Public and Private Memories in France

 

We’re always washing away memories, regardless of how we resolve to remember what it is we’ve experienced or witnessed or undergone or suffered. The daily doings of our ordinary lives tend to replace even large-scale events that affect hundreds or thousands. The everyday overtakes the exceptional. We can long remember slights, but we have a tendency, or at least I do, to let go of the most significant occurrences. How could we not?

The statue of Marianne at the Place de la République has been cleaned. In the days after the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan theater and at several restaurants in the area around République, and in the weeks surrounding the now-dormant “Nuit Debout” movement, it was where people voiced their grief or anger or loss or determination. People left flowers and candles and messages at the base of the statue. On its plinth some folks scrawled graffiti (not all of it related to what had occurred or what they were protesting).

These remembrances or declarations went on for some months, and eventually the statue and the area around it began to resemble less a testimony to the fallen or an affirmation of statehood than a sign of civic disappointment and urban decay. So the city cleaned it up, and Parisians were of several minds about it. Some friends of mine who live near the Place de la République were relieved, because they felt that the statue had become an eyesore. Others I know were irritated that the government would seek to erase the remnants of a communal outpouring of grief. And others simply shrugged as if to say that’s just how things are. Perhaps they’re right.

Because the Place de la République lies on the border of the 3rd, 10th and 11th arrondissements, it’s become an official and unofficial gathering place for demonstrations and concerts (as well as for skateboarders and the homeless). It can also become an ad hoc necropolis. Most statues commemorate dead people, or even, as in the case of Marianne, idealized representations of the spirit of a country. But when a location serves as a continuing testimonial to a public tragedy, at some point the flowers and posters, the scrawls and spray-painted slogans turn into something else: reminders that you haven’t moved on.

Often enough we move on regardless. I can’t really choose what to remember. I recall incidents that seem to have no importance but that remain imprinted on my memory more vividly than some momentous events. I forget most of what I live through, which is a good thing, perhaps. I tend not to hold a grudge, for example, because that’s the kind of memory that doesn’t serve anything other than to breed a powerless discontent.

But I wonder what I have unwittingly committed to memory apart from the discovery of what’s new, if my aim in living part of the year in France is to experience more of the world. I’m sure I have forgotten some of my significant firsts in Paris, in learning how things are done here versus in New York. But is such a first-time memory worth preserving? Or is it better to realize that at some point you know something that you didn’t once know? I can remember when I didn’t speak or read French, but I can’t recall the exact time when my ease in the language began to surpass my uncertainty about how to explain myself or to understand others. Maybe it’s preferable to remain humble at the holes in one’s memory, to be aware that you’re aways learning or always in need of the curiosity that leads to continuing change.

But that’s the individual rather than the collective memory. Collectively, we tend to forget more than we remember, otherwise how could we keep repeating the same mistakes as a people or society? As an individual, I think in terms of being aware of what you might call monumental memory, such as large-scale events, and at the same time of being open to the shifts in a dynamic memory borne of interactions with others on a private or semi-public basis. I know that I’m part of the collective, but I act locally, and that’s more of what counts.

Monumental memory, like all memory, is fallible, and given to mythologizing. That’s all part of nation-building (or history-erasing). But mythologizing is also part of private memory: the stories we tell ourselves of what we’ve seen may not be what we actually saw. I probably misremember some of my experiences here, and I have probably misremembered some of the memories of profoundly disturbing experiences I’ve witnessed.

I wasn’t here in Paris for the attacks at the beginning of November last year, but I remember well the fear in the voices of the friends who lived nearby when I spoke with them on the phone as everything unfurled. I could only picture what went on that night, but I have a memory that’s both collective and personal, because of what some friends experienced firsthand. I was at the site of the attacks on September 11, one of thousands who saw and lived through those terrible hours, but even if my experiences in New York on that fateful day remain vivid, I have probably created a memory that has somehow, inadvertently, altered what I lived through. I’ve let go of some things, imagined others and maybe even created some from what others told me. I have probably combined the monumental and the private to arrive at a personal recollection.

It’s unlikely that the washing of the Marianne statue at the Place de la République will erase the memory of the horrific attacks in Paris, even if the candles and slogans are no longer there. We cannot really control what we remember, even if we tell ourselves we shall never forget, even if we build memorials to loss. Our memories are a shifting reimagining of the way we see ourselves in the world, or of how we consider what we’ve done as we arrive at a sense of who we think we want to be, or have become.

 

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