Sunday, June 25, 2006

"La memoria dell' offesa" ("The Memory of the Offense")

As if my life isn't already filled with things to take time away from my dissertation writing, I'm faced with the task of mastering the Italian language this summer -- or, at least, mastering it enough to pass a translation exam so that I can defend my dissertation two semesters from now. My exam will ask me to translate a couple of pages from Primo Levi's I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved). Though I'm not quite ready to do it in respectable form, I can figure it out for the most part, though perhaps that's because I've read the book in English. I'm sneaky like that.

I've just been looking at one chapter of the book ("The Memory of the Offense"), and the first line reads as follows:

La memoria umana รจ uno strumento meraviglioso ma fallace [Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument].

It's an interesting statement considering the fact that Levi was, among other things, a memoirist -- a recorder of history via the "fallacious" vehicle of memory. It is of course, in my mind, a strategic move on the part of Levi because it asserts the necessity of filling in factual and "historical" gaps with feelings and perceptions, which are possibly more "real" than what we might call a factual account of a historical event. What I mean to say is that historical events are important for many reasons, but not the least of which are the ways they change how people think and feel, the ways in which they provoke human complexity to rear its complicated head. Granted, the fact that memories are not carved in stone (as Levi goes on to suggest) does not negate the harsh truth of historical realities such as the Holocaust, nor does it lessen the death blows of the fires of Auschwitz. I think the important thing inherent in Levi's statement is the underlying assertion that memory matters, if only because it connects us to our feelings, drives, passions, longings, and fears -- essentially to what makes us human.

For example, my mother and I argue constantly over events that I remember solidly from my childhood. She claims not that what I describe never happened, but that it happened nothing like how I remember it. How can this be? Likewise, someone very close to me used to say to me when I was angry or upset -- perhaps overreacting in many instances -- and trying to convey what I felt, "Your feelings are wrong!" But can feelings really be "wrong"? Is that possible?


nedric said...

Can feelings be wrong? I don't think so. It's likely that only claims about facts, and maybe the meaning of facts, can be wrong or incorrect.

As you suggested, though, feeling shapes how we percieve the world and so can lead us to make claims without allowing space for reflecting on them. But then again, I sometimes like Kierkegaard's (writing as Climacus) point that passion for something objectively wrong is more "true" than indifferent knowledge of the truth.


Not to sound too much like a self-help book, but in working with kids (and their emotions!) I've been trained to make "I" statements before "you" statements because that makes explicit what is going on anyway. I wonder if, when we place this in the context of recording history, the writing tells us more about the author than about history?

Casey said...

Weird -- I was thinking the same kind of thing over at my page today (see the "Idea & Thing" post). It dawned on me only after I was wrote mine that experience and feelings-about-experience might not be separable at all.

So: that experience that you and your mom argue about?--it only exists as your combined (conflicting) memories of it... or: there is no objective event.

In short--what nedric said!

nedric said...

By the way - good luck learning Italian!

Monica said...

Thanks, Nedric -- I'll need it!