- “Slave life; freed life—everyday was a test and trial”:Identity and Memory in Beloved
"We speak so much of memory," Pierre Nora writes, "because there is so little of it left." Writing of communities of memory and their rituals of creation and maintenance at the end of the twentieth century—the same era in which Toni Morrison made Beloved a major and complex exploration of memory and slavery—Nora senses a fin-de-siècle in which the dominant mood is nostalgia for an effaced history and the stable identities it might have insured for the communities we imagine prior to the postmodern sea change. Rushed away from the present and the past, millennial communities resemble the victims of special effects films like The Matrix (1999); there are no reliable signs by which we can distinguish between the real and the virtual, with the result that we suspect there is only the virtual. In such a world, how can experience mean or matter? Heraclitus's river becomes the computer-generated, viscous flow of the deceptively real: we flow with the river. "The acceleration of history," Nora intones, "an increasingly rapid slippage of the present into a historical past that is gone for good, a general perception that anything and everything may disappear—these indicate a rupture of equilibrium" (7).
Let us suspend for the moment the begged question of whether, at any moment present to a human consciousness, "equilibrium" was an attribute of the world, and concentrate on the crisis of slippage, of "a historical past that is gone for good." If Nora's dire diagnosis is accurate, the loss of "real environments of memory" (7) and their replacement by [End Page 109] lieux de mémoire, constructed sites of memory, augurs a human future of inevitable amnesia, public and private diasporic longing, even a numbness where the sense of past and origins once was supposed to have been. Rushed by the acceleration of history and the slippage of the past into the realm of constructed effects, a man supposing himself on the cutting edge of the present might contemplate the looting of such a "real environment of history" as a historical museum in Baghdad and conclude that he was seeing a continuous loop of videotape; there are not that many individual ceramic pots, just one event on a loop played over and over. The existence of a real place and a real past might be one of this man's "unknown unknowns."
Nora predicted some responses to the Second Gulf War in Iraq as a clash between history and memory. An extended passage from his essay is pertinent here:
Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic—responsive to each avenue of conveyance or phenomenal screen, to every censorship or projection. History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds—which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs has said, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual.History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence [End Page 110] its claim to universal authority. Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects; history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things. Memory is...