On Reflection, Representation, and Action

As I’ve reflected on the past in preparation for a new year, I have thought carefully about my academic pursuits during graduate school, and my thoughts have been poignantly centered on the phrase “never forget.” I started out 2015 taking a theory class focused on trauma and memory, taught by BYU professor Trent Hickman. In that class, we explored the complicated aspects of memory and witnessing especially in regards to traumatic events. Consequently, much of our discussion focused on the Holocaust and victims of genocide. I developed my master’s thesis out of theories and concepts I learned about in class, and I am writing about victim/perpetrator relationships in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. I have spent several months exploring theories about empathy and sympathy in relation to the novella as I move forward with that project. My year ended in Washington DC, where I was able to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). At the end of the tour, in the solemn, reflective Hall of Remembrance, an inscription from Deuteronomy is etched into glass near the eternal flame: “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”

In the trauma theory class, we discussed the problem of commodifying the Holocaust, and the omnipresent problem of representation—by choosing to represent certain aspects of an event, you naturally have to leave some things out. How, then, do you stay true to an event without over aestheticizing it or trivializing it? Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich discusses these challenges, stating of Holocaust museums in particular, “The visitor may enter the museum and may survey the past by reentering, so to speak, the places of history depicted in the exhibits. However, as [Jean] Améry admonishes us, although one may return to the places of the past, such a reentrance is never a recovery of lost time as well, and the rupture, or caesura, in German Jewish history remains irreparable.” Thus, part of the responsibility patrons bear when they visit Holocaust museums is to remember, not only that history cannot be repaired, but that people cannot come close to experiencing events of the Holocaust. Additionally, as Hansen-Glucklich notes, the artifacts that are placed in the museum, the design, and the representation “do not simply illustrate the story being told; rather, they are the story, and they largely determine how we remember the past and, therefore, how we understand the present.” Representation, then, becomes critical to how we perceive some of the most catastrophic events in the world and in turn shapes our memory of the events, and it compels us toward action. Such a responsibility warrants the fear of commodifying the Holocaust through trivial representations of an event that can never be represented.

However, the USHMM is designed with the purpose of leading people to contemplate about the Holocaust and to inspire them to effect change in their own communities. Part of the museum’s mission states that the museum strives to “encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.” A unique aspect of USHMM is that it looks to the present and the future in its representations, reminding its visitors that violence and horrific tragedy are not a thing of the past. Currently, they have an exhibit that features the crisis in Syria, and they put out a statement encouraging the U.S. to help the refugees. Part of it states, “While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.” This statement is particularly noteworthy after reviewing how leaders of the United States failed to offer aid or refuge to many of the refugees during the Holocaust. These past actions, or rather lack of actions, necessitate our contemporary responsibility to learn from the past by accepting refugees now and to do justice to the statement often uttered: “Never forget.”

The USHMM museum setup, with its current design showcasing problems of the past and problems of the present, encourages people toward action, battling the problem that Elaine Scarry articulates in her essay “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People.” She notes, “Pushkin provided a stunning portrait of how we come out of the opera, absorbed with compassion for those on stage, not seeing the cabdriver and horses who are freezing from their long wait to carry us home.” Our responsibility as humanities scholars, and as citizens who consume artistic representation, is to battle this disparity of feeling between representation and reality. To make our representations and our work valid, such feelings should be present in how we treat current events, how we vote, how we participate in democracy, and how we translate our work to the public. Representation can be powerful, but it is only as powerful as the actions that stem from those who consume it.

Written by Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern

Photo by Smash the Iron Cage (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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1 Comment

  1. Travis Anderson says:

    Insightful and timely reflections, Brittany–especially your closing remarks on the convergence of memory and public action. These ideas are particularly interesting to me because of my own work on narrative, where I have also been trying to argue (from a philosophical perspective) that any representation of a story becomes the story. My position is perhaps a bit more radical than that of Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich, however, since I’m inclined to think that representations don’t just selectively illustrate aspects of an event, inevitably distorting its truth; rather, they constitute that truth.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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