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Writing About the Past

When it comes to discussing the representations of the past in the works of literature, many critics assume that how authors go about retelling their memories simply reflects the creative subtleties of their psyche. And, it goes without saying, of course, that addressing the subject matter from this perspective would deny credibility to the suggestions that the essence of literary representations of the past, on the part of affiliated authors, is being largely predetermined by particulars of these authors’ ethnocultural constitution. Nevertheless, the analysis of how ethnically and culturally diverse authors describe their memories of the past and how they perceive the meaning of their memories leaves very little doubt as to the fact that that the discussion of this particular topic can never cease being contextual of whom these authors are, in racially-biological and existentially-perceptional senses of this word. In our paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of this thesis even further by outlining similarities and differences between reflections upon the past, contained in the works of Marcel Proust, Birago Diop, and Leslie Silko.

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Given the fact that Marcel Proust is being commonly referred to as one of the most sophisticated French authors, it comes as no surprise that how he theorized the concept of the past in his novels appears particularly analytical. According to Proust, it is quite inappropriate to refer to the memories of the past as such that can only be subjectivized in one’s mind – these memories live the life of their own while being enclosed within physical emanations of what the author refers to as ‘universal matter’. When an individual comes in close contact with a physical object that contains ‘memory’, he or she gets to immediately experience the full spectrum of sensations, out of which ‘memory’ consists. There is a famous scene in Swann’s Way, where Proust tells the story of how some elusive but ever-present memory of a distant past had stricken him after he took a sip of tea: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin” (Proust, 1913, p. 41). After having indulged in some philosophizing as to what had caused him to get in close and personal touch with forgotten memories from the past, the author concluded that it was named the sip of tea, which had instantly instilled him with the awareness of these memories. According to Proust, this can have only one possible explanation – memories are not simply mental constructs, the existence of which is impossible outside of the physical medium that carries them (brain), but rather as idealistically existing ‘things in themselves that constantly linger around, while waiting for the chance to come into one’s mind: “After the people are dead… the smell and taste of things (memories) remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment” (p. 43). Thus, Proust makes a clear distinction between memories, as ideal substances, and people, as physical beings. What it means is that Proust assesses the subject matter from a metaphysical rather than from a sensory perspective, which provides us with insight into the fact that the author’s view on the concepts of memory and past reflected highly urbanistic workings of his mentality. The author never ceased thinking about himself as existential sovereign, which is why he thought of memories as such that had very little to do with his innermost essence, as an individual – according to Proust, memories of the distant past can provide a concerned individual with emotional comfort, but under no circumstances can they define his or her identity. While being endowed with a euro-centric outlook on surrounding reality, Proust was well aware of the fact that it is namely the extent of one’s intellectual powers, which reflects his or her actual worth, and not such individual’s ability to affiliate itself with nature. In its turn, this provides us with insight into the main characteristic of Proust’s perception of the past – the author never thought that one’s past defines his or her future. Instead, he thought of memories as serving primarily the purpose of intellectual enlightenment.

When we analyze the motives of the past, contained in the works of Birago Diop, it will become clear that, unlike Proust, the author perceives the past as an overwhelming totality that predetermines the existential mode of concerned individuals. The validity of this statement becomes especially apparent, when Diop reflects upon the past as something integrally interwoven with the notion of death and with the notion of tribal solidarity, as seen in his poem Souffles:

“Those who are dead have never really gone away
They are at the Woman’s breast
They are in the Child’s weeping
And in the firebrand bursting into life
The Dead are not under the Ground” (Diop, 1966, p. 64).

According to Diop, the past is not simply an abstract concept, which derives out of people’s linear perception of time, but rather parallel time-continuum, which exists alongside with present and future, and which affects tribally minded people rather directly. As it was rightly noted in Sana Camara’s article Birago Diop’s poetic contribution to the ideology of Negritude: “He (Birago) defines life as a perpetual movement of recomposition, with the soul’s revitalization taking effect through cosmic elements. In postulating the permanence of organic matter, Birago Diop seeks in particular to establish a link of interdependence between past and future…” (Camara, 2002, p. 101). In other words, unlike what was the case with Proust, Diop assesses the past through the lenses of nature’s impersonification – that is, he does not think of the concept of past terminologically but rather spiritually, which in its turn reveals essentially primitive workings of author’s psyche. As it is the case with most people in Third World, they are being rarely capable of addressing life’s challenges by the mean of actively opposing the emanations of surrounding reality – instead, they tackle these challenges by striving to appease nature. And, the best way to do it, is adopting an essentially animistic stance in life, when the role of one’s individuality in shaping objective reality is being intentionally downplayed. In its turn, this explains why in his poetic and literary works Biop promoted an utterly pantheist outlook on how the past relates to the present and future – the author’s existential inexpressiveness prevented him from being able to draw a methodological line between these two concepts.

In Bishop’s eyes, there can be no clearly defined difference between the present and the past – after all, there is not much difference between how the author’s ancestors lived in the past and how his contemporaries live in the present. This is exactly why in his works, Bishop glorifies the concept of tradition as such that, while deriving out of past, provides guiding light to African natives in the present. The fact that such his outlook on the subject matter is being conceptually fallacious, had never even occurred to the author. Unfortunately, the same can be said about contemporary admirers of Bishop’s literary legacy, who are being incapable of understanding the simple fact that the notions of ‘closeness to nature and ‘tradition’ are being synonymous with the notion of intellectual backwardness.

Given the fact that Leslie Silko had made a point in trying to actively undermine the validity of euro-centric notions, it would only be natural to expect her literary representations of the past/memory to be metaphysically related to that of Biop. The reading of her novel Ceremony alone substantiates the validity of such our suggestion, because just as it is being the case with Biop, in her novel Silko refers to the main character’s (Tayo) memory as being endowed with clearly defined collectivist subtleties. In her article Violence, trauma, and cultural memory in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, Alexandra Ganser was able to define the main motif of this Silko’s novel with perfect exactness: “The collective trauma also translates from generation to generation and often remains unspoken and tabooed for a long time” (Ganser, 2004, p. 147). In other words, if a particular Native individual had suffered from the injustice of being provided with the fruits of civilization in the past, his or her descendants have a legitimate reason to keep complaining about it on a full-time basis, even today. According to Silko, practicing ‘spirituality’ by indulging in never-ending tribal warfare, in time free from looking for eatable bugs and plants, is being so much better as compared to living a civilized life of comfort and intellectual advancement in a city, built by ‘blue-eyed devils’.

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Nevertheless, it is important to understand that there is a certain rationale behind these kinds of suggestions, on Silko’s part. And, for us to define the essence of this rationale, we would have to refer to the earlier point we have made about Biop’s representations of the past. Just as it is being the case with Bishop, in Ceremony Silko never ceased projecting the past upon the present, to expose present as ‘utterly wicked’ – a usual agenda of people not overly burdened with intelligence, who nevertheless believe that they have been given a mission of restoring society’s ‘moral integrity’, such as Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, Marxists and nowadays – the enforces of multiculturalism. In its turn, this explains why the memories of the past, on Tayo’s part, are being depicted by Silko as utterly incompatible with the realities of modern living: “Their (White people’s) medicine drained memory out of his (Tayo’s) thin arms and replaced it with a twilight cloud behind his eyes” (Silko, 1977, p. 15). Therefore, to be able to get in touch with their cultural roots and to take the repossession of their past, natives must never cease demanding from the government to be given brand-new SUVs and to be provided with an exemption from paying taxes.

The conclusions of this paper can be formulated as follows:

  1. The main difference between Proust’s representations of the past, on one hand, and between Bishop and Silko’s representations of the past, on another, is the fact that; whereas, Proust refers to the past as an ideal substance, a ‘thing in itself, a subject of noble melancholy, Biop and Silko refer to the past as essentially a moral paradigm, which should play an active role in shaping contemporaries’ behavior.
  2. The main similarity between Proust’s view of the past and that of Biop and Silko, is the fact all three authors tend to project their past experiences upon the present, and not the vice versa, which in its turn, reveals them being a somewhat infantile individual.
  3. The particulars of how all three authors assess past are being reflective of specifics of their ethnocultural affiliation, which in its turn reflects the varying extent of their ability to effectively address the challenges of a present.

Works Cited

  1. Diop, B. (1966). Tales of Amadou Koumba. Translated by Blair, D. London: Oxford University Press.
  2. Ganser, A. (2004). Violence, trauma, and cultural memory in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony. Revista Atenea 24(1), 145-62.
  3. Proust, M. 1913 [2008]. Swann’s way. Translated by Moncrieff, S. New York: Forgotten Books.
  4. Silko, L. 1977 [1986]. Ceremony. New York: Penguin

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