Book Review: Memory, Trauma, and History by Michael S. Roth
From studying history to browsing through photographs, we encounter the past everywhere. In Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past, President Michael Roth delves into the topic of human memory, exploring how our associations with the past play into the broader context of history.
Published this month by Columbia University Press, Roth’s newest book brings together various essays he has written over the past few decades, intriguingly uniting them under this theme.
The book has five sections: “Nineteenth-Century Maladies of Memory,” “History and the Psyche,” “Postmodernism and Cultural Politics,” “Photography and Piety,” and “Risks and Limits of Liberal Education.” These topics may seem discordant at first glance, and the book certainly makes unlikely leaps between different ideas. But if you make an effort to connect the dots, you can see how Roth ties it all together. The final result is a thoughtful and engaging read.
While Roth emphasizes the importance of memory in shaping a historical narrative, he also emphasizes the importance of forgetting, namely, how and why our memories deceive us and how this affects our big-picture perception of history.
This book’s greatest strength is its personalization of history. We can easily construe history as purely factual and academic, but Roth urges us to see how deeply history is entwined with our own memories and our personal associations with the past.
“Narrative memory, which is at the core of historical representation on paper or on film, transforms the past as a condition of retaining it,” Roth writes.
By fusing the concepts of history and memory, Roth provides an intriguing landscape for the study of history itself.
He explores this personal element of history in several ways. He starts out by investigating perceptions of maladies de la mémoire that surfaced in 19th-century French medical community: amnesia, nostalgia, and hysteria. We throw around these terms rather casually today; Roth expertly dissects their origins and places them in the context of the period.
“I hadn’t [previously] done that kind of medical history, working in archives,” Roth told The Argus. “It was a lot of fun.”
Trauma also plays a key role in Roth’s investigation of memory. Drawing from recent historical events, he investigates traumatic experiences and their effect on the psyche—a subject that resurfaces several times in the work.
As Roth demonstrates, humans have struggled to contextualize traumatic events in history because of the profound ways they warp our memories and attitudes. We do not want to trivialize traumatic events by placing them within the storyline of history, but we also do not want to forget that they happened. The Holocaust comes up as a key example.
How can we acknowledge the past while recognizing that our narrative of history will never be completely fluid? Roth devotes much of Part II, “History and the Psyche,” to exploring this issue, turning to key thinkers who have discussed just how destructive trauma can be.
Viewing history through this lens of trauma is unsettling, because it calls into question the validity of our historical understanding. Roth addresses this issue with an interesting twist in the section titled “Photography and Piety.” Because photographs capture snapshots of time, he notes how easily one can lose sight of their context.
“In spite of all, photographs remind us of what cannot be seen, and that is why they matter to the theory of history,” Roth writes.
Roth’s observations about photography in history are among the book’s most memorable moments.
The coda, “Risks and Limits of Liberal Education,” flows naturally from the rest of the discussion. In championing a “pragmatic, reflexive approach” to education, Roth is in his element.
“The nicest part is to see all these essays that I wrote in many different times, in different points in my life, and to see them together,” Roth said. “They feel more unified than I thought they would.”