Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lieux de mémoire

As a historian of art I am, of course, obsessed with the past, and as many of these entries reveal, with the discovery of the physical traces of the past that remain visible on the landscape. I am also currently writing the section of my book's introduction that deals with theories of memory and commemoration. Here are some notes I took from an essay by Robert Nelson on the Hagia Sophia:

The tourist/flaneur: “For such an audience, Hagia Sophia can be understood as what Pierre Nora has termed a place or site of memory (lieu de mémoire), as opposed to an environment of memory (milieu de mémoire), the way the church functioned, I would argue, in the Middle Ages.”
“A milieu de mémoire is communal, belongs to public life, functions through a network of associations with diverse places, spaces, and groups, relies upon metonymic constructions, and, like human memory, condenses, abridges, alters, displaces, and projects fragments of the past, making them alive in the present for particular groups.” They change over time, exist in the present, their representations “favor the present tense.”
“In contrast, lieux de mémoire, like the discourses that conserve and analyze them, employ the past tense to describe the depersonalized object and assume that a gulf separates past and present.”

[Robert S. Nelson, "Tourists, Terrorists, and Metaphysical Theatre at Hagia Sophia,” in Nelson, Robert S., and Margaret Olin, ed. (2003). Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p 74.]

A lot of what we have been seeing lately are lieux de mémoire, like the Egyptian obelisk that stands as a monument to French colonialism in the Place de la Concorde, or the Tuileries gardens, preserved in the absence of the long-burned-down palace. St-Denis is like this, with its royal effigies in a state that has no king; St-Denis is still an active site of Catholic worship, so I wonder whether the parishioners of the church feel any kind of connection to Pepin and Bertha and the rest of them, or whether they feel that they've merely been allowed to conduct religious services in what is properly a state-run memorial. The part of the church that contains the effigies is separated from the part which contains the altar and pews (chairs actually) by an iron railing, and the "necropolis" (basically the apsidal chapels and crypt, plus the upper aisles of the nave) can only be entered by those who buy a ticket. The gigantic Gothic tomb of King Dagobert is the only one which can be approached from the sanctuary. So the parishioners of St-Denis really only have half a church, a rather strange situation.

The interior of Notre-Dame (not its magnificently restored and cleaned exterior) seems to function more as a milieu de mémoire, in that not only is it an active site of worship, but also, there is little or no information visible in the church about what has been lost of its historic adornments and treasures. Rather than focus on the missing medieval interior, it proudly displays a cross donated by Haile Selassie and church plate used by Pope John Paul II. The history is secondary to the meaning of the place today, although that's probably not what the thousands of tourists think. One would indeed have to ask a parishioner, or a local person.

The thing that I'm realizing is that when I am searching for the traces of the past, on the ground or in the walls of Paris, I'm really looking for some kind of access to the milieux de mémoire of people of the past. It might be impossible, on some level, to access that kind of relationship between people of the past and the sites they occupied; but it's precisely what I'm interested in - the way in which people used places and images and objects to make meaning of the spaces in which they lived and moved. Ultimately, this is what is motivating my book as well.

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