- Crises of Memory and the Second World War
Remembering, its personal, cultural, and political functions, has been for some time a major concern of cultural theorists such as Maurice Halbwachs, Paul Ricoeur, Jan and Aleida Assmann, and Pierre Nora. Building on their studies, Susan Suleiman carefully and subtly analyzes in her new book a number of concrete cases that exemplify, in various ways, crises of memory. Such crises are, for her, "a moment of choice, and sometimes of predicament or conflict, about remembrance of the past. . . . At issue in a crisis of memory is the question of self-representation." In the crises of memory that she examines, "individual self-representation overlaps with—and sometimes becomes the crux of—collective self-representation; put another way, individual remembrance takes on collective significance, occasionally becoming a conflicted 'affair of memory'" (p. 1). The examined cases concern revisions or corrections of an individual or collective remembrance of World War II and the Holocaust, memories that raise questions about the workings and the reliability of memory. Of particular interest to Suleiman is the function of literature (and, generally, art) in remembering traumatic experiences: "[C]ontinuous revision is the literary performance of the working through trauma" (p. 158). Shifting memories signify thus the strength, not unreliability of literature.
The book starts out with three essays (on Sartre, the "Aubrac Affair," and commemorations of Jean Moulin and André Malraux) that analyze revisions of what could be called "glorifying" memories of the French resistance. The next three chapters on "artistic" memories concern Marcel Ophuls's film Hotel Terminus, István Szabó's film Sunshine, and Jorge Semprun's Buchenwald memoirs. Of the last three chapters, the first one juxtaposes Binjamin Wilkomirski's forged Auschwitz memoirs with Eli Wiesel's revisions of his first account of the train ride to Auschwitz. The second one analyzes transformed images of the Holocaust in the experimental writings of George Perec [End Page 166] and Raymond Federman, two writers whom Suleiman assigns to the 1.5 generation of survivors, i.e., persons who were children during World War II. The final chapter constitutes reflections on forgetting and forgiving. With the exception of Szabó's Sunshine (English and Hungarian), Wilkomirski's Fragments (first published in German), and Federman's writings (in English, though he was born in France), the examined works belong to the French cultural sphere, although many of the authors have a non-French, mostly Eastern European background.
Suleiman deliberately avoids broad general theses and conclusions, but her essays are interconnected, above all, by means of two preoccupations: confrontations of individual, communal, and official memories, and a preoccupation with the value of artistic and fictional memories, especially in their relation to the professional memories of historians. In her view, memories are dynamic, in that they are constantly revised, rewritten, and repeated with difference. Does this make them less reliable? Some professional historians and all those who seek some kind of indubitable truth may think so. But Suleiman's criteria are broader and more flexible. Moving towards a general historical truth may occur when a nation reconsiders its past (always involving, of course, only a segment of the population). As Suleiman's first chapters show, reconsidering the postwar view that an overwhelming part of the French population resisted the Nazis and the Vichy government was a painful revision of the image that most French people had of their country, but a necessary step towards an adequate view of what happened. As we know from the history of many other nations, such admissions of guilt and shame are always very painful and politically sensitive.
Two of Suleiman's essays, on Szabó and Semprun, show that revisions of memory in works of art work quite differently. The chapter on Szabó shows how Sunshine (1999) represents, among other things, a revision of the artist's self-image, as presented in Szabó's early movie, Apa (Father; 1966). The earlier work, which is strongly autobiographical, all but avoids dealing with the Holocaust by portraying a Catholic family. Sunshine erases the autobiographical elements...