- Memory Under Reconstruction: Beloved and the Fugitive Past
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 1998
- p. pp. 111-140
- View Citation
ROBIN BLYN Memory Under Reconstruction: Beloved and the Fugitive Past By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. Toni Morrison, Beloved "uch t? the chagrin of its detractors, the legacies of modernism continue to exert their powers in our period of the prolonged "posts-." The butden of those legacies is perhaps felt nowhere more strongly than in the genre of the novel. For if the distinguishing features ofwhat is known as "high modernism" or "utopian modernism" are its preoccupation with the theme of temporality and its faith in the restorative powers of human memory, then the problem of imagining narrative fiction within the context ofpostmodern thought is a difficult task indeed.1 What is narrative, ifnot a representation oftime? What is fiction, if not the collaboration of memory with imagination? Such questions have been the mainstay of postmodernism's novelistic experiments and if those experiments have not necessarily proffered answers to their own inquiries, the energy of their failures has offered its own compensatory rewards. Through the voices ofProust, Bergson and Freud, modernism told us that memory was recuperative in the double sense ofthat word: the past could be recovered and its recovery could cure its subject.2 The past could free us, could give meaning to our experiences in the world, if only we could get to it. Hence, all three of those "utopian" writers dedicated their lives to developing theories ofmemory and its recollection. Remembrance of Things Past, Matter and Memory and The PsychopatholArizona Quarterly Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 1998 Copyright © 1998 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 112Robin Blyn ogy ofEveryday Life, can each be read as an elegant and complex "How To": how to get at and how to interpret the past, how to, in Bergson's terms, "free the fugitive past" (83). In the years since the Second World War, modernism's autonomous subject and the endurance of her past have both come into question. In the latter half of the twentieth century , we strive less to free the past than to free ourselves from the fatalistic determinism of history. The epistemological foci of modernism's "how-to's" shift in contemporary writing to more ontological concerns. How can I remember? is complicated by What is memory? What is the past? What is this "I" that does the remembering? Under this interrogation , memory can no longer promise to recuperate the past and its significance . Nor is memory capable ofredeeming the subjective imagination . In the void left by the rejection of modernism's memories and the individual subjectivity it extolled, lies the outline of what we can call post-modernism's memory crisis, its pervasive sense that the past has somehow evaded memory, that there is no effective means of connecting the present to the past.3 Eschewing the archive, and with it any pretensions to historical ground, postmodern thought is left, as one writer mourns, to "the remembering of memory itself" (Nora 16).4 In the latter half of this century, we can say that the problems associated with memory have become thoroughly imbricated in the project ofdetermining what it might mean to be "postmodern" and so defining that elusive term has, among other things, the explication of its crisis in memory. Witness the language of the period's major spokesmen. Frederic Jameson's crisis in historicity, Andreas Huyssen's crisis in temporality , and Jean-Francois Lyotard's nostalgia for "nostalgia proper," all pay tribute to the energetic and diverse lives of postmodernism's memory crisis.5 Ifutopian modernism presented us with a memory that recuperated its subjects and their pasts, dystopian postmodernism presents us with a memory itself in need of recuperation. In the last twenty-five years, narrative fiction has found a vocation in variously re-covering, re-habilitating and re-constructing memory. For postmodernism, the value ofmemory and the experience ofthe past is no longer attached to the recovery of subjective experience. On the contrary, the rehabilitation of memory is most often linked to the recovery of the collectives that remember their pasts. Hence, we can see the emergence of the...