Timeless now: Memory and repetition

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Thus begins Quentin Compson's narrative in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury' a literary masterpiece whose true subject' more than any particular character' may be the poignant in®uence of memory on the experiences of its various narrators. Faulkner's story comprises four sections' each with a different narrator' relating the events of four different days. The echoes of the past suffuse the narrative of a given day's events' as if the nature and meaning of the present only coalesced out of memory's reverberations. In the epigraph above' Quentin cannot hear the ticking of his grandfather's watch without remembering his father's words upon receiving the heirloom. He recalls the elder Compson's lugubrious commentary on the signicance of time to one's mortality whenever he touches or thinks of this small but momentous memento' "the mausoleum of all hope and desire." With this gift' Quentin's father lends prophetic meaning to his son's entire life; his words resound endlessly within Quentin's consciousness' distressing his every passing moment with their gravity. Consequently' Quentin remains acutely aware of the watch's unstoppable progression' which transforms his days into "the reducto absurdum of all human experience": The understanding that time is nite and therefore futile' that even the most carefully measured life will culminate in a timeless end. Despite constant efforts' Quentin never honors his father's admonition' which was not to "remember time" by carrying the watch but to "forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it." For Quentin' attempting to forget time' to live outside of it' serves only to remind him of time's inevitable consequence' even as he tries to repress his awareness of it. Such repression merely stimulates memory anew while renewing its potency. Quentin wanders in and out of his own past and present according to the repeated interplay of time forgotten and the rush of memory this forgetting provokes. The senses of time and memory in The Sound and the Fury are not explicitly public. In many ways' they are intensely personal and even resistant to public articulation. The virtuosity of Faulkner's novel derives from its invocation of a traumatic and haunting memoryscape that encompasses the consciousness of the primary narrative perspectives. Yet a "ctional technique'" Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in an essay on The Sound and the Fury' "always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics." While Faulkner's work offers no explicit meditation on public memory' it nevertheless dramatizes what Sartre called "a metaphysics of time"-a system of values and ideals concerning the interrelated meaning of past' present' and future-which allows for reconsideration of the assumptions upon which the study of public memory is often based.1 Repetition offers the most provocative organizing principle of such metaphysics. Olga W. Vickery observes that although the four sections of The Sound and the Fury "appear quite unrelated'" they do "repeat certain incidents and are concerned with the same problem'" namely' the plight of the oldest Compson sibling' Caddy. "Thus'" Vickery elaborates' "with respect to the plot the four sections are inextricably connected' but with respect to the central situation they are distinct and self-sufcient. As re-lated to the central focus' each of the rst three sections presents a version of the same facts which is at once the truth and a complete distortion of the truth."2 Vickery's account suggests that the complex truth of memories depends on the distortions of repeated acts of recollection as much as any original or authentic perception. In this context' according to Cleanth Brooks' "the sense of enlightenment" that the novel produces "comes simply from the fact that we are traversing the same territory in circling movements."3 The novel's repetition of frequently cryptic and disjointed recollections' its "circling movements'" paradoxically induces a sense of lucidity and linearity' a kind of "enlightenment." What is being repeated here? Is the original truth' meaning' or event somehow preserved through repetition or merely the value and pathos with which it is invested? Is the dening function of memory to preserve a truth when that truth may be engendered only by its "distortion'" by mnemonic mutations inherent in every attempt to narrate the past? To what extent is the apparent lucidity' linearity' and perdurance of memory related to the fundamentally incoherent' fragmentary' and ephemeral nature of recollection? To what extent' moreover' does memory depend on forgetting' on a repeated inducement of amnesia like the kind that Quentin's father prescribes to his son? And in what manner does further meditation on the centrality of repetition to memory warrant closer inspection of the privileged ideals of public memory studies' including the objectivity of the past' its conformity with historical representation' and the ability to express memory in a normative or canonical form? In what follows' I address these questions by attending to the different senses of repetition evident in a mode of collective memory apparently foreign to conventional Western forms of public commemoration. In order to do so' I turn in the next section from Faulkner's temporal metaphysics to a set of cultural practices that exemplify such metaphysics in the formation of collective memory. Specically' I draw from a variety of studies focusing on Eastern European Gypsies in order to scrutinize the dening features of their collective memory. Gypsy collective memories exhibit a sense of time' memory' and community dramatically different from Western forms of public commemoration. The Gypsies' contrasting commemorative ideals are exemplied by their distinctive embrace of memory work' of the ritualized making and remaking of memory-in aword' of repetition-rather than its comparatively static and institutionalized outcome: The codication of public memory central to Western commemorative traditions. As such' I propose to augment the very concept of public memory by surveying the emergence and transformation of collective memories that do not aspire to the iconic authority so often denoted by civic monuments or memorials but are nevertheless crucial to the maintenance of a given community and its her itage. The following' then' situates the concept of public memory in a broader and more suggestive frame of reference by surveying the dynamic relationships among memory' repetition' and collective life among Eastern European Gypsies. I intend to demonstrate that consideration of these dynamic relationships' far from amounting to a detour ar ound the question of public memory' is essential to provoking further dialogue about its nature. In order to conduct this demonstration' I argue that collective or public memories function nomadically. Like Quentin Compson' we wander about in the landscape of memory. We may remember the same events over and over again' but we remember them according to ®uctuating conditions' in different times and places' in response to changing needs and desires. Acts of recollection invariably transform the nature of memory because memory's changing incitements and purposes ensure that we remember in different ways' even if we remember the same e vent. Rather than preserving an identical meaning or truth' the modes of repetition by which memory emerges and endures in the service of diverse social interests imbue it with inevitable mutations. Collective or public memory is inherently nomadic because it encompasses a mnemonic landscape comprised not of stability but ongoing redistribution or' better still' re-membering. The following consideration of repetition in the enactment of public memory contributes far more to memory studies than mere semantic distinctions. Observing such concepts in practice' I am convinced' allows one to apprehend the ethical and political dynamics inherent in memory work' though not with the intention of establishing a normative ethical and political prescription. The claim that public memory is often (if not always) socially contested' and therefore politically in®ected' is hardly novel. In a fundamental sense' public memory is political memory. Yet ethical and political prescriptions modeled on privileged forms of memory tend to suggest correct and incorrect ways to remember (not to mention correct and incorrect ways to forget) and therefore make themselves available for the founding of mnemonic dogma. Such dogma is sometimes aggressively enforced when various social groups contest the normative codes of a public memory. The analysis to come' however' reveals that public memory is most productively evaluated on the basis of categories other than simple right and wrong' accurate or inaccurate. Instead of reducing memory to either one of these categories' I offer an account of the formative and transformational in®uence of repetition on public memory that mnemonic dogma would suppress. By surveying the nomadic interplay of authenticity and forgery or continuity and discontinuity from which memory emerges' this essay seeks to apprehend the formative ethical and political conditions by which public memory is engendered instead of endorsing a privileged commemorative ethics or politics. In sum' the essay interrogates memory's debt to repetition by exploring both the processes of remembering that take place in forgetting and the sort of amnesia upon which even the most hegemonic or transparent memories are based.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFraming Public Memory
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)9780817354909
StatePublished - 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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