Monday, March 9, 2009

A true story

I would like to share with you a story from my own family. Recently, the book "Min mors hemmelighed" (My mother's secret) by Karin Lützen was published. It is a story told by my mother's cousin about origin and identity.
Irene, the mother, was French. Her style, her clothes, her perfume, her accent, her behaviour - everything about her was impeccably French. She came to Denmark after World War II, and met Kaj Lützen. They married and had three children.
For Irene it was very important to remain French, and she was not too shy to voice her opinion - that Danish culture was rather coarse, and by no means as refined and elevated as French culture.
But when her children asked about her own family, she told them very little, or even dismissed the question. They learned that it was a painful issue, and so they respected the mother. Karin was particularly interested in her French background, and identified herself with it.
But after Irene's death in 1998, something changed. The children talked about their mother with her good friend, Arlette - who was Jewish, and had been to a concentration camp. "By the way" she said, "did you know that your grandmother was Jewish?" They didn't. And when they obtained the personal documents belonging to their grandparents, they saw that something was not right.
Eventually, Karin found out that her grandparents were in fact Romanian Jews. It turns out that Irene's parents had left Romania, due to poverty and persecution, and had fled to Paris, where they had a daughter. Many of their close relatives were killed in concentration camps. Karin has also met some of the remaining relatives. Of course, Irene's children were quite surprised by these discoveries. Their own cultural identity had suddenly changed overnight. Afterwards, the family had to re-evaluate everything. All their memories about their mother were now seen and reflected upon in a different light. Was Irene's Frenchness just a bluff? Why did not she acknowledge her Jewish roots? Irene must have known about her parents' origin. But for more than 50 years she kept to the official story - that she and her parents were French. Why? No-one knows. She was buried with the secret. The truth about her silence cannot be found. But the story of her life can be re-written.

See: (Sorry, it's in Danish.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Waltz with Bashir: we may forget the past…..but the past won’t forget us

Last week, I watched the film Waltz with Bashir, which I highly recommend because it is truly an outstanding film combined with the fact that it raises so many issues related to memory. The film deals explicitly with how memories change, are suppressed, and at times even fabricated, whilst also touching upon the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Written, produced and directed by Ari Folman, an Israeli filmmaker, this film documents Folman’s struggle to recall his own experiences as a teenage soldier during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. A friend’s confession of a recurring nightmare sprung from these times, leads Folman to realize that he has absolutely no recollection of what must have been a very emotional and disturbing period in his life. He knows, for a fact, that he must have been present during the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, but he finds that he cannot remember anything regarding these events. Folman then sets about gathering testimonials from friends and former colleagues to relive his own memory.

Folman chooses to present his story with animation, a characteristic which makes the film so unique. It is not about the use of animation per se but the freedom that this affords and how Folman deals with it. In brief, I think that the use of the animation is the medium for Folman to transfer his own experience to us, without it losing its authenticity.

I will not expand more on this issue or on other issues because I do not want my text to contain spoilers. In the meantime, if you would like to watch the film or if you have already watched it and you would like to discuss it, I would be really grateful to share more of my thoughts with you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What is the point of this?

By "this" I don't mean blogging - that's another discussion entirely.

But I'll be a little late for monday's session - at least the part that doesn't involve the English students, and here's why.

There's a fastelavn (I'm sorry I don't know the english word, but at least I can describe it) party in my sons kindergarten, and I have to witness it.

Here's what happens: everyone gets dressed up as something or someone - my son is going as a clown - and then they have this wooden barrel that is filled with candy. Everyone waits his or her turn to beat it with a wooden club until it crashes and the candy falls out. Then you rush to the candy and gather as much as you can, and go back in line to keep beating the barrel. The one who crashes it is crowned "queen of cats", and the one who beats down the last board is the "king of cats".

After that, everyone drinks coffee (not the children...) and eat these special creamfilled muffin-like things called fastelavnsboller.

What is the point of that? I have an idea why we smack the hell out of a wooden barrel, that's something to do with hunting witches in the middle ages, and there used to be cats, not candy in there - but the dressing up part and the eating? The name of the party is short danish-latin for "goodbye meat", i think - but what does that have to do with anything?

I do know one thing though - if i'm not there to witness my son beating that barrel, the whole thing won't matter to him - leading me to another point:

What's the point of commemorating? Is it the thing itself or the people, that we do it with? How important is it for our own individual memory that we each have someone to witness us when we take part in a reconstructing a collective or cultural memory? And why?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 the mud

Thank you all for the posts and comments on this blog so far. I hope more of the participants will join in soon and help make this a lively and interesting blog.

We've had various examples of sites of memory in Denmark presented, and I thought that I would bring attention to another special place that evokes many different kinds of memories. I'm thinking about the music and arts festival 'Roskilde Festival' held each year in Denmark.
Some of you probably know the festival, either through the media or by participating yourselves. I myself have enjoyed the festival eight years in a row (2000-2007) as a very 'authentic' and muddy participant.

What interests me about the festival in relation to collective/cultural memory is the unique festival experience that gradually has evovled since the first festival was introduced in 1971. Lene presented the Viking week at Moesgaard as a special case of authentic 'living' history. I agree with her that the whole spectacle surrounding the Viking week aims at a remarkably more authentic experience of past times than in Den Gamle By, simply because of the unavoidable physical stimuli, such as taste and smell. But I still doubt that either smell or taste can evoke a past that goes beyond personal experience, as the argument for the Viking week goes, and for this reason I started thinking about my own experiences at Roskilde Festival.

One of the main issues when comparing the Viking week with the Roskilde Festival is the problem of continuity. It is obvious that the Viking week isn't a continuation of traditions performed in the age of Vikings. It is rather a re-invention of a way of life, based on various historical facts or assumptions. Roskilde Festival on the other hand represents an unbroken chain of events. The Festival held each year is a continuation of the tradition of festivals started in 1971, but that doesn't mean that the festival doesn't evovle - in fact the festival held nowadays hardly resembles the original festival. But is the festival then even a site of memory at all? Yes, but in a different sense than with the Viking week.

Firstly there are already various traditions being re-enacted each year at the festival. Many traditions concern the actual progression of the festival and rely heavily on intense planning from the festivals management - this includes the schedule for the concerts, the look of the camping area and other logistical issues. This has to do with the framing of the festival and surely affects the experience of going to the same festival each year. But this isn't all. More or less meaningful traditions are created spontaniously each year because of the participants. One of the funnier traditions is the naked-run which has been a big attraction since the first run in 1998. Another, more serious, section of the festival refers to the terrible accident in 2000. This has led to the construction of a memorial grove next to the orange stage thereby suggesting that the festival comprise both life and death.

In general the festival presents itself as a parallel community and it would be hopeless to count up all the instances were certain events refer to past incidents in the history of the festival. I think as a whole the festival is a strange complex of memorial constructs that somehow seem to be actively sustained by both the participant(s) and the management.

In returning to the discussion on authenticity I think that Roskilde Festival also challenges Svend Eriks point about 'tourists not being able to stand the smell of old times.' How does that argument work when tested on the case of Roskilde? Most people who go to Roskilde think that the smell is part of the authenticity of the event and in this case the durational matter is not a problem, since the festival always lasts a week. Here we must encounter the problem of continuity once again. Maybe the festival suggests an authentic experience, but is the historical span of the festival large enough to serve as a site of memory? As a collective memory ('Communicative' in Assmanns terms) yes, but as cultural memory, probably not. But what do you think? Let me hear your opinions on this.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Nostalgia and Combray

When creating this blog I did not realise that I had to make an important decision regarding the 'design' of the template. Blogspot suggests various different themes for the look of the site and it proved a difficult choice. I had to reflect on which visual representation was most suitable for a blog on 'Memory and Literature' and the end result is the one you see now. Evidently my choice reveals my own 'nostalgic' presumption of the visuality of memory and it obviously doesn't fit into the modern nostalgia of cyberspace. Instead you might consider my choice of theme as a sort of reflective nostalgia, to recall the term used by Svetlana Boym ('Nostalgia and Global Culture').

In this mondays seminar Jakob brought Boyms two concepts of nostalgia to our attention: The reflective and the restorative. But I am not sure I completely understood the difference between these two: "While restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one homeland with paranoic determination, reflective nostalgia fears returning with the same passion. Instead of recreation of the lost home, reflective nostalgia can foster a creative self." (Boym, p.354)

The first example of apparent reflective nostalgia that comes to my mind is Marcels 'creative' recollection of Combray in A la recherche du temps perdu. Even though the narrator struggles to 'recreate' the sensations of Combray as he experienced them, the novel shows that the goal moreover is to 'foster a creative self' through reflection. Is this the right way to understand Boyms terms? Is the reflective nostalgia always directed towards the 'mediation' of the nostalgia and not towards a struggle to reach an exact recreation of the past?

When speaking about Proust I am reminded of an interesting fact that is related to the discussion on lieu de mémoire. The fictional town of 'Combray' plays a vital role throughout Prousts novel. Even though it isn't mentioned in the novel, the real town of Illiers is actually the model for 'Combray'. In 1971, when celebrating the 100th birthday of the author who helped to make the town famous, the town council decided to rename the town "Illiers-Combray".
Nowadays certain areas of Illiers-Combray are reconstructed to ressemble the descriptions in Prousts novel and thereby points to a type of memory-site constructed and maintained on the basis of a fictional work. One such area is Aunt Léonies house:

To make an authors hometown 'reflect' certain biographical aspects is of course not a new phenomenon. But I thought that the willingness to actually change a towns name was quite a peculiar fact. Unfortunately I haven't visited Illiers-Combray' myself, so I'm not able to give any detailed description of the museum-like quality of the town (which by the way is an entirely normal french town, just with certain areas dedicated to Proust), Any comments are welcomed.


La Maison de Tante Léonie

Official webpage for Illiers-Combray

A challenge for Svend Erik

As I was figuring out what to write about in this blog, I wondered about the fact that the time of the famous danish vikings is not remembered more in the official Danish history.

However, I do know one way which is also i challenge for Svend Eriks point that "noone could stand the smell of old times". In may every year the beach of Moesgaard close to Aarhus turns into a genuine Viking living area for a weekend. Complete with mud (if it rains), smelly horses, fights in the middle of the camp and a market. Every participant has to wear shoes of leather and homemade viking clothes. Noone is able to shower either - accept a swin in the sea.

Off course, the smell is not authentic - it does only progress over 2-3 days - but if we're looking for an authentic memoty site of the viking culture, I'd say that this is the closest thing you get to the real deal.

I visited myself 2 years ago - only I had to give it up since my then two year old son was literally drowning in the mud - how's that for authentic, Svend Erik?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Hello all and welcome to the student blog for the Memory and Literature in a Globalised Culture course at UCL and Aarhus University.

Hopefully the invitations to participate in this blog got through - if you haven't received an email, please contact me or write in the forum on Moodle.

The conference this monday was very interesting and thankfully Jakob and Elena fought their way through the snow so we were able to engage in some enlightening discussions on sites of memory.

One of the examples from mondays discussion was 'Den Gamle By' (The Old City) in Århus, which I think displays some of the ideas also found in 'England, England'. A lot of other examples were mentioned in the discussion and I can't 'remember' them all, so feel free to post them in this forum, to help us all create our own collective memory and to help us remember the inspiring spring semester spent online.