Mnemonic Etchings

Written by Lorenzo Uribe

This reflection goes back to a question asked three years ago, during a visit to the Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial. We were a small group and were being led through the remains of the women’s camp when  we stepped into one of the structures. “To these barracks they transferred female prisoners before  executing them the next day”, we were told. The guide then proceeded: “Everyone who was moved here  knew they were going to be shot in the morning, they were being given an extra night of torture.”

Inside it was grey and austere; the rows of bunkbeds resembled the picturesso often depicted and slightly bent posts held up the ceiling. One could see how the wood had aged. Then came the question: “What  are those inscriptions on the beds, and the pillars? Someone’s last words?” The answer was no. It turned out people went there to scratch their name, or initials – to leave their little visitor stamp. I had a badly drawn heart right in front of me, there were more like it. Then the tour guide spoke again, and her words  have stayed with me since: “They know no respect, they have lost all memory.” And she was right. 

Is it possible to speak about architecture and death without speaking of architecture and memory? And if so, what could one take from a place such as Auschwitz? Any detached semiotic investigation would be outright distasteful and discussing its meaning in terms of signs and signifiers pathetically unaware. Yet the buildings still stand, and their rooms continue to speak, but what are they saying? Is it something about the past or something about ourselves? If one then announces an architecture of memory; of that  which should not be forgotten, is it an honour to the dead or a necessity for the living?

By giving meaning to the horrors of the past, we assume they should be something more than just a fact. They vibrate and gain the colour of an emotion, of moral magnitude, and when they drive us to tears, they suddenly escape their time to become embedded in the present. Their implications remove them from  the anecdotical and prevent them from turning inconsequentially taxidermical. In attempting to extract  the significance of circumstances gone by, perhaps one might alleviate the deadening amnesia left behind by time.

If one assumes that through memory one can rescue the consequences of time, its debasement carries the attempt to make the past inconsequential, of saying that, ultimately, it did not matter and if so, why not vandalize it? If one assumes that a place like Auschwitz should be remembered, then one also accepts the pain too should be remembered, and so, that there’s a meaning to it. Perhaps in suffering one will  find unavoidable truths, human ones, and the impossibility of making sense out of catastrophe becomes clear when dislocating all feeling from its tragic substance. Wounds don’t heal if they are forgotten, we merely stop remembering that they are open. It was in that precise condition that I was struck by the  incisions in the wood. Their insult was to ignore the pain, to write it off the past and, in the process, to hide our inextricable humanity, to obscure the shadows of our being.

 

Forgetting is a subtler form of not being, of dying.

We remember those things which are no longer with us, those which, through their absence, evidence their mortality. And yet, to remember is to borrow them back from the past, we rescue them from the  land of the dead, and thus they continue to appraise the present and anchor the future. Did they truly  perish? In this way death and memory become kindred sisters, poetically depending on each other yet  refusing to legitimize each other.

If one wonders how a corpse differs from a ghost one might find the answer brings light to the matter. The former is languid and stale, but visible. The latter shimmers and haunts us yet remains invisible. Still, neither is truly living; regardless, we are captured by their presence. We take care of the remains of our  beloved ones as if death made their body holier. We dress them for their funeral, and, in their best attire, they honour us while we mourn over their coffin. The decorum of death reminds us of the legitimacy of memory, it implies that the treatment of the body nourishes the spirit, and both affect the present.

Similarly, the way we approach ruins, monuments and all which gives circumstance to the sorrows of lives gone by ramifies into the immediate moment. We do not remember to understand the past, we remember to understand ourselves, and so you cannot deface history without losing a part of yourself, without dying a little.

By inscribing your name in the place of history, you are giving over a part of yourself, thus making  caprice the makeup of injury. In this way, with a signature, a gesture replaces the identity of the  one who signs, the movement of his hand is petrified and his body, crystallized1. One can gauge the appropriateness of memory, to the extent it aids in the unravelling of the present. Wrong ways of  remembering rob us of ourselves, and to purge all pain from our memory is to claw at our being. There’s no being without suffering.

An architecture of remembrance honours the pain and thus prevents death from being  irrecoverable. That which exists because of men is tainted by their mortality and, in granting it some  permanence, we might extend the privilege to ourselves2. It is a way to cheat finitude. A similar  sentiment was echoed by Ruskin, who also spoke about memory and made it his sixth lamp:

There are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality; it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.3

But he forgot to remind us of how easy forgetting can be, hence the importance of learning to remember. Not so much so as to escape death, but rather to flee from nothingness, from the big empty, from the  place where all pain might become meaningless.

Tragedy also creates good reasons to forget, one can also suppose them to be powerful ones too. If you find yourself hurting, can one not be forgiven for wanting to leave the suffering behind? The future mandates beatific visions – green pastures and adamantine lyres, but you will scarcely find these amidst the roar of history. Can someone who has truly gone through hell come back to then believe in fields of gold? Or are these reserved for the innocent and the pure?

The scenography of paradise can give shape to utopia, it provides an image to the place that will  emancipate us from pain. But it is one thing to say that were no tears in Eden, another to promise that Eden will have no tears. One position clarifies we were expelled from paradise, reminding us of the loss, the other asserts that to be free of all suffering is within the reach of our arms. One grounds reality in  pain, the other wishes to escape from the state of reality.

In the grand march for progress, as Kundera would attest, there are no obstacles4, paradise is unavoidable, and the only way is forth. Why should such bliss be hindered if the long march is great?5 But when you  look behind, you realize that life remains there, unmoved. It is he who turns around who can gaze at the vast plateau of troubles and struggle from which humanity comes. The sight cannot be unseen, albeit the  wish comes to us all. The eagerness to forget is the yearning of he who wants to tear his eyes out but who wishes to stay on the road, marching ahead. Freedom would sometimes wish to not be.

The desire to escape from pain, from vast injustice and unnecessary suffering does not guarantee its achievement, particularly if it comes with the prerequisite of renouncing who one is. It is easy to wish for  things to have been different, it might even be the moral thing to do, and you might feel better about it. However, you come from a long march of tears, insurmountably so. There’s a tragic substrate to existence,  and among the stories and fantasies recalled, the scars will still show, and that flesh is real.

Every remembrance is a form of a question, and he who looks back is really looking in, asking who he is. The threat of the past is that of recognition, of who you are and who you are not, and every identity is a  form of finding and a form of making within the boundaries of a given material. If the present is limited, the past was then too, because every form of yesterday was once experienced with the immediacy of today, and history is set in those boundaries. The truth to the past is found at those limits, and by suffering one is made privy to one’s biggest limitations, our own intrinsic flaws and our inability to silence them  completely make for a perennial condition. Being and suffering become inseparable, and we are reminded of that one tragic trope, which somehow continues to find its weight in time.

The material remains of a place such as Auschwitz expand beyond the physical embodiment of genocide. They do not merely annotate a fact but present a mirror filled with terrifying eyes. The idea that history retains a part of our identity can be contentious to some, it lacks the material weight of the present and occurred without ever asking for our opinion. Yet we reject it at our peril; ex nihilo nihil fit, we were made  to exist within the boundaries of a given material, shouting to the wind in an incandescent rage will not undermine that truth; the limitation of our being, the pain we encounter thereon. The etches made in what remains of past horrors will not do away with them, but they might do away with us. To write over them will not ease them, but they will steal away from us. The architecture of memory becomes a mirror of the soul.

1 Restrepo, Fabio. Cartografias de la identidad. Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 1998.
 
2 Ibid
 
3 Ruskin, John. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1849
4 Kundera, Milan. La insoportable levedad del ser. Barcelona: Maxi Tusquets Editores
5 Ibid