Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Memory, Memorial, and Myth

When those who can remember have all died, we must move from memory to memorial. Memorial is the institutionalization of memory. It succeeds to the extent that it provides symbols that can call to mind what cannot possibly be remembered (because it was never experienced by those left to "remember"). But, whether deliberately or not, the symbols that are designed to create memories of things we have not experienced often engage myths. That is, memorials often mythologize their subjects.

This is an issue for theologians, certainly, but it is also an issue for political scientists--and their assistants, the historians. It is not enough to know--to call to mind--what happened on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389; one also needs to know what has been made of the battle in modern Serbian consciousness. It is not enough to know something of what transpired aboard United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001; one must also know how that event is being mythologized in the United States.

I'm late with this commentary on Memorial Day, but James Carroll was not, and he touched on some of these things I've been thinking about.