15 June 2007

Preserving the past is not easy

We don’t have to be historians or archaeologists or anthropologists or psychologists to know that the past has a grip on us. Almost everyone I know (including me) is troubled by it in some form or the other. Parental correction, sibling rivalry, lack of love, loss, humiliation, oppression… there’s no end to the list of human experiences and emotions which leave us scarred with memories of the past.

It’s not always negative or unhappy experiences that trouble us about the past. Memories of happy and exciting moments, too, have vice-like grips on our minds and our emotions, influencing our responses to the present. No matter how wonderful our pasts have been, it’s the absence of those happy moments that create a vacuum in our lives and cause pain in the present. I guess that’s what loss is all about.

Most of our contemporary fiction and films contain strong, and repeated, elements of memories (strangely, I can’t think of too many Classics which do that) to connect the fragmented narratives. Often, filmmakers and authors use devices such as dreams and photographs (Ingmar Bergman in ‘Wild Strawberries’), letters and diary (Amitav Ghosh in ‘The Hungry Tide’), audio tapes and video (Atom Egoyan in ‘Next of Kin’, ‘Family Viewing’, ‘Exotica’), or, simply, other shorter narratives in the form of recounting a version of the past (Milan Kundera in ‘Identity’).

What I found interesting in these films and novels is that they brought to surface a complication. These devices – images and words – far from being a solution to the filmmaker and the author in recording or narrating the past, actually ran aground when their recordings and narratives disagreed with the actual (authentic) recollections of memories of the persons involved… sometimes catching them by surprise.

Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher, whose treatises on literature, film and fine arts (besides philosophy) are exemplary, had once proclaimed that preserving the past on film is not easy. That, ‘filmic images’ compete with our ‘recollection images’ – i.e. our memories of events not captured on film or audio – making a ‘truthful’ narrative presentation on film rather difficult.

Milan Kundera, in his slim novel, ‘Identity’, seems to suggest that, when recollecting, particularly memories of loved ones, our own version of the past varies abominably, sometimes with drastic differences.

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