Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past

January 26, 2012

Michael Roth, the author of this exceptional and wide-ranging collection of essays, is the president of Wesleyan University, which, in addition, one imagines, to being a very time-consuming job, also drew him to the attention of the American political comic strip Doonesbury in late 2010. Roth had tried to ban a day on campus named for one of Garry Trudeau's most endearing characters, Zonker Harris, who, like the Fool in King Lear, often says serious things foolishly (although, that said, Zonker often says and does just plain foolish things, too). Roth, it seems, felt that this lack of seriousness - and Zonker's drug use - was inappropriate for a university. In the strip, Zonker, comically exasperated, says to Roth: "Dude, you understand I'm a fictional character, right?"

One irony here is that few people, as this essay collection shows, have thought with more clarity and depth than Roth about the difference between fictional characters and real historical people, or about the ways in which the stories we tell about "real historical people" serve to fictionalise them, or about the fictions by which we come to understand history. Although this collection covers around 30 years, and, as Roth says, five subject areas (roughly: memory, psychoanalysis, cultural politics, photography and liberal education), this theme - our struggles to understand the past and the limits of traditional historiography - remains constant.

Where this comes to the fore, the essays are at their best: the essays on trauma - the highlights, I think, of the volume - are models of informed yet quick and accurate exegesis, with a sense both of the larger picture (on the cultural politics of the use of trauma, for example) and of the significant historical detail (Roth's work on Freud's historical context really comes into its own here). Some of the insights in these essays are worth the price of admission alone. And throughout, often quietly in the background, Roth's grounding in Hegelian philosophy gives his thought a complex depth that sets it apart from much work on trauma. Roth's judgements are considered: his accounts of the key figures in the "postmodern turn" in history, for example, are careful and he neither decries the work of people such as Keith Jenkins, F.R. Ankersmit and Richard Rorty, nor fully agrees with it. Rather, these essays analyse and draw out significances.

Another irony about Zonker's face-off with Roth is that it implies that Roth is inflexible and dogmatic, a "Bad Professor" straight from central casting. Yet judging by the model of his balanced writing, Roth must be an excellent teacher (enough to make one regret, on behalf of his potential but untaught students, his current presidential role). This impression is made stronger by the book's concluding essays on education. One, "On a certain blindness in teaching", is a personal account of how one's own preconceptions both help and hinder the complex negotiations of teaching and personal and political identity. The final essay, while praising liberal education, sets out its contradictions and flaws: it is "at best disingenuous (and probably counterproductive) to defend a liberal education because it will produce people whose opinions the defender finds congenial", he writes, and points out that Enlightenment ideas about education are not in opposition to its more practical benefits. Careful and sincere reflection on education in its widest sense from those who lead universities is to be praised.

I grew up, in part, on collections of Doonesbury strips, and Trudeau's work formed a large part of what my younger self knew about the US and the world. However, if I had to choose sides between the idiot savant pronouncements of Zonker Harris and the careful, philosophically informed scholarly work of the president of Wesleyan University, although it pains me, I'd choose Roth. Fortunately, seeming to conform to his own enlightened approach, President Roth has relented and Zonker Harris Day has been restored: a victory, oddly, for Roth as well as for Zonker.

Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past

By Michael S. Roth. Columbia University Press 336pp, £58.50 and £19.00. ISBN 9780231145688 and 45695. Published 25 October 2011

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