Monday, July 18, 2016

Commemoration and remembrance

Memorial service for capt. Emile Driant, fallen in the first days of the Battle of
Verdun, Feb. 22, 1916 (photo taken Feb. 24, 2012 at Nancy) (see note below)

From talking about commemoration in the sense of memorialization to talking about remembering is only a small step. Commemoration is remembering in a certain way. When you commemorate you bring to the mind something that happened, often together with others, although the latter is not necessary. Usually we don’t commemorate the complete event but only certain aspects. Take, for example, how the Netherlands commemorates the Second World War. In the evening of May 4 the Dutch remember the people fallen or killed in that war, on May 5 the liberation, the end of the war, is celebrated. In other countries it’s done on the same day but never at the same time.
People who organize a commemoration for the first time, say one year or several years after the event, often still remember what happened because they went through or saw the event that is literally remembered (recollected) or they have known the person or persons remembered. We can say that a commemoration is then an institutionalized remembrance (recollection). But when a commemoration is not once-only but becomes a tradition, the number of people who actually saw the event or knew the person(s) remembered gradually disappear and the commemoration is performed by people who know what happened or who know the person(s) remembered only from stories, oral or written: the remembrance becomes derivative or secondhand.
Actually this is not very different from how I remember from my own personal experience. Experiences are stored as memories in the mind and when they are called up they become remembrances of what happened. But how are they called up? If memories are not triggered they fade away and will be forgotten and lost. But how to prevent our memories from being lost? There is a simple solution , or so it seems: Write them down or make a picture. Then they are stored for ever, like information on the hard disk of your computer. Just as you can look for secondhand information by calling it up from your hard disk (or from the “hard disk” of the Internet), you can call up your memories by opening the notebook in which you have written your experiences or by taking your photo album. I often use the second method. When I look at an old photo taken by myself I often immediately know what it is and where I have taken it and under which circumstances. However, there is something strange: Usually I know only the story directly related to the photo and not its wider context. About the way I came there on the site I often have only vague remembrances. So, if I see a photo of my mother, I remember, for instance, that I took it on a trip with her – and that she enjoyed such trips – and I know yet the exact location, but I hardly remember which trip it was, about when and such things, if I do at all. Actually, I remember things that a lot of other people could read from that photo, too, especially if they know me. In that sense, my remembrance has a shade of being secondhand. Then it’s only one step from seeing a photo and knowing that you have taken it, where you have taken it and so on, to thinking that you have taken the photo and know the circumstances that you have done it: You have become a false witness of your own experiences. I think that it’s something that happens more often than people realize. But if the remembrance called up is true, it can become a kind of personal mini-commemoration: If you are in the mood or have an urge, it’s often good to take old things in your hand, your photos of something special or not so special, or your notebooks with what you did, and give the past a moment’s thought as we sometimes do with others in a public ceremony.

Note: Actually I should have put here another photo, but since I don’t want to publish too private photos on the Internet, I have chosen one of a public commemorative ceremony.

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