Blesok no. 58, January-February, 2008

The Novel as a Philosophy of Remembering

Elizabeta Šeleva

The remembering, the memorizing only seems to be a simple, one-way directed or a straightforward category. Remembering is a phenomena connected to the basic concept of existence, because the way (as well as the form) of someone's remembrance is deeply connected to the individual profile of a person. The memory is not only or exceptionally led down to the empiric material, contained in the biography as a subordinated plot. We remember how we live or how we chose to interpret our living, our experience. The memory can also be active – to be built as a design, anticipatively – not only mechanically archiving (in a form of events, persons, adventures) in the “file” of someone's memory.
    Who do we remember? Ourselves, others? What do we remember? Events, words, objects, areas? How do we remember? Totally or partially, authentically or imaginatively? How much do we remember? Only the necessary, or series of details which transform the memory into entropy? In a vortex, which consumes us deeper and deeper to its invincible spiral?
    “To remember – means to reconstruct – like in narrating – not to present a precise description of a certain event” – says Phil Mollon (2001:10) in the concise study dedicated to Freud and his discovery of the syndrome of “false memories”.
    The memory stands in a close connection to the identity and the existence of human beings and their surrounding. “One subject depends on the affirmative view of the other” – says the philosopher Eduard Hirsch. According to the philosopher of religion Christos Yanaras “We recognize the beings while they really exist, that is if they arise from oblivion to unforgettableness, in the appearance of the phenomena.” (1997:55).
    Remembering is one of the constitutive differential characteristics between humans and animals: only with the help of memorizing and predicting, as pointed out by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in the human, as opposite of the animal, happens a stratifying of joy and sufferings, which are the condenser of the reflection. The memory is a dreg on one side, and a source of reflection on the other (thus, of happiness and sorrow which come as its result).
    In the necrologies, as a canonized genre of remembering and the announcement of someone's death, very often we shall meet the phrase: “we couldn't keep you away from death, but we shall save you from being forgotten”, or “ the memory and the love for you will last forever, loved ones never die”. Remembering these radical examples is the only possible guaranty, a solemn and publicly given promise in front of the deceased, that at least he will remain virtually alive, in the discourse of remembrance. In fact, the necrologies, as a title, very often have the idiom “In memoriam”.
    The remembering is the only ontological compensation for the no-longer-living, loved, dear, important person. The commemoration (the requiem) as an act represents a ritual form of remembrance, a performance to reanimate the memory.
    Besides these, there are other modalities of memory: the witness (as an actor of remembrance and an eye-witness of a certain event/incident form the past), the recollection (as a mental picture or a reconstruction of a past experience), the souvenir (as an artifact, a hard evidence, directly or associatively connected with a past experience, mostly traveling), the monument (as a monumental structure which holds the architecture of remembering), the memoirs (a literary genre, strikingly tied to the modus of memories), the museum (as an archetype location, aimed for institutionalization and storing the memories as certain objects from the past).
    As for the art and literature – things remain more or less similar. With a significant addition that art represents highly sophisticated, aestheticaly formulated, shaped and complex stratifying articulation of remembering.
    It seems that art is a special form of memorial, an active spiritual modus – through it the past-in-the present is revealed; the past as a still current presence, that is.
    But, before we develop the discussion on the memorial of literature (its character) wider and applicably, we should add the discussion of the starting narration of the remembrance, or of the memory as a spoken act.
    The memory is not a linear, one-way directed, transparent category, nor a mechanical transfer of the past – it is an already-done construction, an embodied retelling. Between remembering as a latent, fluid, selective, un-representing structure and remembering as a concrete, verbally articulating, manifesting, shaping structure – there is an undeniable gap, which is constitutive for the very discourse of remembering, that is for installing the remembrance exactly as a discourse.
    “The memories are like literary works, they are created at the very moment of recalling, constructed from the psycho-dynamic conflict and serve the fulfillment of wishes and of self-mystification” – concludes Phil Mollon about Freud.
    His complete scientific methodology, psychoanalysis, is based precisely on the psycho-pathologic effect of the memories and the hypothesis of remembrance as a priory ethnological factor in the formation of psychic problems and diseases. In fact, Freud thought that memories are always false – or supposed, imaginative, wishing, fantasizing – because they are (re)created in the very act or at the moment of recalling.
    They appear because of the psycho-dynamic conflicts of the person, as an answer to the current problems in life of the one who is telling/recalling the memories – in order to fulfill one's wishes or for self-mystification. They combine elements from different sources, no matter the authenticity or reality, as in dreams, applying games of words, metaphors etc.
    It is the psychoanalysis of Freud, which is a systematically performed grip and a well-planed strategy of re-creation of the amorphous inarticulate remembering (which is latent, foggy, traumatic) into articulate/shaped memory (which becomes manifested, conscious, post-traumatic). Transforming of one's own remembrance, the memory of its past “self” (of self-being) – to a memory, or on the other side, into a witnessing – as a memory of the past “you” (of the other/others).

But, Giorgio Agamben in his lucid book about traumatic experiences and memories of the victims in concentration camps warns: “In the essence of every memory there is an essential emptiness. To speak about the witnessing means to re-examine this very emptiness, to become aware of what is unsaid”. Having that in mind, “Witnessing is not asking for the factual truth of the witnessing, but for its fragile inability to be archived, its exteriority regarding to the archive”.
    Namely, in that extreme, “camp” situation, in which the victims of the nazi camps found themselves, two traumas get crossed: the trauma of remembering on one side and on the other, no less frightening, ethically divided, the trauma of presentation/ declaration in front of the others.
    It is important to keep in mind the saying that: “Experience, on one side, and how the experience is remembered, on the other, have totally different structures”. (Gabriel Motzkin).
    And if it is so on the path of everyday living (no matter how extreme, as the camp experience) – then we can only imagine how the things can go on far more complex literary-esthetic point of the work itself, where the temporal (or the memorial) segment is included and called “authorial imaginative past” by Umberto Eco.
    “The past is not consisted in biographic happenings only. The nightmares, the imaginative happiness, the doubts which lead a battle inside each one of us, are also a part of our past. The things, which did not occur in reality, have much bigger meaning to us then those which did happen” – says the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov (2007).
    In that way, a very important question is included in our discussion: about the legitimacy of memories, of their connection with the discourse of power, of the seemingly paradoxical “right to remember”, of the politics of memorizing.
    Namely, for some groups of people – victims, fugitives, emigrants, subalterns – memories play a very important role in legitimizing their enquiring (as it is strictly transiting) identity. But the right to remember, unfortunately, is not acquired straightforward, but goes in correlation with the socio-political, socio-cultural power to talk about someone's experience with its own voice and in its name! The tension between acknowledging/affirmation and denial/negation of the victim's very sacrifice, at the same time is tension/struggle between remembering (as a right to remember) and oblivion (as taking away the right to remember).
    The novel, as a literary genre, can be counted as a sort of witnessing. Even in an essayistic manner we can call it a (narrative) souvenir. A literary remembrance par excellence. Or a literary museum for storing narrative artifacts from the past, which, once esthetically developed, forever turns into (artistic) reality.
    But, what can be called a narrative artifact?
    Could artifacts be of an olfactory nature, to present very powerful, associatively significant scents, fragrances, aromas, essences? In that case, could we imagine the memory as an olfactory text, an olfactory narrative maybe?
    The sense of a smell is the only one directly attached to the brain receptors, that is why it is so suggestive, memorizing, tactical.
    In this text, we shall enclose a comparative reading of two recently published novels, one in Macedonian and the other in German literature, each with its own given relations towards the dominant fragrant (olfactory) sensation and its literary perception.
    The novel “The Snow in Casablanca” is the first novel work of Kica Bardžieva Kolbe, PhD in philosophy and author of the book “Aegeans”, which explains the philosophic hermeneutics of escapism. In that very book Bardžieva writes: “In the name of the impossible speech of the victims” (Obrad Savić, 2006/7:203): those who are no longer alive. In the precise example it concerns her father, a fugitive from Aegean Macedonia, who died a year before.
    In her recently edited column she recalls to their native village, Bapčor, which was held in her father's memory all his life, without being given the permission to visit and see it again, Bardžieva states: “Today Bapčor is a graveyard, a remembrance, a memory and a mark.” (Dnevnik, 16.09.2007).
    It's about a locality, a certain place from the family memory – a segment from the mutual remembrance, which the author tries to protect literary, in publishing, philosophically, to preserve it for permanent use.
    Here it becomes evident the additional, generic dimension or conditionality of the memories, firstly worked out in the instructive enclosure of Melanija Belaj about the significance of the family photograph in the fugitive and dislocated dramas, which took place in the 1990's in Yugoslavia. Based upon her field investigation, she concludes: “Women showed to be good keepers of memories, as ones which take care of the memories and want to speak more about them then others”. (2006:87).
    Truly, as also witnesses Bardžieva, the remembrance and the escapism find themselves in constitutive proportion (the memory is a modus of legitimization of the fugitive as an identity). On the contrary, a confiscation appears, not only in the memories, but in their right to be a referent sign of the identity continuum. It all puts an accent on the immanent existential dramatics of the fugitive narratives!
    Therefore, to write about the fugitive's memories – grows into, not as much a poetic nostalgia, but more in an ethical imperative (“Not to write at all - would mean a greatest treason” - O. Savić, 2006:203)
    The letter is a voice of/for the Fugitive! The letter is his – not ephemeral but an eternally given – right to remember!
    The letter is a re-animation of the fugitive as a rightful, integral – and not only torn apart, fragmented – being.
    As witnessed by Arjun Appadurai, “To the migrant, the memories of what was left behind get a special meaning. When connected with the sense of loss, memories are treated differently”.
    Instead of actual, empiric – when migrant's experiences are concerned (and to which he belongs himself), Appadurai (almost in connection with the Freud revision of memories) – brings in the category of “anticipative memories”.

”The memory is connected with desire. The archive should be seen as a reliable place for creating more anticipative memories then official data of history”.
    However, a very interesting fact in Bardžieva's novel is that the narrator Dina Asprova, who herself chose to live in exile on the west, will live through (and wish for) the scent of restitution of the homeland. It is the scent of quinces, from the family house, as well as the linden trees of her town – which will make her function as a mighty patriotic vocative.
    “Scents, scents in my mind, in my heart, in my nose. As being an animal, I always search through the past with my nose. It is all in the scent. The only thing needed is to be on the right place, where I can find the real scent of the situation or of the person. That's how I will find the place, where the Aegean shed was. The earth smells of disappearing life. Fruits in winter. Scent of quinces. As a memory and a prayer for peaceful rest of the soul of grandma Angelina”.
    That restitution of homeland, which appears through and thanks to the scents (those of childhood, in the shed of grandma Angelina, smelling of quinces in winter) and yet, not totally based on the deposit of Proust, but authentically comes from the rich fragrant moisture of this warm, especially appropriate climate for intensive smelling receipt of scents.
    The fragrance functions as an auto-citation: at the moment when it cites itself, the scent grows into a multiplied active, memory chip.
    The scent is the dominant narrative in Dina's memory, a dominant narrative souvenir, which remained kept in the deepest personal files, essentially to influence the determination of her (homeland) belonging.
    On the other side, there is the example of “Perfume”, also a début novel, which achieved a world fame: the main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, with the help of the cannibal-produced Perfume – his personal invention – wants to create a museum of the female body!
    “It is not the same as in memories, where all the scents remain. The true fragrance must be spent. It is inconstant – and, when it is spent, I will stay naked as before. No, it will be worse. Because, in the meantime, I will come to know and own my personal, beautiful fragrance and I could not forget it, as I never forget a single scent. So I will feed with my memory of it during my whole life, which I will own. Then, why do I need it?” (2005:226).
    The dialectic of possessing and loosing to Grenouille corresponds to the geometry of closeness and being apart from memories, from remembering. At the end, Grenouille is the personal creator of his own loss.
    The retro-principle, permanent predetermination “to feed/enjoy” on/in the memories, feeds the anticipative fear of Grenouille from the (predictable) loss (of the essential perfume, essence of his poor life).
    Grenouille becomes a victim of his own, anticipative (olfactory) remembrance. His anticipative memory turns into terror, into a very predictable fear from un-forgettableness. Being not able to forget becomes a traumatic predetermination!
    A real agony of remembering!

The letter is a memory – but not only sadly or nostalgically pointed to the past. On the contrary, in the novel as writing – a thrilling re-animation takes place, a resurrection of a personal memory which becomes archetypal, universally valuable, commonly- significant memorable experience.


1. Agamben, Giorgio (2002): Remnats of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Zone Books, New York,
2. Appadurai, Arjun (2003): “Archive And Aspiration”
3. Belaj, Melanija (2006): “Obiteljska fotografija: suvenir emocija”, in: Treća, Zagreb, br. 2
4. Mollon, Phil (2001): Freud i sindrom lažnog sijećanja, Naklada Jesenski i Turk, Zagreb
5. Јанарас, Христос (1997): Хајдегер и Дионисије Ареопагит, Братство С. Симеона Мироточивог, Београд
6. Барџиева, Колбе Кица (2007): „Егејци и нашиот однос кон себеси“, ин: Дневник, Скопје, 16.09.2007
7. Господинов, Георги (2007): „Во моите книги им се доверувам на сочувствителните читатели“ (интервју), ин: Теа, Скопје, 12.09.2007
8. Савиќ, Обрад (2006/2007): „Сеќавања на воените злосторства, Дали жртвите можат да зборуваат“, ин: Маргина, Скопје, бр. 74/75
9. Шелева, Елизабета (2000): Културолошки есеи, Магор, Скопје

Translated by: Suzana Šopova

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