… Once memory enters into our consciousness, it is hard to circumvent, harder to stop, and impossible to run from.
In an interview given to the New Left Review, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier relates an anecdote about a small fishing village in Venezuela where all the inhabitants are black. As he got to know the village people, they often told him about the Poet who enjoyed a great deal of prestige among them. The Poet had been away for quite a while, and they missed him. One day the Poet, a colossal man, reappeared. That night by the sea all the villagers, from children to old folk, gathered to hear him recite.
[line break added] With a ritual gesture and deep voice, he told the story of Charlemagne, in a version similar to that of the ‘Song of Roland.’ ‘That day,’ Carpentier says, ‘I understood perhaps for the first time that in our America, wrongly named Latin, an illiterate man, descendant of the [slaves], recreated the “Song of Roland” in a language richer than Spanish, full of distinctive inflections, accents, expressions and syntax.’
This Poet, in a sense, replicates the anonymous legendary storytellers of traditional times. The peasant, the tiller of the soil, the traveller, the explorer and the hunter all combine the lore of the past with the lore of faraway places, to conserve and deposit into popular memory what has transpired in life and in everyday social existence.
Once memory enters into our consciousness, it is hard to circumvent, harder to stop, and impossible to run from. It burns and glows from inside, causing anguish, new dreams and newer hopes. Memory does something else beside telling us how we got here from there: it reminds us of the causes of difference between popular memory and official versions of history.
Official history tends to arrest the future by means of the past. Historians privilege the written word of the text — it serves as their rule of law. It claims a ‘centre’ which continuously marginalizes others. In this way its ideology inhibits people from constructing their own history or histories.
Popular memory, on the other hand, considers the past as a political issue. It orders the past not only as a reference point but also as a theme of struggle. For popular memory, there are no longer any ‘centres’ or ‘margins,’ since the very designations imply that something has been conveniently left out.
[line break added] Popular memory, then, is neither a retreat to some great tradition nor a flight to some imagined ‘ivory tower,’ neither a self-indulgent escapism nor a desire for the actual ‘experience’ or ‘content’ of the past for its own sake. Rather, it is a ‘look back to the future,’ necessarily dissident and partisan, wedded to constant change.
My previous post from this book is here.