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Art Historian Dora Apel Queries What We Choose to Remember

In Calling Memory into Place, art historian and cultural critic Dora Apel explores the relationship between collective and personal memory and place in a series of reflective essays that are by turns erudite and personal.

Calling Memory into Place
Dora Apel

Rutgers University Press

September 2020


There is a frequently quoted passage from Walter Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History in which he riffs on Paul Klee's 1920 artwork Angelus Novus:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Within months of writing this reflection on history as a panorama of destruction in 1940, Benjamin apparently committed suicide at the border between Spain and France in despair that his escape from the Nazis was about to fail.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The Catalan town of Portbou on the Mediterranean Sea where Benjamin supposedly took the fatal dose of morphine that ended his life at age 48, has a monument dedicated to him by Israeli artist Dani Karavan titled Passages: Homage to Walter Benjamin. A corridor of rusted Corten steel installed on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea brackets a stairway leading down toward the shoreline with its crashing waves below; a thick sheet of glass prevents further descent off the cliff to the beach and is inscribed with another quote from Benjamin on the tendency of certain kinds of memory to be occluded by 'official' history. Thoughts on this homage to the ill-fated philosopher-critic is the opening chapter of art historian and cultural critic Dora Apel's new book Calling Memory into Place.

Apel begins by taking note of the uncertain circumstances surrounding Benjamin's untimely demise: Benjamin was reportedly carrying a briefcase containing a manuscript, which disappeared and has never been recovered. (Speculation has it that the manuscript was the final draft of the legendary Arcades Project, an incomplete version of which had been left with renegade Surrealist-pornographer George Bataille as Benjamin fled Paris.) Benjamin was traveling with photographer Henny Gurland, who claimed to have been present at his death and sought to cover up the suicide by destroying two notes he had supposedly written, one for her and one for Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno. But the coroner's report contains no mention of morphine, and Benjamin's remains--which were first interred in a Catholic cemetery in a case of mistaken identity and then transferred to a collective grave--can no longer be found to verify any toxicology. Then there is the theory that Gurland herself was a Soviet agent who, in fact, murdered Benjamin and fabricated the suicide story.

These inconsistencies and the complex legacy of the person to whom Passages is dedicated, prompt Apel to ponder the nature of public monuments and other forms of commemoration and their function as repositories of meaning, collectively and individually. Who has the power to determine what merits preservation and for the benefit of whom? What is the significance of place in commemoration? How is memory physically embodied? How might forms of commemoration be received depending upon the audience? How might meanings change over time, and what happens to those commemorations that might be considered no longer valid? How is validity even determined?

With characteristic incisiveness and erudition, Apel brings these questions to bear on a broad range of cases, including makeshift memorials and other gestures from the Movement for Black Lives, monuments to the Confederacy and those against America's legacy of racism, Holocaust memorials, and the work of individual artists and other cultural producers who command our attention. She also directs that same unflinching gaze to her own experience of trauma.

Photo of memorial to George Floyd by F. Muhammad from Pixabay

A trenchant observation Apel makes early on is how, with few exceptions (the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC comes to mind), memorializing has increasingly abandoned redemptive themes and imagery for those of loss and other forms of trauma. And to be sure, a whole new field of Critical Trauma Studies has emerged--so new that there isn't even a Wikipedia page for it yet--to contemplate how Benjamin's Angel of History, its trail of devastation unfolding to the horizon, has come to dominate the collective conscious.

A particularly topical discussion, in the wake of the recent demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, is taken up in Part II of Calling Memory into Place, where Apel considers the reverberations of America's racialist origins. The site for this discussion is Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy and the location of the First White House of the Confederacy memorial. Montgomery is also considered the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King took up his first pastoral appointment at age 25 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, setting off the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

One of the main questions in considering memorialization is not just what is being commemorated but also overlooked. And as Apel observes, there are many places in Montgomery where the fact of slavery is either completely omitted or obscured. There is no mention of slavery at the First White House of the Confederacy where Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who enslaved more than 200 people, lived with his family for a year before moving to Richmond, Virginia, when the capital relocated in 1861. A marker in Court Square downtown identifies it as the 'historical hub of business in Montgomery', making no mention of the fact that its main commerce was the buying and selling of human beings at a time when it came to surpass New Orleans as the most active center of the domestic slave trade. (In 2017, a plaque marking Montgomery's role in the slave trade was erected a few blocks from Court Square by the Black Heritage Council of the Alabama Historical Commission.)

A counterpoint to Montgomery's identity as the 'Cradle of the Confederacy' is the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit founded in the city in 1989 to promote racial justice and criminal justice reform. In addition to its advocacy work, the EJI also founded The Legacy Museum, which chronicles the history of racial oppression in the United States from enslavement to mass incarceration, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the Black victims of lynching and other acts of racial terrorism.

The commemorative significance of place in The Legacy Museum is marked by the fact that it is built on a site where enslaved people were warehoused before being delivered to their enslavers; it also displays soil collected from known lynching sites. Place is more symbolically represented in the central pavilion of the National Memorial, also known as the National Lynching Memorial, in its 805 hanging coffin-shaped steel objects identifying counties across the nation where a documented lynching took place, along with the names of the victims where known, as compiled by the EJI in its report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. (For an analysis of lynching documentation, see Apel's 2004 study Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob.)

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration chronicles the history of racial injustice in America. Photo: Soniakapadia (CC By SA-4.0 / Wikipedia)

* * *

In his landmark 1981 book, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, literary theorist Fredric Jameson famously writes: 'History is what hurts'. For Apel, a primary site where commemorative effects are called into place is the body itself. And the essays in Calling Memory into Place become increasingly personal in the book's second half.

The daughter of Polish Jews who survived the horrors of Hitler's Final Solution, Apel has studied various expressions of trauma and their transmission through culture over time for nearly 20 years, since the publication of her first book, Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing (Rutgers UP, 2002). Where that book generally looks at the traumatic event and its aftereffects at a distance, surveying the work of artists who meditate on the Holocaust but did not personally experience it, Calling Memory into Place, in the later sections, strips away the academic analysis to get down to the way that history hurts not in the abstract but as embodied in the flesh.

In Part III, the first essay recounts Apel's journey with her husband and teenage daughter after her parents' deaths to eastern Poland in search of their ancestral home. Much of what Apel hoped to find of her family's Jewish origins was gone, destroyed first by the Nazis during the Second World War and subsequently overwritten by postwar development. With the help of a guide in the town where her mother was born, Apel found the site by a river described in a memoir by a survivor she once read where hundreds of Jews were executed, perhaps including her own grandparents, and interred in unmarked mass graves now overgrown with grass and otherwise peaceful, except for the commemorative associations of those aware of the place's significance.

What Apel is unable to discern firsthand, she reconstructs with research. Even in these sections, she brings personal reflections to bear, more so than might have been gleaned from much of her previous writing. Although she never uses the term, Apel masterfully investigates what the Situationists term psychogeography and how physical locations are emotionally experienced. A visit with her daughter to Auschwitz-Birkenau is informed by Apel's decades of research into the Holocaust but derives its power from thoughts of her cousin who was held there during the war and subjected to the gruesome medical experiments of Josef Mengele, preventing her from ever having more children (she subsequently miscarried seven times) after the four-year-old daughter she was forced to abandon when the Nazis rounded her up and sent her to the camps.

The dark shadow of the Holocaust looms over Part IV in which Apel delves into much of the family history that set the stage for her development as a person and her agenda as a writer and researcher. After the war with their previous lives in ruins, her parents lived for a time in a displaced persons camp in Germany before emigrating to the United States. It was there that her mother, who had been encouraged to tell the authorities she was pregnant as a ruse to receive extra rations, discovered that she was, in fact, with child. Giving birth to a son by caesarean section in a hospital in Berlin, the last thing her mother heard before yielding to the ether was the nurse's remark to the doctor, 'You know she's a Jew.'

Photo of The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin (Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay)

The details Apel discloses can get raw. The cousin who had been interred in Auschwitz-Birkenau learned after the war that a Polish woman had gone to the Gestapo to identify the location where Jewish women and children, including her daughter, were hiding. The Gestapo agent sent to investigate the situation found the nine children and their four elderly caretakers and calmly shot them each in the head, one right after another. Perhaps the most stunning disclosure is her father's revelation over a bowl of soup at Seder that, during the war, his first wife and daughter, who had been in hiding, were betrayed by another Jew and perished in the genocide. When the man turned up at the same Siberian slave labor camp where her father was being held, he claimed that, having discovered the betrayer's identity, he killed him. Although her mother maintained that she did not know whether the story was true or not, Apel continues to take him at his word.

The final essay is devoted to Apel's battle with breast cancer. Here, Apel takes her cue from artist Hannah Wilke, whose last work Intra-Venus (1992-1993), documents her physical transformation and decline due to the chemotherapy and bone transplants she underwent to treat the lymphoma that ultimately killed her at age 53. Exhibited posthumously, the work repudiates the 'personal shame' imposed on patients due to the clinical practices of institutionalized medicine. In a similar vein, as it were, Apel unflinchingly recounts her experience with the difference that she has survived to tell the tale.

This last chapter was personally difficult for me to read as I lost my partner of 40 years to cancer at the beginning of this year. But I found much that resonates in Apel's narrative, in all of its visceral specificity, and deeply appreciated what she and her family went through and how they confronted every challenge. One detail that has continued to stick with me is her acknowledgment of the magical thinking one often engages in--Apel terms it 'Resilience through denial'--when faced with the possibility of mortality, whether one's own or that of a loved one. And I did take comfort in her recognition that, 'The care of others is the most important part of healing.'

I must disclose that I have known Apel professionally for nearly two decades and have seen her intellectual rigor, piercing inquisitiveness, and investigative powers on display on several occasions. So I did take pleasure in reading about her sparring with healthcare providers over institutional notions of 'the standard care' in medical practice and their often gendered bias when it comes to female patients. I laughed out loud when, in debating with her surgeon about a certain procedure, Apel concludes the discussion with, 'Is that your best argument?' Needless to say, she prevails.

In the brief conclusion, Apel ties the seemingly disparate parts of Calling Memory into Place together by observing that:

Just as the body is continuous with the mind, so is personal memory continuous with collective memory and past continuous with the present, each mediating the other and making memory, identity, and culture subject to change and transformation under changing personal and historical circumstances.

Apel brings it all to bear in this extraordinary book.

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