History and Memory Essay
History and Memory
To what extent has textual form shaped your understanding of history and memory? In your response, make detailed reference to your prescribed text and at least one other related text. The textual form of the poetry of Denise Levertov and the recount Pure Torture by Tom Moe has shaped the reader’s understanding of history and memory to a great extent. While history is represented generally as objective, impersonal, factual and static, memory is represented as subjective, personal, fragmented and fluid. Techniques applied by the composers are consistent with forging these representations.
A close examination of the texts indicates that history and memory are distinct concepts, but they are also two elements which work together in an interdependent relationship to make a record of truth. A close study of A Letter to Marek about a Photograph shows how history and memory are both distinct entities, but that they work together to create a more complete representation of the truth. The poem provides a representation of the house’s history as static and objective through the adjectives used to describe the physical building: “wooden angles” and “fretted gables”.
However, the composer’s memory of the context of the home provides a place filled with anxiety and worry through the use of the pun in “fretted gables”, and the metaphor “ornaments turned on the lathe of humor and trust”. While the physical photograph records in a cumulation of adjectives the “carpentered, unpainted, aging house … in some white ghetto”, Levertov’s memory records the emotional context of the inhabitants of the house in the personification of the building: “the brooding face of anxiety” and “waking and sleeping”.
Thus, one’s understanding of history and memory as two distinct yet interdependent elements in recording the truth has been shaped to a great degree through a close reading of A Letter to Marek about a Photograph. Similarly, in A Time Past Levertov conveys the idea of history and memory being distinct but interrelated elements in recording the past. While Levertov records the “wooden steps to the front door where I was sitting that morning” as an historic event, she intertwines the memory with the physical history of the steps.
Human experience is deeply involved in the history of these steps through the senses in the tactile, aural and visual imagery. She can “feel their splinters”, the “quiet broken by no bird, no cricket”, and “gold leaves spinning in silence”. The human experience of emotion – “joy” and “love” and “cheerful, unafraid” – are captured in the record of the past. Although the memories are fragmentary in nature, like the splinters, they ironically complete the history. This fragmentary quality is captured in the various anecdotes involving the “friend and her little son who died”, “of marriage, of my son”, and “sitting alone or with my husband”.
Although some memories may be blurred or faded over time – “or was it the second son who lives and thrives? ” – The memories themselves do not lose their importance. While the steps play a significant place in terms of events in Levertov’s history, it is the memories involved with the steps which complete the record of truth, thus further enhancing one’s understanding of the relationship between history and memory. In Thai Binh (Peace) Province refers to Levertov’s “film” of the Vietnam War, both a physical and mental record of a past event.
Textual form is very important in conveying the difference between history and memory, thus shaping the reader’s understanding of the two concepts. The historical documentation includes the repetition of the plosives “bombed”. The cumulation nouns for buildings – “hospitals … “schools … silk-factory” – help to convey the utter devastation of the country. This is contrasted by Levertov’s mental retreat to selectively “photograph within [her] dark sails of the river boats, warm slant of afternoon light… ” with the use of adjectives such as “perched, relaxed… to show her retreat towards “peace within the long war”.
Levertov uses juxtaposition of the “child with its feet blown off” to the “boy… relaxed on a quietly grazing buffalo” effectively to provide a more thorough, comprehensive and complete record of the historical event, rather than a biased view of the history. She alludes to the history with the humanistic nature of her memory to make it more comprehensive. Thus, it is clear that the textual form of Levertov’s poem greatly enhances one’s understanding of history and memory being two distinct, yet interrelated, elements.
The textual form of Tom Moe’s Pure Torture shows a clear distinction between history and memory, while it presents the notion that history and memory are interconnected to produce a more complete representation of the truth of past events. The first-person recount presented in chronological order is consistent with a recording of an historic event. Moe presents the facts of his five-year incarceration as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. As a documented memory, it presents a history, but with the added dimension of his personal perspective that only memory can provide.
Moe details the horrific nature of the event, thus personalising it through the use of graphic detail and emotion giving a more accurate representation of the truth. The memory has been recorded and published about 23 years after the events occurred. The graphic details of Tom Moe’s physical harm have been depicted in Pure Torture. He describes their skin which became “waterlogged, looking like pale cheese, a crumbling coat of slimy flesh”. The use of simile and metaphor emphasise the physical effects of the treatment, personalising and individualising the experience.
The memory of how his body deteriorated similarly highlights the unique human experience: “you could stick your finger into me up to your knuckle and pull it out leaving a hole that would slowly fill with fluid,” and “I was shocked at how my body looked like a bag of chicken bones. ” The composer’s intention is clear; he intends to shock and fill the reader’s mind with his memory, and he is very successful in building images so that the record of history is far more accurate and comprehensive.
A close examination of the documentary film Dear America: Letters from Vietnam stands as evidence that the textual form of media recording history and memory are intertwined in such a way that they give a complete record of the truth of an event. The historical record of actual footage of a soldier who has lost his foot, graphically details the man’s pain when he is in the field: “I’ve been hit … (screams) … I’ve been hit!! ” Later, while he is being attended to by doctors, he describes the physical pain, “It’s that sharp nerve pain … urning … burning … I know there’s not much left. I thought the whole thing was going to come off. ” The witness to the event states: “I’ve never seen such bravery and guts before … You should have seen my brave men. It would give you goose pimples. ” This contrasts significantly with the footage: the focus on physical pain is turned in to a focus on mental and emotional qualities. The letter writer is selective in what he wants remembered: his focus is on the courage and bravery of the soldier, rather than the pain associated with it.
It appears that the trauma is too close to be passed on to members of his family, and he is selective in what he records as his memory and what he contributes to their memory of the war. The footage of the night patrols is frightening, with bombardment in a montage of explosions, gunfire and fires in the jungle. The aftermath of a night patrol is recorded by a soldier who is called in to identify a body. He writes to his family: “It’s going to be hard for me to write this, but maybe it will make me feel better … there on the table was a boy … is eyes were open. I couldn’t really identify him. They told me his name: Rankin. I cried. God, it can’t be. But after looking at his face again … it was him. It hit me like a shot. This was the first body I ever saw … it was too much. I went outside and cried. It started raining at noon today … it rained so hard. ” The letter writer has used his memory in a therapeutic way, much like Tom Moe did in Pure Torture and Levertov has done in much of her poetry. The metaphoric tears from heaven helps describe the emotional impact this event has had on the soldier.
This letter shows how the event moves from historic footage of a physical event to an emotional human response in the aftermath of the event. Thus, it is clear that while the historic recording of an event may communicate the actual detail of the event, the human response to the event is vital in giving a comprehensive account of that event. It is clear from the close examination of Levertov’s poetry and Pure Torture and Dear America that the responder’s understanding of history and memory is influenced to a great extent by the textual form of the text.
The representations of the objectivity and the impersonal, factual and static nature of historical record is complemented by the representations of the subjectivity and the personal, fragmented and fluid nature of memory. Techniques applied by the composers to create textual form are consistent with forging these representations. History and memory are distinct concepts, but they operate together in an interdependent relationship to make a more comprehensive and accurate record of truth of past events.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 12 November 2016
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