Literary Memorials

In a recent class discussion on Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead, a fellow classmate (Andrea, I think it was) compared Roach’s ideas on memory and memorials to what we do in our field when we study literature. Literature as a kind of memorial. This seems an astute comparison and one that could be very beneficial in thinking separately about both the study of literature and the study of memory.

Two things I wanted to try to connect in this blog post are the notion of seeing literature as a memorial and the idea that we so often memorialize the “not-knowing” rather than the knowing. We discussed the concept of memorializing the not-knowing in class during the same session – the trend in memorial construction or museum curation that allows people to embody the experience of the event in an attempt to create a vast and recognizable disconnect between our current state of being and the living through of the event. Not only does this type of exhibit (perhaps) help us see the difference between our current state and the state of persons during a particular event, era, etc., but it also should allow us to recognize how much we actually don’t know and, perhaps, can’t ever know about this past event. A very simplified, more neutral version of this type of history lesson might be some kind of simulation at a museum that helps you “feel what it was like” to be in a particular situation (a flight simulator, for instance). It seems to me that this version of memorializing has the potential to be extremely effective. But is there a connection between it and the study of literature?

If literature can be viewed as a memorial, is there any way we can ever truly immerse ourselves in past writing enough that we embody it? What would we even become embodied within? The literature itself somehow? The surrounding society and culture at its moment of creation? If, as Dorothy mentioned in class that day, one can go to an African American history museum and literally put on a neck shackle that would have been worn by a slave at one time in the United States, is it in any way possible to create that same type of experience relating to literature? It seems not. There’s a physicality – literally an effect of trauma marked on the body – in the case of slavery that doesn’t seem at all present in the realm of literature.

It seems to me that the closest we might come is drama. But even then, it seems to fall short. If we recreate Elizabethan theater as accurately as possible based on the records we have of theater in that time period, are we succeeding in memorializing it in the same way as slavery is memorialized in that African American history museum exhibit? Does this type of experience ultimately allow for the kind of closeness embodiment enables – a closeness that could ultimately result in a true sense of detachment and not-knowing from the piece of literature we’re studying? Maybe the answer is that we don’t actually want that kind of detachment from literature. Maybe our studying it is too heavily grounded on the need to get closer to it, to “understand” it in every which way, that we would never desire that kind of not-knowing experience in relation to it.


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