The Maria Corral Association for Research and Dissemination of Human Values has dedicated its most recent edition of Interdisciplinary Seminars to the theme of “Adolescence: Breaking through incommunication”. In the last session teacher and writer Jaume Cela gave an outstanding presentation on “positive adolescence”. To illustrate his ideas he showed a clip from the film “Storytelling” (1), directed and produced by Todd Solondz from the United States.
A scene of a typical American family about to eat supper appeared on the big screen in the conference hall.
To break the tense atmosphere around the dinner table one of the children explains that they are studying the holocaust at school. The mother is intrigued and asks the child to explain what the teachers’ opinion is on the subject. The child explains that they have been assigned the task of interviewing a survivor from the concentration camps and then asks his father if he knows of any.
The mother replies immediately:
- “your grandfather is a survivor!”
- What? Grandpa? But, he came to America…
- Yes, he ran away from Hitler and came to America. He was saved because he ran away. If he hadn’t run away he would have died in the concentration camps, just like his brother and his children.”
The older son, who has remained quiet up to this point, says:
“- so that makes him a survivor?
- Yes, sure… he had to run away.
- The guy who was in the concentration camp would have been a survivor had he managed to save his skin.
- Both your grandfather and us, we are all survivors…”
A tense silence follows.
The older son says:
“But, if Hitler hadn’t persecuted the Jews, grandfather wouldn’t have run away to America, and you wouldn’t have met dad… If it hadn’t been for Hitler… I wouldn’t have been born!”
The father, astounded, sends him away from the table:
- Get out! Get out! Get away from the table!”
However you look at it, we are historical: we are beings that depend on history in order to exist. As Rubio, co-author of the Letter of Peace addressed to the UN states, “anything different to that which influenced our creation would lead to us not existing”. (2) This evidence, so clearly and diaphanously presented to us, when expressed to the father by his son represents such a hard blow that the only thing he can think to say is: Get out! Get away from the table!”
Point IV the Letter of Peace points out that “It is productive to know as much History as possible. But we cannot turn the clock back and change History. We can also see that if History had been different, for better or worse, the future would have also been different. Likewise, through the course of the years there would have been other encounters, other links; other people would have been born, not us. None of those who have the gift of life today, would exist. This does not imply in any way that the evils caused by our forefathers were not really evil. We censure and reject them, and we do not want to repeat them. The surprise of existing will help those living today strive happily to right the wrongs caused by previous generations.”
If we are able to perceive existence as our most precious asset- because without it no other - such as life, love, friendship, freedom, peace -could possible exist- and are able to accept that we are historical beings, fruit of this very history and no other, exactly as it took place, then we will be immune to all historical resentment that could be used to manipulate (historical) memory. Thus, we want history to be revealed and taught to us in the most objective way possible. Family, collective and national history… achievements, mistakes, and even all the misdeeds and injustices… everything takes on a different meaning when one realizes that only this history- and no other- has made your existence possible.
Today no one denies that learning about history is both positive and necessary. However, this does not take away from the fact that we must be wary of how history can be manipulated. Tzvetan Todorov describes the western and specifically the European world as being caught up in a phase where one seems to be obsessed with the cult of memory. He also points out that whilst we must aim to keep memory alive; the legitimacy of consecrating it is questionable. We must be on guard, making sure nothing takes us away from the present, and that we do not lose control of the future. (3)
Another contemporary author, French historian Jacques Le Goff, with expert knowledge on the middle age and an extensive interdisciplinary background, reminds us that memory must only preserve the past when it serves a useful function in the present and the coming future. We should strive to ensure that collective memory helps free men and women rather than weakening them. (4)
In times like ours, when laws are being created in so many countries in order to retrieve historical memory, the evidence expressed in point IV of the Letter of Peace is a framework through which history can be retrieved, studied and elaborated on whilst remaining protected from the very historical resentment that stirs us up and distracts us from our primordial goal, as indicated by both Todorov and Le Goff: the present.
. Storytelling. Director: Todd Solondz. USA (2001).
. Rubio, A. 22 històries clíniques –progressives- de realisme existencial. Edimurta, (1985).
. Todorov, T. Los abusos de la memoria. Paidós (2000).
. Le Goff, J. Histoire et mémoire. Paris: Gallimard (1988).