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On the art and plight of memory (remembering and forgetting)

Katarina Pejovic, Dramaturgin und Theoretikerin


“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel cannot longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.”

Walter Benjamin "On the Concept of History" (1940) Thesis IX (tr.Harry Zohn)


When we brood over the experience, the phenomenon and the deep mystery of memory (especially the memory of tragic and traumatic individual and collective events), Benjamin’s powerful and metaphysical description of Paul Klee’s painting brings us straight into the heart of the matter. Memory is an ever-fluctuating individual process of remembering and forgetting; history is much the same but on the collective and institutional level, which deprives it of constant changeability and therefore often of self-reflection too. Our bitter experience with history is that it is always written by the dominant power structures, exerting rigidity, one-sidedness and perspectives twisted according to the “official truth”. We live and walk through our everyday life immersed in the “official versions” of ours and the past of our humankind. Memory might therefore play a crucial role in the individual preservation of perspective as a ground for exercising the freedom of remembering and forgetting outside of the prescribed boundaries.

Yet the trouble arises out of the fact that memory is increasingly manifesting signs of “history disease”: It is being shaped according to official versions, often to the detriment of the one who is remembering or forgetting. This kind of memory might be called Memory as Fortifying Denial. Individual memory also tends to become as rigid as the historical one: Memory as Cherishing Pain and Grief endlessly opens the same Pandora’s box in the same way, preserving the rigidity of view and emotions. Hence we live our lives torn between resentment and prejudice on the one side, and fragility and hurting on the other side. We are tired of official history and its mind-boggling influence on our lives; yet we tend to bring it home and make it flourish in our own garden.


Still, there is always a chance to perceive and adopt the third possibility: Memory as Path to Reconciliation (with oneself, with perpetrators, with helplessness, with indifference, with things undone and unsaid) and Transcendence (of one’s own matrixes, of one’s own projection in perpetrators, of bygone helplessness, of bygone indifference, of pain, grief and denial). Perhaps we can seek this path in the very fact that at present history and our own historicized memory are reaching at once very extreme and highly subtle peaks, opening the emergency exit for liberating the imprisoned thoughts and embarking the quest for the essence of memory that is not anymore the producer of hushed emotions or outraged thoughts but in turn is the generator of healing.


"...You can dilute and dilute and dilute, but the pertinent thing remains. It's unseen, undetectable, untraceable, but it still exerts influence."


Shelagh Stevenson, "The Memory of Water"