- Genocide Drama and Affiliative PostmemoryStaging Peter Weiss’s The Investigation after the Rwandese Genocide
In the mid-2000s, trailing behind history and sociology by some twenty years, the field of memory studies progressively began to be integrated into literary studies in France. One of the key interests of “memorial” and “postmemorial” approaches to literature is an invitation to situate literary works in a broad context of cultural interactions. My approach here takes place within the framework of poetics of contemporary drama enriched by the concepts drawn up by major theorists in the field of “collective memory,” whose link to European philology would gain from being reassessed. Ironically enough, indeed, the timespan usually covered by the memory studies canon is rather short, as attested by two recently published standard works for memory studies: the Collective Memory Reader, which extends back to the works of Edmund Burke, and Astrid Erll’s Memory in Culture, which opens with Maurice Halbwachs, legitimately considered the founder of the discipline. These choices, which reduce the scope of memory to the age of modern thought, cannot be taken for granted. Conversely, the invaluable input of German philology in literary theory and methodology is inseparable from its broad embrace of longue durée history. One of the major reasons for this is that Germans remain preoccupied by the question of the preservation of culture in a time when culture is threatened by barbarity, as Edward Said points out in his introduction [End Page 99] to Erich Auerbach’s groundbreaking Mimesis.1 It may therefore seem useful, especially when tackling the matter of extreme historical violence, to take this longue durée approach into account and try to establish a link between contemporary approaches to the phenomenon of “collective memory” and the philological tradition.
To illustrate this approach, I wish to devote my attention to a small-scale object of inquiry, the Rwandese artist Dorcy Rugamba’s 2005–9 staging of the celebrated 1966 documentary drama The Investigation, by Peter Weiss. As the subject is delicate—confronting the Holocaust and the Rwandese Genocide of 1994—I consider it necessary, before dwelling on it, to take a close look at a passage that the European philological tradition considers to be the founding text of ars memoriae: the famous “Simonides anecdote.”
The Simonides Anecdote: Survival and Memory
Written by Cicero, the passage appears in the second volume of the De Oratore. This famous sequence tells the story of a poet who, thanks to his exceptionally sharp memory, manages to aid the recovery process after a major human catastrophe. Cicero uses this story as an exemplum in his demonstration of the efficiency and the origin of mnemotechnics but quite strangely keeps silent on the background of the anecdote, which is a catastrophe. It may prove useful to refer to this original text, which deserves a second reading:
There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem which he had composed in honor of his host, in which he followed the custom of the poets by including for decorative purposes a long passage referring to Castor and Pollux; whereupon Scopas with excessive meanness told him he would pay him half the fee agreed on for the poem, and if he liked he might apply for the balance to his sons of Tyndaraus, as they had gone halves in the panegyric.
The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; [End Page 100] and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed, the story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them...