through God in Christ. It is a radical, paradoxical kind of memory. But I am not a Volf expert, and am still wondering through his ideas.


#6 Overstreet

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 12:20 PM

QUOTE
My question is, How do those who love remember, especially the injustices that others have done them, or the guilt that they have incurred? Memories can be both a shield and a sword. They are ambiguous. Conflicts around the world are motivated by certain readings of the past. So how does one remember so as to heal wounds rather than deepen them?


I haven't read Volf before, but I think I probably should.

It's been bothering me more and more that so many of the stories I read and the films I see only serve to deepen my sense of helplessness and grief over genocides and atrocities past and present. I remember seeing the trailer for Defiance and deciding right then and there that I didn't want to spend time with that film. Not yet. Not until I can find a reason to go back into the context of grappling with the Nazis. What good would it do me at this point? I know what the Nazis did was evil. I know the severity of the suffering they inflicted. I get it. Okay? Would it do my spirit good to see people fighting back?

I was just talking about this with a coworker this morning. We're surrounded by calls to "Remember!" as if remembering will help humankind avoid such events ever again. It inspires me to contribute to this or that charity. It inspires my coworker to take a trip to another country and spend a week helping aid workers. This morning, she was weeping, feeling the burden of the enormity of human evil more than ever.

I feel helpless and pray against apathy when it creeps into view. I struggle with how I should respond to feelings of resentment for powers vanished in history (What good does it do me to be angry with Hitler's forces and the cooperating Germans now?), and my feelings of resentment for terrorists today, or reckless abusers of military power in my own country. (A few days ago, driving home from work, I heard an NPR interview with a man in Afghanistan who reportedly lost 50 members of his own family when the Allies bombed the wrong building. I wanted to pull the car over, I felt so sick.)

I'm surrounded by opportunities to "join the fight against _______ and ________." But moneys I might throw at one problem will dissolve and disappear while another dispiriting atrocity rises next door. All creation is groaning.

What good is Schindler's List, or Hunger, or Downfall, or any of these works of art? Are they helping me mourn? Helping me see the potential for cruelty in myself? Or are they throwing fuel on the fires of rage against the people committing these atrocities, and if so, how does that help the situation, or enable me to behave with greater grace to those around me?

For all of our focus on "great works of art" that "expose" the "fruitless deeds of darkness," many of us still have quick trigger-fingers in the way we speak to one another, our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is all very relevant even to our conversations here. Years ago, I received a private message from someone who was upset about the "cruelty" of someone else in these discussions... and the terms in which the message was written was written with more sneering, fury, even hatred than anything the person they were accusing had ever demonstrated. And yet, they did have a valid grievance. I don't want that to happen to me. But if I continue to marinate in stories and art that show the capacity for human evil and stir up righteous anger, I worry it will make a monster of me in the name of justice. I may not ever unload with an AK-47. But the buildup of anger might incline me to snap at someone else unnecessarily.

Apocalypse Now.

There is a time for "righteous anger," but what good does it do me as I sit here at my desk working on editing a magazine? How do I reconcile that with Christ hanging on the cross, his first words "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do..."? How do I reconcile that with the Christ who tells Peter to put away his knife right there in the heat of the moment of injustice?


#7 DanBuck

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 12:32 PM

It would also be interesting to view Christianity in light of Pierre Nora's lieux de memoire. The sacrements, the holy places , and the relics would certianly qualify as "sites of memory". However, the post-historie view of the church would mean that they don't necessarily add up to mileu de memoire.

This is a particularly liberating way for me to re-engage with Christ and faith. I have trouble with the Church's grand narrative in light of the wreckage of history (Angelus Novus - I'm looking in your direction), but I can find and construct an image of Christ from that wreckage - from the bits and pieces of Christendom divorced from a pre-conceived context.

Edited by DanBuck, 14 May 2009 - 12:32 PM.


#8 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 12:43 PM

FWIW, I talked about Volf a bit in my Cornerstone lectures on "memory at the movies" five years ago. I'd have to check my notes to, uh, remember what I actually said, though. smile.gif

#9 DanBuck

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Posted 14 May 2009 - 12:48 PM

QUOTE
OVERSTREET :I feel helpless and pray against apathy when it creeps into view. I struggle with how I should respond to feelings of resentment for powers vanished in history (What good does it do me to be angry with Hitler's forces and the cooperating Germans now?), and my feelings of resentment for terrorists today, or reckless abusers of military power in my own country.


Certainly I understand the sense that drowning in the pain of the past certainly does not help one swim better. And yet...

I question whether you are simplifying what these films, works of art, are designed to do. And maybe the films, are sometimes simplifying as well.

If all these works are doing for you is helping you see Nazis as evil, or feel contempt toward terroritsts than they are clearly not doing their job (with you at least). The goal of these films, and perhaps all art, should be to problematize our preconeived understandings. They should complicate and challenege what you previously thought about nazis, terrorism, war mongers, etc. And ultimately complicate what you think about yourself.

The goal of these films, plays, etc isn't (shouldn't be) to inspire people to give money to causes, but to shake up their thinking and feelings about their subjects.

Their fight, presumably, isn't against evil, but against cognitive "completeness". Maybe as a whole what they should be accomplishing is the constant destabilizing of our eternal effort to construct a narrative of the past that suits our present. They do this with varying degrees of success, but I think that's the idea.

A film like Hotel Rwanda is powerful because it exposes us to a horrible time. But I'm not sure it's a GREAT film, because it sets up a pretty clear good guys bad guys narrative. The REAL story there is the fact that the victims became the oppressors just a short time after the film took place.

Anyway, your point is VALID. There is a soul cost to reliving pain and suffering in art. But it's largely what art is for. Memory. Will it make humankind better? Probably not. Will it make me or you better? Well, maybe you. I'm pretty good already. smile.gif