The Film of Memory

Some explanation

Historical memory is most often a matter of textual presence, and this paper constitutes an absence, which somehow seems fitting. As I remember it, the earliest version of “The Film of Memory” was given as a conference paper for the first Australian History and Film Conference in 1981. I have to write “as I remember it”, because the volume published after the conference (The first Australian history and film conference papers, edited by Anne Hutton, Australian Film and Television School, 1982) does not include “The Film of Memory” in its list of the papers not submitted for publication – or anywhere else.

I did not want that version of the paper published because I did not think I had really accounted for the affinity I felt existed between popular film and what Frances Yates had described in The Art of Memory. Over the years I have returned to “The Film of Memory” more than once, expanding it, fiddling with it, and writing notes to myself in a different typeface. I read Terra Nostra and seriously considered junking the paper because Fuentes had said what I wanted to say and done it better (and twice), but instead I fiddled with the paper some more. While Ross Gibson was teaching for a year at La Trobe he gave a paper about photography which evoked Yates, and read another version of this paper, sparking yet more fiddling on my part.

But what remained was still a paper and some notes, not a fully-fledged piece. Until a request from Rick Thompson lead me to re-read it at this late date, I thought the absence of “The Film of Memory” was probably a good thing. This time, however, for the first time I recognised how much of what I would write in the quarter century after was set out there – that is, how often I have repeated myself since. I think this is kind of funny and sad, and I hope you will too.

It also occurred to me that a paper and some notes is not really such a bad thing. I have even used such a formal strategy before. So here it is – a souvenir, nothing else.

Two things to bear in mind if you read what follows. First, it was originally a conference paper, to be read aloud. For that reason what little referencing there is in it is not in any proper academic format, much less this journal’s. Second, my notes have been kept as notes, intruding on the text and using a different typeface from the one used in the main text. At one time or another I wrote about a page of preliminary stuff prefacing the main text and headed it, “Changes”. Those notes constitute a pre-title sequence in this version, and it may be a little jarring to encounter them straight off.

William D. Routt, Melbourne 2005.
It is very tiring to build a robot. I will help you build my robot.
Orson, October 2005

Changes: Add Auerbach, “Figura”? Move section on myth to after discussion of theatre. What is missing in the memory building is the rhetoric, the persuasion, how it is done. What is remembered is a map, not how to make the journey. At the same time, this should be related to iconic history and souvenirs, making things into memories. The theatre should be discussed in relation to thingness as well. Architecture needs more foregrounding, the cosmic ambitions of architecture, the building that is a world or a universe (duplicity), infinity inside (like the Tardis or the Arab tent in the Popeye cartoon). And the continued obfuscation of how precisely these positions are connected: a kind of nominalist or empiricist history. Relation to alchemy?

Development of these ideas to photographic realism in the cinema: filmic image as reality (Pasolini, on the surface).

The next part ought to go back to the myth of the memory art and develop that aspect, rejecting the generic story (of someone cheated who finds revenge) in favour of its specific incarnation. Story seems to be what Arendt thinks history is (but I wonder if I am right to say that). Story is exactly a way of connecting things. Story can be translated, intact, through many media. Story is not event and not meaning. What is the relation of story to action?

Photographic image as trace: not reality and not image, language, speech (event/meaning). This is second level Pasolini as well as first level Derrida. Cinema as transformation (movement first, photography second). History as transformation.

A lot may have to be cut out.

The Film of Memory [1]

Preface and Avertissement

In a report of the Special Event called “History/production/memory” held in conjunction with the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1977, Mark Nash and Steve Neale observed that notions of “the state”, “independence”, “institution” and “avant-garde” were examined by participants in that Event, but nowhere did they suggest that ideas of “history”, “production” or “memory” were discussed. The paper that follows, which originated in a conference presentation in 1981, does discuss those ideas, albeit not from the perspective of the participants in that Event.

The reader who has not time to waste upon the repetition of meaning and who takes some delight in the art of writing, may prefer to forego what follows in favour of the section of Carlos Fuentes’ novel, Terra Nostra, entitled “The theatre of memory”.


History is doubtless dependent upon memory, but memory is not always reckoned historical. Personal memory, for example, is only what I remember as having happened directly to me. This will include some accounts of events – as when someone tells me of an amazing incident which happened to her or when I read of the rise of Napoleon – but only as accounts. What I remember is, in the first instance, bound by the limits of my sensory experience. But a second locus of memory is a collective one. It is what is referred to in the title of a film on the Bibliothèque Nationale: toute la mèmoire du monde. It consists of those records, forever perishing, which we have from the past: writing, picturing, building, noisemaking, the artifacts and concrete witnesses to what is lost utterly.

Now, a distinction can be made in personal memory between all those things which have happened to me and those things which I can remember. Although it has been said that we are, or should be, able to recall everything which has happened to us, I believe there are limits to the efficacy of this recall. As I write I can see a tree outside the window. I run my eyes over the leaves of this tree, registering each one which is visible from where I sit; yet I doubt I will ever remember these leaves sufficiently well to be able to count them (even under hypnosis). Put in another way, I will never be able to reproduce them as accurately as a photograph or a frame of a film might.

Perhaps the number of leaves has been lost forever, but perhaps it is merely in a place inaccessible to me. If it is the latter, it is a memory that is truly unconscious.

Another type of personal memory may be said to be preconscious. In the film Escape from New York characters greet the protagonist with the words, “I thought you were dead.” For years I knew that this was a quotation from another film (and I even suspected that it would be from one directed by Howard Hawks), but could not remember the title of that other film. My memory of it was preconscious, a lurker in shadows.

There are three things here, but the commonsense tripartite distinctions based upon them will vary slightly, according to whether our thinking is to be governed by events (“reality”) or by our relation to them (“memory”). One set distinguishes between what actually happened, what we might remember of what happened, and what we do remember of what happened. Another distinguishes between memory that is actually available, memory that is potentially available, and memory that is not (currently) available at all.

Similar distinctions can be made for collective memory. Whatever is actually remembered, memorialised, by a community – its conscious collective memory – may be thought of as metahistory, and is comprised of the countless histories in circulation at a given time. Yet there is always more available to a collective memory than is ever actually in circulation. This preconscious horde is what we usually call “archives”: the places where records from the past are collected and stored. But in addition to the archives, which we know about and can locate, there are other sources of information about the past which are uncollected or undiscovered. These constitute an unconscious collective memory, perhaps awaiting an awakening to be part of consciousness – that is, part of history.

Proust sought after lost time and, in the end, found it, retrieved it, again. One of the most perturbing qualities of memory is its connection with possessiveness. In French les souvenirs are thoughts or things; but memory in any language seems always to be making things of thoughts: it really does fetishise the past. Much of what is pathetic about contemporary life is encapsulated in the title of an old song, “Among my souvenirs”. It describes perfectly the prospect before us: the place where each of us soon will be, if we are not there already. For the past twenty years and more we in the Occident have been witnessing a nostalgic reification of history, the transformation of conscious collective memory from stories into objects. Buildings, butter churns, pieces of paper, decorative pictures made of hair are lovingly “preserved” and “restored” in the name of the community’s hunger for the past. Warm-toned films – from right and left alike – souvenir the past in the somewhat the same way: in imaged things whose boundaries offer the same security, the same sense of limit, that once was evoked in the certainty of meaning, in those stories of the past whose significance was accepted, if only intuitively, but which not longer carry conviction now that we have ceased to accept the arguments of narrative or the possibility of telling the truth.

The Memory Art

Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory was published in 1966. For various reasons the book generated a deal of interest among Renaissance historians and others. It might even be said to have inspired a cult following. The Art of Memory concerned itself with an aspect of Renaissance thought which had hardly provoked much serious attention among twentieth century historians before, and in a way that intimated arcane links between it and that occult side of the Renaissance which, fashionably and dialectically, balances more commonplace notions of scientific humanism. Yates’ book is an exemplary piece of historical scholarship that strenuously avoids unwarranted or far-flung speculation. Yet after reading it, one is exquisitely conscious of how little we understand of the significance of Renaissance discourse to those who originally spoke and wrote it. There can be few more effective presentations of the otherness of the past that Yates’, couched as it is in the most mundane and matter of fact prose, unpretentious and awkward, even.

Her account is predicated initially on a mundane and practical need – the need of the orators of classical times to train their memories so that they might flawlessly and effortlessly practice their art. Nowadays the back pages of some magazines occasionally promise to Teach You To Harness Your Memory Power In Ten Days For Only $56.95 Money Back If Not Completely Satisfied, but their systems are, each and every one, Absolutely New And Never Before Revealed Secrets. The classical system was a traditional one, and its age was testimony to its efficacy. It began, like so much of classical practice, in anecdote. I can do no better than reproduce the story as Yates relates it in the first two pages of her book:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought into Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relative were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. (1-2)

Thus was The Art of Memory discovered. Cicero, whose story this was originally, continues:

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the image of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.
(De oratore 2.86.351-54, qtd. in Art 2)

The story and its explication are not so ingenuous as they appear. Among other matters, they represent their own negation (but more of that later). Apparently an efficient memory can be attained only by memorising thrice: first places, then mental images, and finally images of the things the mental images are to represent. Simonides preserved in his head the building that had been destroyed. He was able to use it as the setting against which images of those who had been dining with Scopas could be recalled. Indeed, the setting dictated the appearance of those images, calling them forth in the pattern by which the diners themselves had been distributed just before the poet was called away.

To operate in the memory art as it was elaborated, such a place had to be firmly imbedded in the mind. There it remained more or less permanently imprinted, serving as a locus of recollection for any number of orations. Moreover, some places were supposedly better suited to memory than others. Buildings, specific, actually existent, usually public and monumental, were most highly recommended. Novice memorisers were enjoined to visit and revisit a favourite (and accessible) building until they knew it thoroughly, that is, until they had memorised it by rote repetition. In this way, it would seem, they were to have possessed themselves of both a general syntax and a trigger.

For the memorised setting provides a reusable order for memory’s images; it is not merely a neutral backdrop, but the active ordering principle of this art. The setting also acts as a sign that recollection is about to commence. When the setting is brought to mind, the memoriser knows that its represented walls contain what is to be recalled. In other words, memory is here defined as ultimately, essentially, a structure (human and architectural structure) and represented unequivocally as such by means of (the image of) a building which stands for order in general.

Within the building and according to the order posited by it, images were deposed. Cicero says that these would be “images of the things” to be recalled, but later writers on the art advocated images that could be readily brought to mind rather than images tied iconically to “the things themselves”, as the images of the diners were to the diners themselves. In this the later writers were not doing any great violence to Cicero’s original understanding of images which “will denote the things themselves”, a phrase that clearly announces the separation of expression and content.

In the later refined system more memorable images permanently occupied places within the memory building. What these images stood for changed with each oration, but the images themselves remained constant. The memorableness of these images was achieved by some outstanding or unusual feature of each image – often sensational or grotesque – so that the means of impressing memory images upon the mind was different from the rote process used to memorise the building. But, like the memory building, memory images were to be not constructed by the memoriser working alone. Rather, they were to be abducted from the ready-made cultural stock of such images, presumably so that none of them might be irretrievably lost as the result of individual lapses.

These memory images, then, are the expressions of cultural sign functions, the contents of which bear no direct indexical relation to those expressions. They are signs which do not denote what those signs would denote in a commonplace cultural context. The activity of memory has cut off expression from content to create a repository of “empty” signs which the memoriser may fill and refill according to her need.

Surely there is nowhere a more apt instance of a truly “arbitrary” relation of expression and content as that constructed by the memory art. Yet this semiotic and linguistic implication follows rigorously from the praxis of memory as Cicero outlined it, for that praxis is dependent upon a double activity corresponding precisely to the famous “double articulation” that defines a genuine language system in Sassurean linguistics. The place of memory is the system’s syntagmatic axis, in which “the order of the places will preserve the order of the things”. The images of memory constitute the system’s paradigmatic axis, along which “the images of the things denote the things themselves”. Memory itself arises out of the articulation of these two axes and appears as nothing less than the construction a personal language system. (Not a cipher, as one might think at first, because the memory in question is memory of an entire, specific oration, where the significance of the elements of the oration will result as much from their syntagmatic relations as from paradigmatic ones.)

Cicero compares the praxis of memory to another language-related activity. The memory building he relates to a wax writing tablet, memory images to letters written on the tablet. Cicero is imparting instructions to speech-makers and one implication which can be drawn from his metaphor is that, in some cases at least, speaking is a function of writing. In Cicero’s metaphor, memorising is not like writing in the way that say, John Locke would see the correspondence: with the mind as the tablet and memory impressions as letters so that the world writes itself upon its perceivers. Rather, images are inscribed on places: specific instances are structured and generalised thereby and a relation to a world at large is not directly implicated. Cicero gives us no warrant, as Jacques Derrida does, to infer that the process he attributes to memory is a prerequisite to any other linguistic activity. Yet logically it is just that: the inescapable, usually overlooked, translation of “things in themselves” into material for speech or other communication. And this is, if not writing, at least something very like it.

But the images of the diners do “denote the diners themselves”, to paraphrase Cicero: their mental images in this case having to be tied to their names so that grieving relatives may retrieve the proper carcasses.

And, at the same time, the praxis of memory and Cicero’s metaphor for that praxis are not the only peculiar things about this seemingly straightforward tale.

Another is drawn from this story’s function as myth – by which I mean in this connection, its evocation of a cosmological and symbolic dimension. Here the touchstones of interpretation must surely be the divinities that act through it. Without their presence the story would suffer no important alteration, thus the circumstance of their inclusion demands attention and explanation. The Art of Memory was discovered perhaps at their instigation and certainly under their patronage. We are justified therefore, in asking what they are doing in the story: that is, with what significance the myth endows the memory art, how these divinities affect our understanding of memory, what they can tell us about what it is.

In Greek mythology (which is not only the foundation of Roman mythology, but specifically invoked in Cicero’s tale by its Grecian setting), Castor and Pollux are twin gods – the Dioscuri. Their twinship, moreover, is accomplished under the old law, for they are twins because they were born at the same time by the same mother (Leda), although their fathers were not the same being. They are connected by this circumstance to archaic times: the times before the court convened in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, instituted a patrilineal descent system. Through the Dioscuri, then, the memory art also is linked to an epoch before the present one in which Simonides discovered it. This previous age was an irrational, mysterious time of immense, unappeasable and ferocious power, connected with forces we do not understand these days: feminine and primeval.

Linkage itself may be the significance of Castor and Pollux’s doubling in the myth. Images are linked to things, places to oratorical structures, poetry (Simonides) to patronage (Scopas), two young men to the twin gods themselves, memory-writing to speech-making. Castor and Pollux link humanity to the gods by virtue of their maternity. Twins of the same human mother, Castor’s father was human, but Pollux’s was divine; their doubling, then, is like linked stages along the road to Olympus. To make the pattern complete, we should expect reflected roads of return (else communication is just one way) – and this is provided in the cycle or cluster of myths which surround the Dioscuri twice: first by the twin-twin sisters of Castor and Pollux, Clytemnestra and Helen, then by the persons of Lynceus and Idas, twin rivals of the Dioscuri.

If we are to take the myth of the origin of the memory art seriously, the linkage between sacred and profane signified by the Dioscuri must be repeated in the art itself, presumably in the linkage between mental image and physical utterance, conception and realisation. The parallel suggests that the construction of memory takes place in a world that is not the everyday one but is, instead, temporally and formally prior to it: temporally, because memory precedes utterance; formally, because memory shapes utterance. The smell of Platonism is strong here, but I think the myth is more cunning than that – or more duplicitous, if you like.

For it is not the case that Castor is preceded or shaped by Pollux. Rather, they are twins, identical in power as in birth. As sometimes happens with twins, they amuse themselves by playing games of identity – but their games confuse observers about whether they have encountered twin gods or merely human pranksters, not, as one might have supposed, about whether one twin has passed himself off as the other (they are, in fact, quite easily distinguishable, because Pollux’s face is scarred). Unlike most other gods, the Dioscuri do not climax their relations with humans by dramatically revealing their divinity, and their interlocutors are never sure after the fact whether they have been divinely visited or brutishly hoaxed. In this way the interventions of the Dioscuri continually remind us of the dual nature of existence while never asserting the primacy of the sacred. Even their patronage of The Art of Memory is a matter of our inference rather than an instance of direct appropriation. Bearing this in mind, the apparent Platonism of the memory art begins to dissolve into a semiotic universe-system in which expression and content are inextricably linked within the sign-function. The mundane, common world is the source of the images and places stored away within the divine world of the mind at the same time that the mind is prior to and modifies what the mouth produces within the mundane world.

And the mythical actions of the Dioscuri serve also as a warning. They provide the frame for a universe of all-pervasive irony in which opposites are held in tension – a place of “both-and”, encompassing and redirecting the more usual “either-or”. Just as we cannot know for certain whether the youths who summoned Simonides away from the banquet were gods or humans, so we cannot be certain that what Simonides subsequently discovered, the very art of memory itself, is everything it has been taken to be. Perhaps it too has a double, represented within the story, yet still awaiting our recognition.

I am intrigued by the circumstances of Simonides’ mnemonic feat. It is not occasioned by a particular oration, but rather by what can only be deemed the demands of history. Thus, although The Art of Memory may have been intended as a tool for rhetoricians, it finds its initial justification in its utility for historians. In somewhat the same vein, the conflict between the memory which the anecdote embodies and the memory which the anecdote is about seems suggestive. Precisely what Simonides was able to remember (the names of the guests), the story has forgotten. Yet the story has persisted, has, indeed, become history to a certain community. At this level, The Art of Memory that the myth describes has a scarred twin in the myth itself.

The Memory Theatre

By the Renaissance, The Art of Memory was not what it had been. It was not, for instance, simply a means of remembering speeches – or it was more than that. It seemed to be one of the keys to the universe. From an ordering of one’s thoughts, The Art of Memory had come to be an ordering of the cosmos: to remember now was to know. Accidental architectural syntax had given way to complicated geometrical structures intended to parallel the essential structure of existence, so that there was now a place for every image imaginable and everything was preordained in the structure. Imperceptibly the process had moved from the superimposition of images on places to the comprehension of systems. That there were occult purposes for such memory techniques is certain, but their precise occult functioning is unclear (at least to me). Presumably such matters were not the stuff of public discussion.

Yet there had been at least one obvious change which was profound and far-reaching as a result of making memory occult. This was the insertion of an idea of permanence into what had been, to this point, an art of impermanence. By elaborating the personal and pragmatic devices which classical orators had used day-by-day to keep track of what they were to say into structural metaphors of the cosmos, Renaissance theoreticians had introduced the stability and perdurance of mathematical and cosmic structures into what had been, after all, merely transitory architectural patterns designed to fix for a matter of days or weeks only images which would give rise to the evanescent spoken word. Memory based upon Renaissance cosmic systems could now truly be said to be “eternal” in a way no one had ever claimed for the ancient memory art, for such a memory would be grounded in the immutable laws of the universe. It would operate in harmony with nature and with logic, and would display, in its operation, the inevitability and perfections of its foundations.

Formerly, the expression of memory images was fixed and their content was free. Now both were fixed as the memory artist set out to know everything by memorising the cosmos. Indeed, the Renaissance had substituted for the classical praxis of memory, a science of memory on the pattern of the other evolving sciences. Here, if at no other point, this occult art touches indirectly on history – also by the Renaissance, newly a science.

But such indirect connections seem to be all that we can find between the memory art and history during the Renaissance. It is the tendency of scientific thought to elide the operation of history, for science can learn nothing from history, which can only play out what is already known by law in advance. The occult scientists of the Renaissance, like scientists of all times and places, were interested in causation rather than in action, in space rather than time. In accordance with this interest, perhaps, it is the architecture of memory which draws my attention during this period. For it was during the Renaissance that theatres of memory were written about and constructed.

What can be the connection between theatre and memory? As I hope you will agree eventually, it is something perverse and true, a matter of deep structure, although some surface links are straight enough, and even commonsensical. The first, and doubtless the strongest, link is a matter of the historical semantics of architecture. In the Renaissance, the whole theory of theatrical construction was derived from Vitruvius, a contemporary of Caesar Augustus. Vitruvius advocated the building of theatres according to a cosmic zodiacal geometry: the structure of the theatre was in parallel with the structure of the universe. Theatres made on this pattern, then, are, by the laws of commonsense, perfect settings for the Renaissance memory art, for the theatre is made to represent the cosmos, precisely the thing which is to be memorised first, precisely what gives the new art its overpowering human importance.

But to stop here would be to beg the question. Why would Vitruvius, and this Renaissance followers, deem the theatre (rather than, say, a place of worship) such a supremely suitable site for a microcosmos? What was it about theatres which made them acceptable candidates for such grandiose pretensions?
Only the usage of a theatre distinguishes it from the barn that Mickey Rooney’s patriarchal relatives were forever letting the kids rehearse in. In that usage, then, should lie the theatre’s cosmic significance (a significance which Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland understood intuitively, I should point out). Well then, theatres are used

1. as settings for performances
2. to which a public is invited as audience.

I do not see how we can avoid the idea that the theatre’s cosmic significance is somehow derived from its use as the site of public performance, that it is the idea of acting before an audience that is being privileged in the Renaissance memory theatre.

But what is so all-fired important about play-acting (as Mickey Rooney’s relatives might have asked)?

Drama and History

Here I think the most suggestive answers are supplied in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Arendt points out that play-acting is an activity qualitatively different from the two other major types of human activity with which it can be associated: labouring and making. Labouring is what we all must do as a result of our biological humanity: the ceaseless, cyclical activity of survival. Making involves the fabrication of a product; it is an activity defined by the thing-ness of its goal.

Now, play-acting does not seem to be either the one or the other sort of activity, neither labour nor work. Perhaps this is why actors are regarded with such suspicion by the rest of us. Yet play-acting is similar to at least one other human activity: it is similar to what a politician does. Politicians toil not, neither do they spin. Instead, they act. They deliver speeches (ah yes, they are orators), they enter into compacts, they vote, they deliberate, they represent, they bear witness, and, in the end, what they do makes history. The two activities – politics and play-acting – are allied not only in the apparent uselessness of what they do, but also by the frame in which they do it. Acting, for a politician as well as a performer, involves appearing in public, not merely speaking or gesturing to empty air.

Actions are impermanent. Their effects may proliferate like ripples from the casting of a stone into water, but the actions themselves vanish as they are produced. Yet the memory of actions need not vanish. That memory is given substance and transmitted in stories. The story of Simonides’ discovery is one example. Simonides’ remarkable deed as well as the remarkable meanness of Scopas and the remarkable catastrophe of the collapse of the banquet hall are preserved for us in the story Cicero and Yates (and I) have retold and reduplicated. Indeed, the true art of memory seems better illustrated by the story of Simonides’ feat than by the feat itself. However efficacious Simonides’ memory system may be for remembering an oration or the Renaissance systems for knowing the cosmos, nothing seems to beat stories as devices for remembering the great deeds and great words of the past, for preserving the evanescent realm of human action. But, clearly, if actions are to be represented, they can most faithfully be represented by other actions. Thus, of the means by which stories can told, drama is the one most suited to retelling great deeds and words. In a theatrical performance what was acted once in public can be re-enacted, not only remembered.

And here is the perverse and true connection between theatre and memory which I promised, founded in that area of congruence between the theatre as the location of drama and the theatre as the location of memory. For, if the Renaissance art of memory was an attempt to confer permanence on the practice of memory and to ignore the processual character of the past, the siting of that activity in the place where drama is performed brings impermanence and history inevitably back into memory again. The “world” of drama is not so much the spatial cosmos – the universe – as it is the temporal cosmos: eternity. Its links are not so much outward to the fixed laws of nature as forward and back to the perpetual motion of duration and of coming-to-be.

The theatre, then, is the site of spectacle, of the bodying-forth of the universe we hold in common. [MORE ON THIS TO LEAD TO DISCUSSION OF PASOLINI]
In this context there is no significant difference between drama and film. What film adds to live theatre – a certain virtuosity in illusionist spatial construction, a certain preservative function – enhances its position as the world’s memory, utterer of great deeds and words. Arendt, I imagine, would not see it that way. Since they did not have motion pictures in fifth century Athens, it seems unlikely that she would have thought that the cinema would have had much of importance to contribute to human existence (excepting Charlie Chaplin, of course). Yet I can see no barrier to the incorporation of film into the mainstream of Arendt’s argument about what it is that drama represents and, ultimately, the significance of mimesis in human affairs.

To put it baldly, I am saying that films, and especially popular films (for of all films, popular films are those made most surely for showing in public), constitute history. Not that they interpret history or substitute for it, but that they are history. Not the past, but history. And not the only history, but, if you like, in some sense the truest sort.

I say this because popular films represent action and because stories of past action make up the memory which the community actually has at any given time, which is what I called “history” near the beginning of this piece. History in this sense must be distinguished from whatever may have really happened and from what might be known about what happened. It is only what is recognised about what happened, only what the community sees, not what can be seen.

I suppose I must also make it clear that I do not think that the community is deluded about what history is anymore than those who take The Battle of Algiers or History lessons as history are deluded – indeed, anymore than those who take Montaillou or The Art of Memory as history are deluded. Nor do I think that the community reads popular films any more naively than “we” read “our” history texts. The first question which is asked in each case is, “was it really like that?”. A test of paradigmatic validity is applied and either a theory of how events happen (“is it logical?”) or some empirical database (“the past”) is used to test historical statements, no matter their source. Whether “we” or “they” are watching, the community history/memory is screened through an individual history/memory and allowed to pass or fail according to the degree to which it conforms to prejudices.

History and Story

Arendt uses Achilles and Antigone as examples of the great words and great deeds of the past that are preserved by drama and story. Her examples are, as examples, instructive. For it does not seem to matter to her if neither Achilles nor Antigone ever lived – that is, if they fail the commonsense test of what should make up history. Their stories still perform history’s task, still function as history, still illustrate remarkable actions, and still occupy a place in a communal memory.

Similarly we may take the Western genre in film as performing history’s task even when, as in the case of say, Hopalong Cassidy westerns, the genre moves furthest from documented history. It does not matter whether Antigone lived or died, because what she says and does shows us something of importance in the realm of action. By the same token, Hopalong Cassidy’s wisdom, integrity, kindliness and skill have a high and serious importance that it is foolish to deride. The world would be a better place, perhaps, if we were capable of acting like either the one or the other.

But Arendt’s citation of Achilles and Antigone, like mine of Hopalong Cassidy, suggests that her interest is in culture rather than in facts, in ideas and attitudes rather than in empirical specifics. The sort of history which I think we find in popular film is, first of all, a matter of culture. It presumes a highly generalized notion of the past, a gestalt or ethos rather than a set of demonstrable actualities. In this light, even such films as Excalibur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Knightriders may be said to be valid as history. All touch on Arthurian Britain in obviously “fictional” ways, but all are concerned with history, with the truth proclaimed in action.

Excalibur, for example, deliberately situates itself in a past comparable to the past of Achilles – a mythic, mist-drenched age of heroism and magic. But it is also more or less overtly concerned with cultural questions, particularly those bearing on leadership, succession and legitimacy. It employs a highly sexualized variant of that tradition of English literary history derived from The Golden Bough to inflect the actions it displays. The Monty Python film is no less eloquent in its depiction of the squalor, pettiness and misery which underpin, like the slave economy of fifth century Athens, humanity’s most vaunted achievements. Its interpretative frame is, of course, the salutary destructive power of ridicule. Knightriders is a film about the past-in-the-present: the survival and revival of Arthurian morality in a world we recognise, by virtue of its banality and garishness, as our own. Its story concerns a band of motorcycle riders – not a gang, however, but a performing commune. The group is imbued with ideals of chivalry and carefully aligned with the recent past (the tradition of communal folksy gentleness associated with the mid-sixties) and with familiar patterns of the soap opera or family romance. But what the group does also retraces Arthurian legend, in the process affirming an identity with an archaic or mythic past through mimesis. Naively, no doubt, Knightriders refuses to mask history with myth or parody, and chooses instead to represent it as inescapable.

Of these three films about the past perhaps only one, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, aims to tell us “what it was really like”, and all three are more or less clearly as much about the present as about the past. The past which each explores is, moreover, one that some people call “mythical” – by which they mean that it never existed, that its pastness is a lie. Yet the pastness of Arthurian Britain is signed clearly in these films. It even seems accurate to say that the pastness of Arthurian Britain is their central concern or preoccupation. Although it is a common practice to assign one sort of film about the past to “history” and another to “fantasy” (or “myth” or “fiction”), to do so seems to me to miss or evade important questions of what history is – or at least, how it functions culturally.

For it is surely the case that the authenticity of its representations of the past is ultimately of little concern to the audiences of history. Of course, the idea of history carries with it a connotation of an actual past. I do not mean to deny this – only to minimise it in asserting that the actuality of the past represented by history is of secondary moment culturally. If it were not, that is, if we were concerned first with what had really happened in the past, we would be forever engaged in primary research to substantiate or to refute the histories in which we are interested. More than that, we would tend to be sceptical of any and all history as necessarily representing a selection, an editing, of what really happened (much as we are sceptical of the reporting of current events by the media). As we are not, that is, as we do tend to accept some accounts of the past as accurate accounts, it would appear that history’s stories are not used merely as accurate recordings of the past, that their validity as history is of a different order and based on different criteria.

I think that culturally the primary function of history is not so much accurate representation as it is instruction. History teaches us, using the example of the past. The accuracy of historical representation, then, is a rhetorical strategy, wholly in the service of history’s didactic mission: we will be more likely to believe what history asks us to believe if there is specific, concrete evidence to support its contentions than if there is not. So long as history performs this cultural function it has discharged its obligation. Histories are parables set in the past.

The didactic purpose of history determines its narrative form. “Understanding,” in the sense of apprehending how things function, is, according to Susan Sontag, only achieved through narrative (Sontag 23). Understanding the world, making sense of experience, is what stories set out to do. Narrative films about the past strive for understanding of that part of the common human experience that appears to have gone before the present: they discover and delineate the world we have in common. But storytelling addresses those questions from the present from the point of view of the present. “The story presents past experience to us by recalling it to mind, thereby raising it to the level of understanding where we can imagine it for ourselves. This is the moment ‘between past and future’ when we can ‘think what we do'” (Hill 291). [EXPAND VIA BENJAMIN AND RICOUER?]


Earlier on I deplored the possessiveness of memory. Now I would like to suggest in what ways these ideas about popular-film-as-history can be considered to escape that possessiveness. Memory takes possession of the past by assigning meaning to it. But it can only do this by freezing the process of time into apprehensible units: “souvenirs”. This operation is illustrated in the sort of activity engaged in by archives and museums (the collection and preservation of artefacts, many of which, like films, were never designed for collection or preservation), as well as in the tendency of people to forget or ignore what does not fit with their prejudices about what must have happened in the past.

The past, like the present, consists of two great orders of phenomena: events and things. Memory often seems to be trying to treat the former as though it were the latter. Yet the ephemerality of the one and the perdurance of the other are their defining characteristics. Events, made up of actions, disappear in the moment of their realisation. The things made in the past, on the other hand, may well be preserved into the present. Such things, I have said, constitute a database, a collective preconscious memory, awaiting the animation of history. But, by the same token, those things are not themselves history, no matter how directly they may have influence the present. They are not even, in any proper sense, “the past”. As artefacts, they bear witness to the past: they are even testimony to the actuality of the past. But their existence in the present is far more crucial to our understanding of them than their existence in the past.

For what we know most certainly about the past is that it is lost, utterly. Memory, then, may appear to be doing what cannot, on the face of it, be done, may be attempting to recapture what has and will, inevitably and always, escape.

The dialectic at work here parallels that which Paul Ricoeur, in Interpretation Theory, sees as fundamental to a theory of discourse: the dialectic of event and meaning. Sentences, the basic units of discourse, are discrete, vanishing events – but they are also propositions, bearers of meaning. History also, considered as discourse, is founded on the tension between singular identification (of an event: the past) and collective predication (of a meaning: the present). Ricoeur goes on, however, to assign a special place to meaning in a theory of discourse:

An act of discourse is not merely transitory and vanishing, however. It may be identified and re-identified as the same so that we may say it again or in other words. We may even say it in another language or translate it from one language into another. Through all these transformations it preserves an identity of its own which can be called the propositional content, the “said as such” (9).

Meaning, then, becomes what can be saved from the perpetual destruction of events and acts, perhaps even from the decay of things. The event is changed, but the meaning remains constant. Here history has the formidable and privileged task of repeating the meanings of the past into the present. It follows that the fidelity of history to the past will ultimately lie in its fidelity to meaning, not to events, to collective predication, not to singular identification.

I should be happy about this for, in vastly more authoritative prose and within a global theory of discourse with which I tend to find myself in sympathy, it restates what I have just been at such pains to demonstrate. Yet I am not.

[NOTE: history is the representation of the past. Iconic history represents the past with things from the past (buildings, objects). Some things from the past once operated as sign-functions in the past (books, handwritten manuscripts); that is, they incorporate both event and meaning. It may be that “words and deeds” are the same things as those icons of the past.

Another set of concerns might lead to a formulation of history as the transformation of event into meaning. The problem here is not fixing on either of the poles of the transformation.]

Film, I would maintain, actually preserves the event at the expense of meaning: what cannot be lost so long as a projectable image is preserved is precisely what is not usually considered to be able to be “said again or in other words”. So long as moving images last, so long will a giant door be opened and people, hordes of people, walk through it until the screen is emptied of them – all in ways I cannot possibly describe to you and in an exact enactment of an event which at three specific times and in one specific place, did actually occur.[NOTE: we do not know precisely where or when, even though we can repeat the actions of the event.] The meaning of that event has varied over time, and presumably it will continue to vary so long as there are people to write and speak of it. I can remember reading an article that understood these pieces of film to say, “This is my factory and these are my workers”, which they undoubtedly do, although I did not consciously perceive that meaning until I read the article. Now I have forgotten the title and even who wrote the article, while I remember what it told me. But the possessive meaning, the prototypically bourgeois content, which the article assigned to the famous Lumière films, has been expressed in different ways both before and since the event which those films preserve for us in three separate actions – whereas the event, no less than the actions of it, is constituted over an area of meaninglessness which its reiteration can never fill up.

Several times in writing the paragraph above I had to go back and wipe out a too-hasty equation of event and the unrepeatable. The issue here is precisely whether anything can be repeated which is not meaning: how it is possible to repeat events (words and deeds) – or, put in another way, how it is possible to have repetition at all.

Bourgeois memory pretends that it can snatch meaning from the past – that meaning, which is always and only of the present, constitutes the “real”, the “authentic” past. But the only end which is possible as a result of such activity is not repetition, but recollection which, as Kierkegaard insists in Repetition, is suffused with melancholy, with nostalgia for what is not. Recollection is built upon the absence of the event, upon a lack, not merely of significant phalli but of the very corpori themselves. What it seeks to possess turns, like nitrate film, to incendiary dust in its hands, and it is left with dissatisfaction with what is and a simultaneous yearning for what is not. True repetition brings the past to the present rather than vice-versa. It does not so much impoverish the present by attempting to abandon it, as double it by adding to it. Living in the present is what repetition is all about. [BENJAMIN AGAIN: ‘THE NOW’]

Each time I see the Lumière film, my present is doubled by the event enacted before and through me. That this event may bear within it the meaning, or some meaning, it possessed in the past is of no concern to me – for that meaning, like all meanings, was dependent upon systems exterior to the event itself, and was in that sense part of the irrevocably lost past. If meaning for this event is required, it can be supplied from contexts in the present, but its absence in a world characterised by a surplus of meaning, does not constitute a tragic or crippling lack. It is mere decapitation, “blessed relief” as they used to say in aspirin commercials.

In one sense, or on one level, I want to say that the event character of film enables it to escape from the possessiveness of memory and the prisonhouse of meaning. The ability of film to represent action in action, which I said was common to film and theatre [DRAMA?] and bestowed on them a privileged relation to those retellings of past events which we call histories, here provides the basis for an argument that repetition is possible through film, and especially through popular film (just as Kierkegaard himself appeared to believe was the case with popular theatrical farce).

This argument does not deny that stories discover or attribute meaning to acts, that history is the assignment of meaning to the events of the past. It presumes, however, that the vague and amorphous meaning – the sense – conveyed through enacting is of a different order from that constructed by writing and less “closed” than the socially-defined meanings of everyday life which dramatic actions, in a different context, might denote. (Put more simply and familiarly: dramatic actions denote social actions, but not what social actions denote). Arendt says that enactment “reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it” (Men in Dark Times 104) and goes on to suggest that the responsibility of readers is to come to a common understanding of the meaning a story conveys. It is almost as if we make up a jury of viewers, so that it falls to us to judge the particular vision of the case presented by a film. What we validate thereby is less a particular, individual, relationship to a transcendent realm of meaning than it is a place in the world we hold in common – a point of view from which that world may be observed and from which our observations may be compared with those made by others, as together we assemble and reassemble the world and the conditions of human existence (these words and their sense were partly abducted from Hill 290).


The film of memory retains the transient, shifting meaning proper to actions and events that “souvenir” memory attempts to extinguish. In this, I would submit, it is a better and truer memory than the one mostly in use today. It is so because it is a memory based on action and thus on drama, arising out of the role which the theatre once played in human affairs. As such, it is really “popular memory”, I suppose – if that phrase did not now so often mean something wholly chimerical. In any case, and at the very least, I would argue that it is not enough to have recognised, with Barthes and White, the connections between historical and fictional discourse in order to remake history in the shape of the novel or of the polemic; nor is it enough to presume, with Foucault and Althusser, upon the perniciousness of the masters and the doltishness of the slaves only to remake history according to the dictates of a new master class. The film of memory admonishes us that all we can certainly know of history are the signs left for us standing in remembered places, but we can only sense again and each time differently their finite connections, the moving webs that ensnare them with us and makes a past, and all that slides between.




Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.
———. Men in Dark Times. Penguin Books, 1975.
Auerbach, Erich. “Figura“. Scenes from the Drama of European Literature. University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 11-76.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Fuentes, Carlo. Terra Nostra. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976.
Graves, Robert. “The rival twins” in his The Greek Myths. George Braziller, Inc., 1959. 245-252.
Hill, Melvyn A. “The fictions of mankind and the stories of men” in Hill, ed.., Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World. St. Martin’s Press, 1979. 275-300.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology. Harper Torchbooks, 1964.
Nash, Mark and Steve Neale. “History/production/memory”. Screen 18.4 (Fall/Winter 1977-78). 77-91.
Pasolini, Piero Paolo. “The Cinema of Poetry”. Heretical Empiricism. Indiana University Press, 1988. 167-186.
Ricoeur, Paul. Intepretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Texas Christian University Press, 1976.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Delta Books, 1977.
Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory. University of Chicago Press, 1966.


The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1985).
El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1966).
Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981).
Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981).
History Lessons (Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub, 1973).
Knightriders (George Romero, 1981).
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975).
Toute la mémoire du monde (Alain Resnais, 1956).


(To return to your place in the text, simply click on the endnote number)
[1] Mostly, I work in a self-centered vacuum. In this case, however, I owe particular debts to Diane Halas Routt, who introduced me to the writing of Frances Yates, and to other things; to Mick Counihan, who told me I was confused about what I thought history was; to Ina Bertrand and Rob Jordan, who told me they thought what I said was worth saying; to Adrian Martin, who said he liked it; to Ross Gibson, who talked with me about it so many years later; and to Annette Blonski, who lent me her jar of coffee when it was most needed. This essay was written as a homage to the Committee on Social Thought, with gratitude, respect and affection.

Created on: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 | Last Updated: 14-Mar-06

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →