How have texts studied in this elective challenged your ways of thinking about ‘History and Memory’? Make detailed to your prescribed text and at least ONE other related text of your own choosing. “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach. ” Perhaps in recognising man’s failure to take heed of his fellow man, Aldous Huxley was recognising that humans lack the capability to learn vicariously.
For in history, through its emphasis on the superficial analysis of documents and archival data, the experience of individuals are lost. This highlights the variations of the past, for moments in time may encompass both suffering and triumph. Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, uses history as a vehicle to verify his parents’ memories. Confronted by Genia’s unique past, however, Baker must relinquish his rudimentary need for factual verification, and accept the legitimacy of personal memory.
The Smithsonian Institution’s website, September 11: Bearing Witness to History and Roman Polanski’s documentary Pianist: A Story of Survival, also explore the intimate connection between history and memory. Two accounts of the past, however, are rarely alike, manipulated by the biases of personal experience. Therefore, history is not an objective analysis of the past, rather a representation of individual and collective memory. The past is not finite, as The Fiftieth Gate highlights, it is a world marked by shifting perceptions and contrasting moments of suffering and triumph.
As a testimony to the importance of memory on subsequent existence, Baker achieves a coalescence of past and present. Though wrought with a duality of roles, as the son of Holocaust victims, and an historian, Baker feels compelled to side with a chosen medium. With history affecting his life from an early age, quantifying and validating his parents’ past became his obsession. In imbuing the text with the clinical, impersonal tone of statistics and archival data “In 1657, founded by Bishop Boguslaw…” Baker creates a rift in the relationship with his parents.
Genia and Yossl, dismissive of his project, mock his obsession “fecks, fecks. ” However, as the process continues, a transformation begins whereby Baker changes course, “I knew then I had to wrap myself in the details of her story, if only immunise myself against the thing that lay there…” becoming more participatory. In testament to the fluidity of truth and of history, The Smithsonian Institution’s website and Polanski’s film, Pianist: A Story of Survival, reveals truths through the coalescence of individual accounts.
Melding the personal testimonies of Szpliman, Polanski and his family, “one thing that is burned in my mind is the arm band with the star of David,” with archival images and historical data about the Warsaw Ghetto, the composer recreates and validates truths from the perspective of Holocaust victims. The interplay of history and memory is shown as black and white footage which melds into a scene from The Pianist, through an explosion which coexists in both shots. More overt with its connection to the individual, September 11: Bearing Witness to History, has victims recount their stories, presenting their own sentimental artefact.
Penny Elgas is one such victim who presents, an “airplane fragment in a patriotic box,” with an accompanying rationale. Her intimate account reveals the fallibility of memory, “Apparently, I made several cups of tea that I don’t remember making because later that day I found four sopping teabags lined up on my kitchen counter,” but her personal testimony also gives the text veracity and authenticity, which could not be achieved through historical data. Serving as both history and memory, these artefacts physically manifest the experiences of individuals.
While memory is often fragile, short term and highly subjective, it epitomises the depth of understanding that emotion adds to history. The Smithsonian Institution’s website, as Baker comes to recognise as a necessity, accentuates the perspective of individuals. The human dimension of memory manifests the notion that the past encompasses more than archival data and statistics. Authenticity and verifiable details make history a more reliable narrative of human experience. Though access to the truth is more tangible when it is gleaned through the memories of personal experience , rather than sifted through historical data and artefacts.
Baker achieves a melding of the two so that research verifies and bears out the verbal histories of those who were there. Though Polanski is sceptical of these notions “I mean there is no ultimate truth in it because nobody can really… you can’t explain it in anyway so the truth is very difficult to get at. But whatever the truth is in you of that subject and one, you have to be true to that truth,” realising that ‘truth is idiosyncratic to the individual, formed by their personal memories and experiences.
However, in realising that ‘truth’ cannot represent a cohesive entity, he attempts to present his own perspective and experience as closely as possible “…You can’t start glamourising it, you can’t start to soften it, you have to tell it as you believe it is. ” He also tries to incorporate history and not be manipulated by his own memories and emotions which can distort events. “It was going to be very flat, it was going to be realistic. ” Much like Genia and Yossl, Polanski’s memories have become distorted by time; “We had sometimes very funny or heated discussions where I was always trying to prove that there was some kind of discrepancy. He is adamant in his own representation of history, which has become irrevocably flawed through his emotions which have coloured his world view. Personal memories enable a means with which to enshrine the lessons of the past for the present generation. Confirmed through Baker’s journey into the “gates of the heart,” the study of history facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of human existence; highlighting a growth in personal knowledge and moral development.
Metaphorically, the fiftieth gate is “where light hovers inside the darkness. Inside the broken heart,” and only upon reaching this stage can one attain the “highest knowledge of God,” or an enhanced self awareness and acceptance. Mirrored in September 11: Bearing Witness to History, is the growth of knowledge and moral development through the journey into the past. In revealing that the “tour is now complete and the exhibition is permanently closed…” the composer suggests that the victims have reached their ‘fiftieth gate’.
This is reflected in the use of a white background, which symbolises the light and coincides with Mark’s closing phrase “…it always begins in blackness, until the first light illuminates a hidden fragment of memory…” The melding of history and memory attempts to gain an accurate representation of truth. Based on the senses, the memory is fragmented, thus history serves to forge reality with individual experience. Therefore, the perceived dry, academia of history and the emotive memory, form a relationship to imbue the text with a believable, yet engaging representation of the past.