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Marie-Laure Ryan. Comments to “Memory, Identity, Imagination” by Serguey Ehrlich


Visionary as well as based on solid scholarship, “Memory, Identity, Imagination” is far more than a contribution to memory studies and to the relation between the three concepts of its title—it is above all a diagnosis of what plagues the world: conceptions of identity, whether individual or collective (the nation-state) based on an opposition “us vs. them,” which leads to wars, inequality, and the destruction of the environment. But whereas one may be tempted ascribe the sorry state of the world to an unchanging “human nature” that is bound to repeat the same patterns of behavior over and over again, Ehrlich provides a ground for optimism by stressing the creative nature of the imagination. Dare to imagine, he tells us, a world where citizenship in a nation-state is replaced with citizenship in a global community, where self-sacrifice to a common good replaces the other-sacrifice of war, where the “other” necessary to the definition of identity is no longer located in space but in time—in the memory of the Holocaust as the epitome of that which should never happen again.

One important thing I learned reading the article is how outdated political discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere is with respect to the digital revolution. Politicians keep talking about jobs being lost by being shipped away to some foreign countries where labor is cheaper. This presupposes the zero-sum, “us vs. them” mentality that Ehrlich so eloquently denounces. The main reason for job losses is automation, and we are moving toward a situation where most workers will be replaced by machines. The most urgent problem is not how to keep manufacturing jobs at all cost in a given part of the world, but how to deal with a society where jobs and working hours are severely reduced, either by creating new kinds of jobs, by sharing the jobs that remain, or by removing the stigma (and economic hardship) of living without a job. It will take imagination to deal with this new situation. Ehrlich’s article is an eloquent plea to begin to grasp the consequences of the digital revolution.

As a narratologist I am particularly interested in the distinction between three types of mythic narratives, corresponding to three stages in the development of humanity. It reminds me of previous efforts by literary theorists such as Georg Lukács and Northrop Frye to identify basic archetypal kinds of narrative and—in the case of Lukács-- to connect them to different types of society. For Lukács, the epic was the manifestation of a harmonious relation between the individual and the group he belongs to, while the novel was the manifestation of a struggle between the aspirations of the individual and those of society. Ehrlich’s narrative typology offers an intriguing alternative to Lukács. He presents the fairy tale as a fundamentally individualistic quest by which the hero strives to acquire that which he is lacking—the princess of Proppian fairy tales or the magic object given by the donor standing in this case for the goods that enable the individual to survive. It could be objected that humanity never existed without the support of a group, and that the individualistic nature of the fairy tale hero’s quest does not correspond to a stage in the development of humanity that precedes the emergence of the nation-state. Before there were large groups, there were small groups, but there was always some kind of group. Moreover there is no evidence that the fairy tale preceded historically the epic tales that represent what Ehrlich calls “the heroic myth.” In fact, Ehrlich’s interpretation of the fairy tale makes it a fitting representation of capitalism. I prefer to regard the three basic types of narrative—fairy tale, heroic myth, myth of self-sacrifice—as forms that coexist within a given culture rather than as forms corresponding to various historical states of civilization. Ehrlich envisions a stage of humanity when the individual will identify with a global community that overcomes the “us vs. them” and zero-sum-game mentality of the nation-state system, and he describes the narrative of self-sacrifice as representative of this stage, but what this narrative will be like is open to question. Can there still be narratives without antagonism and competition, that is, without conflict? If we look at the total literary production of contemporary society, we find a lot of individualistic narratives where the characters act on behalf of their own private interests; we also find lots of ambiguous narratives where “the good” and “the bad” are ill-defined. The heroic myth survives mainly in popular entertainment, especially in fantastic stories like Star Wars, whose world differs significantly from the real world, but heroic tales seem to have died out in realistic narratives. Does this mean that, even though we still live in a world dominated by the “us vs. them” ideology, we no longer believe in the heroic myth, and we can only accept it in supernatural worlds? As for self-sacrifice, it will be an essential gesture in real life if we are ever going to do something about climate change, for we cannot continue with our present materialistic pursuits and conspicuous consumerism without destroying our natural environment, but self-sacrifice cannot be more than a theme among many others in the literature of a culture. Rather than thinking of the three “basic mythic narratives” as the dominant narrative genres of three stages in the development of humanity, we should regard them as abstract patterns that capture the spirit of the three cultural forms defined by Ehrlich. They are not so much real stories as “Grand Narratives” (Grands Récits) in the sense of Jean-François Lyotard: a global explanatory scheme that legitimates institutions or forms of political organization, but does not correspond to any existing concrete text.

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