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The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

Chapter:
(p.168) Chapter 6 The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding
Source:
Collective Memory and the Historical Past
Author(s):
Jeffrey Andrew Barash
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226399294.003.0008

This chapter places in a critical perspective recent forms of historical skepticism voiced above all by Roland Barthes and Hayden White. In the fields of literary criticism and historical theory, each of these authors respectively reduces the historian's representations to the imaginative projection of present constructions onto a past to which they are ineluctably foreign. Since, according to this view, the claim to historical knowledge proves to be an illusory expression of present concerns, historical skepticism undercuts any meaningful distinction that might be drawn between collective memory retained by present generations and the remote historical past beyond all living memory. To refute historical skepticism, this chapter draws less on historical works themselves than on novels. According to its argument, the novels of Walter Scott, Marcel Proust, and W. G. Sebald, highlight the fact that the "reality" of the historical past in its distinction from the present corresponds not only to an assemblage of verifiable details but also to patterns of contextual nuance implicit in the past's symbolic structure. Through an exercise of the "historical sense", novels are capable of sounding the finite depths of collective memory and of revealing the dynamics of its passage into the historical past.

Keywords:   historical sense, historical skepticism, Roland Barthes, Hayden White, Walter Scott, cultural memory, burden of history, W. G. Sebald, Marcel Proust, contented memory

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