“I always knew I would someday write a book about my family,” writes Maria Stepanova in a chapter of In Memory of Memory called “On Beginnings.” Most of her Russian Jewish ancestors were ordinary people who devoted their lives “to remaining invisible, to achieving a desired inconspicuousness, to hiding in the dim household light and keeping themselves apart from the wide current of history.” She on the other hand is a poet and journalist, “the first and only person in the family who had a reason to speak facing outward.” Her job, and possibly her life’s purpose, is to “build a monument to those people, making sure they didn’t simply dissipate into the air, unremembered and unremarked upon.”
Inspecting the remnants of their lives, she realizes that the monument she has hoped to raise has been there all along:
Those boxes of our domestic archive hardly spoke directly, but they were the silent witnesses, those piles of greetings cards and trade union cards were the epidermal cells of the lived and unspoken past, and, as storytellers, they were hardly worse than the documents that could speak for themselves. A list was all that was needed, a simple list of objects.
Would such a list have a beginning and an end? Should the final text—a monument on top of a monument—be greater than the sum of the orphaned objects? And what would be the point, anyway? “This book about my family,” Stepanova concludes, by way of introduction, “is not about my family at all, but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”
The trouble is that memory doesn’t work even when it knows what it wants. A colleague helps Stepanova find the house in Saratov where her great-grandfather used to live. She enters the yard and recognizes it without hesitation:
The wooden slatted palisade with the Rudbeckia growing up against it, the crooked walls with their bricks and wood, and a useless old chair with a broken frame standing by a fence—all of it was mine, all of it instantly part of my family. It seemed to speak to me, saying: here, you needed to come here.
She commits the image to memory and returns to Moscow with a renewed sense of purpose. A week later the colleague calls to say he got the address wrong. “And that is just about everything I know about memory,” she writes, almost defiantly.
The book about family history turns into an essay on memory; and memory, we are told over and over again, is the act and consequence of misremembering. The objects that make up the monument memorialize nothing in particular: “Their promise of knowledge is a false one.” The sight of Aunt Galya’s diaries brings about “the sudden realization that nothing can be preserved.” The wax bodies in the Josephinum anatomical museum in Vienna reveal how “the past rewilds itself, oblivion springs up out of it like a forest.” The Jewish cemetery in Kherson, Ukraine, is overgrown with thorns: “It was perfectly clear to me that even if there were some Gurevichs [her mother’s family] buried here, I wasn’t going to find them, and I didn’t even want to anymore.” A friend’s stepfather announces his wish to reveal an important secret but dies before he can do so. When, years later, Stepanova asks the friend if she ever found out what the secret was, she says that nothing like that ever happened.
There are more such allegories, but Stepanova’s favorite is the story of a box full of little china boys she found at a flea market in Moscow. All the figurines were damaged, so she asked if an intact one could be found. The stall owner explained that the boys had been made in Germany as packaging material. It was their function—and fate—to be chipped and broken. Stepanova bought one without an arm but with undisturbed curls and dimples:
I already knew that I was carrying the end of my book in my pocket, the hidden answer to a riddle in a puzzle book. My china boy seemed to embody the way no story reaches us without having its heels chipped off or its face scratched away.
In fact, the chipped china boy seems to embody the unpromising proposition that a story’s sole purpose is to come undone. He does reappear at the end, when we are in no doubt that the riddle was not meant to have an answer. He is also on the cover of the Russian edition, with his bare buttocks to the reader.
The sacrificial boys entered use in the 1880s, when Kodak introduced its first easy-to-use camera (“You press the button, we do the rest”). One reason for the collapse of memory, according to Stepanova, is the rise of mass photography and the eventual epidemic of digital self-memorialization. Traditional painted portraits, she argues, aimed to represent the subject “in his concentrated form, not him-now, but him-forever, a bouillon cube of his vital parts.” Photography offers countless snapshots and “reflects fervently, demanding nothing.” It moves from the family album that selects some images over others to an endpoint “where the volume of life fixed in images is equal to the actual length of life.” The result is a phony immortality in which everyone retains everything for the benefit of a presumed but unimaginable viewer.
Meanwhile, the loss of belief in collective resurrection has produced a mad rush on the past. The Christian anticipation of the Last Judgment has been replaced by a search for forgotten origins; our ancestors have—once again—become our guiding spirits; salvation has moved from eschatology to history. By the time Stepanova embarked on her quest,
the old world had breached its banks and flooded the current world; the search for lost time had become a general obsession, and everyone had thrown themselves into reading, writing, and describing our relations with the past.
But which past, and whose ancestors? In the traditional Christian scenario (which Stepanova uses as a universal measuring stick), no one is forgotten, but only some shall be saved; the dead—every single one of them—will be judged according to their works, as recorded in the books of life. In a world of relentless retrospection, there are no books to consult:
Between the clear necessity of saving everyone indiscriminately, and the desire, equally human and obvious, involuntary as a muscle spasm, to choose from the multitudes the very one, the only one, there is no space for a correct decision.
In a fight between an unattainable goal and an involuntary reflex, the only possible decision is no contest. What Stepanova means is that choices (among souls, subjects, memories) are both unavoidable and indefensible. She singles out two artists who appear to submit to randomness while creating connections. The first is W.G. Sebald. According to Stepanova, “his way of thinking and speaking is founded on refusing to choose,” but his books “seem riddled with tunnels like an ant nest, all leading to unexpected consonances.” The second is Joseph Cornell, who fills glass-fronted boxes with apparently unrelated fragments that acquire meaning by being displayed together:
Every object has the chance to bask in the golden light of “being seen”; the wood shavings, the colored sand, and the cork balls exhibit a majesty and poise more befitting to ballerinas and poets. It seems as if the fact of future oblivion and decline was enough to make any object invaluable to Cornell. Every new work was constructed like Noah’s Ark.
Stepanova employs neither method. Hers is closer to that of Voshchev from Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, who “simply collected, on rest days, all kinds of petty and unfortunate scraps of nature, as documentary proof of the planless creation of the world, as facts of the melancholy of each living breath.” But Voshchev was a Bolshevik engaged in the final struggle against oppression: his goal was not to exhibit those scraps in display cases or list them wistfully in an opaque book, but to present them “to the attention of the authorities and the future,” in order to “achieve vengeance” against the old world and contribute to the establishment of “eternal human meaning.”
Stepanova does not believe in collective salvation and has no idea what to do with the archive she has assembled. The artist closest to her in spirit is Policeman MacCruiskeen from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, who lives in Hell and works on his own punishment. Once upon a time he made a little chest, “about a foot in height, perfect in its proportions and without fault in workmanship.” The question was, what should he keep in it? After considering a large number of small objects and finding them all unworthy, he decided that “the only sole correct thing to contain in the chest was another chest of the same make but littler in cubic dimension.” By the time we meet him, he has made thirty-seven chests, although only thirty-two are visible. “Nobody has ever seen the last five I made,” he explains. “The one I am making now is nearly as small as nothing.”
The title of Stepanova’s book, In Memory of Memory, appears to have two meanings. One refers to the untimely passing of memory; the other, to the terrifying infinitude of her own project: in memory of memory of memory of memory—all the way to nothing. The cover of the Russian edition, with its maimed little boy, points to the first; the cover of the American one—a regression of rectangles all the way down to a final dot—seems to represent the second. Either way, memory and history (they are sometimes different, sometimes not) dissolve, mislead, or lead nowhere.
But the search for lost time is not only hopeless. It’s also immoral. Toward the end of the book, after we have learned a fair amount about Stepanova’s late relatives, we are told that any attempt to reenter the past deprives those who have come before of agency and autonomy:
The dead have no rights: their property and the circumstances of their fate can be used by anyone and in any way. In the first few months and years after death, humanity attempts to restrain its enterprising spirit and behave with decency—its interest in the not-yet-cold corpse is kept in check, if only out of respect for the living, the family and friends. Years pass and the rules of decency, the rules of the collective, the laws of copyright, all give way like a dam breaching under the weight of water; and this seems to happen more rapidly now than in the past.
Stepanova does not say whether she wishes Homer, Moses, and the four evangelists, among others, had stayed within the rules of decency. But she is in no doubt that, in our own age, unregulated grave-robbing has gone too far and must end forthwith, in the name of equity and inclusion:
At the beginning of the new century the invisible and indescribable majority of the dead became the new minority; endlessly vulnerable, humiliated, their rights abused.
I believe this must change, and change within our lifetimes, just as it has changed over the last hundred years for other groups of the abused and humiliated. What unites all the minorities, puts them in the same boat (or on the same many-decked liner) is other people’s sense that their subjectivity is incomplete: women who need to be looked after; children who don’t know what’s best for them; black people who are like children; the working classes who don’t know what’s in their own interests; the dead, for whom nothing matters any more. Even if you aren’t in any of the former categories, you are certain to be in the last.
Stepanova does not explain what she means by the subjectivity of the “new minority” of the “indescribable majority.” If respecting the rights of the dead means not speaking on their behalf, is there an alternative to enforced oblivion? And if she does speak on their behalf, how does she know what’s in their own interests? Should history be banned so the dead would not find our trespasses triggering? We’ll have to die to find out.
Of the many other odd things Stepanova does not explain, the oddest is why, having established that “telling these histories” is both impossible and objectionable, she tells us her family history anyway. It is fragmentary and ambivalent, the lives of her assorted relatives are (as she keeps insisting) perfectly ordinary, the chapters devoted to them are called “not-chapters,” and there are no detailed portraits or developed stories, but history it is, nevertheless—in narrative form and in chronological order, with a clear cast of characters and multiple layers of background. There are textbook dates and statistics (“Between Autumn 1905 and Autumn 1906, 3611 civil servants were assassinated”), judgments of historical figures (General Meretskov’s strategy in World War II resulted in excessive casualties), speculation about personal motives (“Lyodik, with his dislike of melodrama, must have found the position of an officer repellent”), juxtapositions of private and public events (“The day Aleksandr sent her this postcard there was rioting at the Sormovsky Factory and the snowy streets were blocked with whatever came to hand”), and reconstructions of everyday life (though she repeatedly repudiates them):
No matter how hard I concentrate, in my mind’s eye I can never see the texture and the sound of everyday life back then: tea in the Gethlings’ garden; her sister Vera clutching a book of Nadson’s poetry; the endless hours on the coach to Nizhny Novgorod; skirts damp with the dew and catching on the burdock; the little river; smoking a secret cigarette in the attic.
She is perfectly capable of reconstructing the past—with a vivid imagination and in seamless prose—but she believes she is not supposed to, so she keeps interrupting herself, apologizing for an occasional plot line and assuring her reader, against clear evidence to the contrary, that “nothing can be made out now.” She has warned us that In Memory of Memory is not about her family, and it does not take long for us to realize that it’s not about memory, either. It is about her thoughts and feelings about memory occasioned by her lifelong urge to write about her family. Any story about her ancestors is in fact a story about her. Or, as she puts it, “any story about myself became a story about my ancestors. There they were behind me like an opera chorus encouraging my aria—only the music was written seventy years ago.” An artwork she finds exemplary in this regard is Rafael Goldchain’s I Am My Family (2008), for which the author created a family album by posing as some of his Polish-Jewish ancestors. “You can call the result of this anything you like, but you couldn’t call it a family history,” writes Stepanova.
In this thoughtful, subtle project a whole tribe and an entire world appears on a single face, and the result is strange and unsettling. The problem with memory (its unrecognizable, rainy darkness, lit with the sharp flashes of guesswork) is removed at once: the entire tribe, three or thirty generations back, is me, all me, me with a mustache, me in a bonnet, me in a cradle, me in the grave, indivisible, irrevocable.
Family history is a self-portrait. Any history, Stepanova seems to suggest, is a self-portrait. But the “me, all me” view of the past is only part of her agenda. Goldchain’s experiment limits itself to appearances, puts too much trust in the camera, and fails to question the photographer’s serenity. The “problem with memory” is not so readily removed. The reason, to no one’s surprise, is trauma. The broken china boy’s real job is to signify that “only trauma makes individuals—singly and unambiguously us—from the mass product,” and that the author herself is both “the product of mass manufacturing” and “the survivor and unwitting beneficiary” of “the collective catastrophe of the last century.”
This seems an intricate pancake and inscrutable conundrum, as Policeman MacCruiskeen would put it. If the catastrophe is collective, is trauma also mass-produced? How close must one be to the epicenter of the catastrophe in order to qualify? Is the author traumatized enough—singly and unambiguously herself—to have original things to say? In the end, it turns out that most of Stepanova’s musings have been beside the point. The coherence of the past was undone by the Holocaust (not photography), day-to-day experience after the Holocaust is weighed down by “postmemory” (not memory), and the “burden of postmemory” is borne by “the second and third generations of those who survived and who allow themselves to look back” (not all moderns). The fact that Stepanova’s ancestors “did not pass through the extermination camps” and generally succeeded in “keeping themselves apart from the wide current of history” makes her trauma even more acute: “It’s hard not to feel that the place you occupy in this world could be filled by another, and by rights it should be filled by this destroyed and unfulfilled other life.”
Sentence by beautiful sentence, Stepanova seems to have written herself into a corner. She wants to memorialize the dead but cannot reach them because memory is faulty and no longer exists, having been replaced by postmemory. Postmemory is the product first of photography and then of the Holocaust. None of this matters because the dead should be left to their own devices (and cannot be reached, anyway). We need the past, but any attempt to enter it is an affront to the dead. The dead need to be saved from oblivion, but only the traumatized among us can do it. The traumatized are the second and third generations of Holocaust survivors. Stepanova’s ancestors are not, strictly speaking, Holocaust survivors, but she is traumatized, too, because she believes we all are, one way or another. The decent thing to do would be to save everyone indiscriminately, but that cannot be done because it obviously cannot be done and because the natural human desire, “involuntary as a muscle spasm,” is to choose the very one. Trying to choose under those circumstances is
a zone of infernal wrongness, run through with one’s own and others’ suffering, warped by a general helplessness, shot through with an electric arc, welding past and present until both are burnt out. Any text, any speech rooted in the impossibility of choice flares up and burns, without answering its own questions.
And yet she does choose—without any hesitation or discussion. Beneath the foam of metaphors and nonmemories, In Memory of Memory is firmly rooted in the idea of kinship. The biggest questions she never answers are the ones she never asks. Why limit the circle of the dead to one’s own ancestors? Why should memory and trauma be traced through blood (and not soil, or shared humanity)? Why worry about broken china boys if you are secure in the warm embrace of your tribe? Stepanova’s past consists of two layers: her close relatives, whose story may or may not be reached through living memory, and the Jewish people, whose story is a matter of recorded history and inherited trauma. The first is full of holes, ironies, and uncertainties—the source and stuff of postmemory. The second is painful but internally consistent. The two are connected by descent and common fate (she calls both “my people”). When Stepanova was around ten she asked her mother what she feared most. Her mother responded: “I’m afraid of the violence that can destroy a person.”
Years passed, decades. Now I am the one who fears this same violence that can destroy a person. In me this fear has a sheen on it, as if my feelings of fear, anger, and resistance predate me and have been polished to a gleam by the many preceding generations…. When I awake I realize that the Germans have entered Paris and I need to hide the children; that the fearsome woman who sweeps the snow in the yard will interrogate me about my right to live there, that Mandelstam has been arrested and is entering a stadium through iron doors that resemble the doors to an oven. I was eight when I was told about Mandelstam and seven when I was told: we are Jews. But the black hole of the unspoken that lay at the center of the tale (perhaps because they themselves didn’t know) was more ancient than any explanation or example.
The story of her family (easily decipherable, it turns out) is nested within this ancient tale. History smoothly transitions into memory—and the other way around:
Every example, every photograph and book among the dozens I have read only confirms what I remember too well, with my gut memory. Perhaps this ancient horror began in 1938 when my still-young grandfather Nikolai gave up his service pistol and sat waiting to be arrested. Or perhaps later, in 1953, with the Jewish Doctors’ Plot, when Great-Grandmother and Grandmother, both doctors, both Jews, came home in the evenings and sat silently under the hanging lamp at the table in their communal apartment, waiting to be taken away…. My relatives were there (a person is always there, in close proximity to the death of others and one’s own death), and it turns out I didn’t need to hear any of this from them. The knowledge has lived within me.
She doesn’t have to choose from among the dead, after all. That choice was made for her at birth and will stay with her descendants for as long as they beget more descendants. Her wish to commemorate her ancestors is as old as the human species. The only mystery is why hide behind the talk of glass boxes and impossible choices. But perhaps this is not a mystery, either: in today’s West (Stepanova makes few concessions to a specifically Russian past) the urge to embody “the entire tribe, three or thirty generations back” is not always seen as a good thing. The same people who tend to their genealogical trees, collect their saliva for DNA testing, and travel the world in search of ancestors routinely (and mostly sincerely) condemn nativism, ethnic nationalism, and biological determinism. How much ethnic solidarity is okay, and who is allowed to cultivate it? Perhaps this is the zone of “infernal wrongness” and “general helplessness” Stepanova has in mind, more or less wittingly.
The collective trauma she refers to is primarily Jewish, but the postmemory syndrome associated with it has become epidemic: “The circle of those who are involved in the heat transfer between past and present is much wider than those who feel a link with the history of Europe’s Jews.” Stepanova’s grandfather Nikolai, the one whose last name she has inherited, was of Russian peasant origin (and thus, she seems to assume, not endowed with a meaningful tribal past), but he is part of the trauma history, too, both directly and by osmosis. Standing behind him are the huddled masses yearning to fill today’s emptiness with earlier glories: “The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the silent majority are also waiting for their moment to resurrect their own version of past events.” Some are certifiably traumatized, others may be impostors: “The whole contemporary world breathes the air of postmemory with its conservative reconstructions: make a country great again, return its former fabulous order.” But has the world ever breathed a different air? The wish to return to a former fabulous order is almost as old as ancestor worship. What is new in today’s malaise?
At some point during her research, Stepanova visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and asked for a consultation:
We sat at a long wooden table in the library, which appeared to hold every book written on any matter that might be considered Jewish. I asked questions and got answers. Then the museum advisor, a historian, asked me what I was writing about and I began to explain. “Ah,” he said. “One of those books where the author travels around the world in search of his or her roots—there are plenty of those now.”
“Yes,” I answered. “And now there will be one more.”
That’s unfortunate. Stepanova is an accomplished stylist and subtle essayist. She could have gone against fashion to make sure a little part of the past “didn’t simply dissipate into the air, unremembered and unremarked upon.” Instead, she produced an assortment of glass boxes with some of her “indistinct relatives” inside and added a series of elaborate reflections about why that was not a good idea. Rather than painting portraits, she snapped some photographs, many of them beautiful, most of them selfies.