Les Lieux des Memoires
There was a boy who lived on my block. Now he is a boy who died on my block.
There is a tower on my block where families live. There is a street, and between the street and the tower there is a space. In this space is a sidewalk, and a chair, and small memorial. Posterboard and masking tape. Magic markers and Trinity candles. Half-eaten cookies on a box.
“The acceleration of history: let us try to gauge the significance, beyond metaphor, of this phrase.” A boy kills a boy. A boy dies a boy. Two boys no longer boys. Though this is probably not what Pierre Nora meant at all as he began his essay on the complex dialectic of memory and history.
Or perhaps this is it.
“A general and perception that anything and everything may disappear – these indicate a rupture of equilibrium.”
What is the difference between memory, and history? Why was I afraid, those first days, those nights, to enter into that space of the memorial? To approach the wall where friends and families left letters and symbols in the wake of their loss, in the immediate presence of their grief, perhaps. Is it grief? It looks unfamiliar.
“Remember when you tried to beat me up?” it says. Lyrics from his “theme song”. “God wanted you back.” “ ur my boi for life.”… Other words…
The newspaper came in the morning, and Channel 1. I saw their vans, their satellite. I watched the men mumbling in a red-gray cluster, whispers. They cross their arms and frown. The next day we stop, on our way to the grocery. I stand back, read the hot pink poster first. She tries to take couple pictures on her phone, and is immediately confronted. Contested. This woman’s presence, as she steps between us, and the memorial, grows six feet tall and wide. “What are you doing?”, she demands. “Why are you doing that?”
“Memory and history, far from being synonymous” writes Nora, “appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded on its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically received.”
There was a boy who lived on my street. Now he is a boy who died on my street, but before he died, he ran down my street. He laughed, sulked, bled, flirted, collapsed in the street. When he died, he was not alone on this street his friends were there, they surrounded him, they hollered and held, and called his name. They must remember.
“Remember when you …/ Remember when you … Remember when you beat me up?”
“History, on the other hand”, Nora continues, “is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.”
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Memory is forgiving. History is forgetting. Memory is living, History is building. Memory is theirs. Shall we honor it? Why, not? Why then do they stand guard, low-lidded, arms crossed in the spaces in between?
When we approach the memorial and try to document it- when it is printed, and photographed, and broadcast in the news, it becomes History, instead of Memory. We can only experience it as such. Maybe if I had known a similar experience, I could share in the collective memory, call upon the lineage, and not feel like I need to document the product.
Pierre Nora posits:
A “process of interior decolonization has affected ethnic minorities, families, and groups that until now have possessed reserves of memory but little or no historical capital. […] Indeed we have seen the tremendous dilation of our very mode of historical perception, which with the help of the media, has substituted for a memory entwined in the intimacy of a collective heritage the ephemeral film of current events.”
He suggests that as a society driven by change, we are continuously transforming the intimacy of memory into the (transferable and distancing) commodification of memory in history.
“The acceleration of history then, confronts us with the brutal realization of the difference between real memory – social and unviolated, exemplified in but also retained as the secret of so-called primitive or archaic societies – and history, which is how our hopelessly forgetful modern societies, propelled by change, organize the past.” (p.8)
There was a boy who lived on my block. Now he is a boy who died on my block, and his memory struggles to live in this community as they struggle to keep it alive. Their resistance to me, to the newspaperman, to the girl with the camera, is the resisting of the “intimacy of memory” to the materialization and desertion of memory obscured by history by our “hopelessly forgetful modern societies.”