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The Metaphysics of Memory

[1]654 words

Translated by Michael O’Meara

Czech translation of this English version: here [2]

“Memory” is a much abused word. But so too is the word “love,” which doesn’t mean it can’t be used in its fullest sense. It’s the force of “memory,” transmitted within the bosom of the family, that enables a community to endure, despite all that seeks its dissolution. It’s the long “memory” of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Jews, and other such peoples that has enabled them to surmount the perils and persecutions to which every people is heir. To their disadvantage, due to the rupture of their history, Europeans have been deprived of their memory.

I am reminded of this rupture every time students ask me to speak about Europe’s future. For whenever the word “Europe” is pronounced, it evokes a host of ambiguities. To some, it evokes the European Union, either positively — or negatively insofar as it’s not a “power.” To avoid confusion, I always specify that the Europe of which I speak is not Europe in its political sense. Guided by Epictetus’s principle of distinguishing between “that which depends on us and that which doesn’t depend on us,” I know that it depends on me to base my life on authentic European values, whereas I have no say on what politics Europe pursues. I also know that without an animating idea, there is no coherent action, [political or otherwise].

This animating idea is rooted in the consciousness of Europe’s civilization, a consciousness that transcends its regions and nations. You can be a Breton or a Provençal, French and European, son of the same civilization which has endured over the ages, since its first crystallization in the Homeric poems.

“A civilization,” Fernand Braudel says, “is a continuity, even when it profoundly changes, such as when adopting a new religion, for it incorporates its old values in the new, retaining its substance.” To this continuity, we are obliged to be who we are.

Diverse as they are, men exist only in that which distinguishes them from one another — clans, peoples, nations, cultures, civilizations — and not by their animality, which is universal. Sexuality is common to all humanity, as is the necessity to eat. But love, like gastronomy, is distinct to each civilization, that is, it’s the result of a long conscious effort. As Europeans conceive it, love was already evident in the Homeric poems, as exhibited by such distinct characters as Helen, Nausicâa, Hector, Andromache, Ulysses, and Penelope. The sort of love evinced through these characters is completely different from that found in the great Asian civilizations, whose refinement and beauty are a matter of record.

The idea that is made of love is no more frivolous than the tragic sense of history that characterizes the European spirit. It defines the civilization, its immanent spirit, and each person’s sense of life, in the same way the idea shapes one’s work. Is the sole point of work to make money, as they believe across the Atlantic, or, besides ensuring a just return, is it to realize oneself in a job well done, even in such apparently trivial things as keeping one’s house. This idea urged our ancestors to create beauty in their most humble and most lofty efforts. To be conscious of the idea is to give a metaphysical sense to “memory.”

To cultivate our “memory,” to transmit it in a living way to our children, to contemplate the ordeals that history has imposed on us–this is requisite to any renaissance. Faced with the unprecedented challenges that the catastrophes of the twentieth century have imposed on us and the terrible demoralization it has fostered, we will discover in the reconquest of our racial “memory” the way to respond to these challenges, which were unknown to our ancestors, who lived in a stable, strong, well-defended world.

Source: “Métaphysique de la mémoire,” La Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire n. 40 (January-February 2009).

Internet source: http://euro-synergies.hautetfort.com/archive/2009/02/05/d-venner-metaphysique-de-la-memoire.html [3].