Sunday, May 22, 2005

A Ricoeurian License Plate

When I first saw a Quebecois license plate, I was bothered by its slogan. Je me souviens (I remember) seemed out of balance. French syntax and grammar allow for the possibility of remembering without a direct object; the act or remembering is reflexive, bringing the person into closer association with the thing that s/he remembers.

In the Quebecois slogan, there is no object that is named, only an actor who is acting on nothing. The reflexive pronoun sits out there, without reference to a specific event or object being remembered, suggesting something personal about the act of remembering. Perhaps it is a political statement: the memory of Nouvelle France can be implied, but need not be made explicit, against the wishes of Canada.

As a historian, I would call Quebecois nostalgia of pre-1754 era as more myth than history. They are separated from the Catholic monarchy for which they long not just by incorporation into the British domain, but also several French revolutions and upheavals. (Watch Widow of Saint-Pierre to see the course of French history in Canada).

Perhaps Je me souviens does not imply something that is being remembered. It defines the Quebecoises and Quebecoisese as people who remember, who long, who feel nostalgic for the past. Memory is itself resistance, and in the process of remembering they project themselves into the past.

The late Ricoeur made this point numerous times. In the beginning of Memory, History, Forgetting, he says that memory is not just about the object of the past, but the relationship between the subject and the object of memory. Moreover, the definition of the subject of memory — I, the person who remembers — becomes clear through the process of remembering. In a recent interview, Ricoeur said that we must differentiate between the memory and rememberance:
Il faut commencer par le mot «souvenir», parce qu'il se trouve qu'en français on distingue le souvenir et la mémoire. En commençant par le souvenir, je suis donc en face de la difficulté majeure, à savoir qu'est présente à l'esprit une image de ce qui n'existe plus - le passé: c'est le rapport entre présence à l'esprit et absence dans la réalité, c'est-à-dire le révolu.
Memory does more than attempt to recover the past — its reality, its historicity — it puts the individual into the past.

Reflecting on this, I cannot help but feel a malaise over the culture of rememberance. Each monument put up in a capital city, be it Washington or Berlin, represents people rather than events. Abstraction cannot hold the people who want to find themselves in the past, even in its vastness. They must be marked by name.



At 6:14 PM, Blogger Brdgt said...

As someone who grew up seeing the that license plate every day I always just thought "bitter much?"


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