BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 6, Number 1 (Winter 2007)
 
Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory, trans. Rodney Livingstone.

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
x + 222 pp. ISBN 0804745234.

Reviewed by Richard J. Bernstein
New School for Social Researh

Pioneers in the field of cultural memory, Jan and Aleida Assmann stand to the field as Hans-Georg Gadamer stands to hermeneutics. Building on each other's work, they have given shape to this new discipline, demonstrated its relevance to contemporary life, and developed a vocabulary that introduces conceptual clarity. Jan Assmann is one of the most imaginative Egyptologists of our time, but he is much more. He discusses with equal perspicacity Freud, Nietzsche, and Thomas Mann. His extensive knowledge of the history of cultures and religions enables him to draw on a wide range of examples to illustrate vividly his key claims. In short, he exemplifies what is becoming increasingly rare in our time: genuine Bildung. And in the mode of the finest humanistic scholars, he writes with clarity and verve. The present collection, which consists of ten well-crafted essays, displays the range of Assmann's thinking. Although they address a great variety of topics, all of these essays treat issues of cultural memory where religion (broadly conceived) turns out to be the focal point.

What precisely is cultural memory? In his Introduction, Assmann sets out to provide a topology for it. He distinguishes a twofold basis of memory: neural and social. In writing of social memory he draws upon Maurice Halbwachs's classic work on collective memory, where he develops the thesis that memory (including individual memory) is a social phenomenon. Memory can also be divided into episodic and semantic categories. The former refers to what we directly experience, whereas the latter refers to everything we have learned and memorized. Episodic memory can be further subdivided into visual scenic memory and narrative memory that is organized linguistically. The Assmanns introduce the term "communicative memory" to describe the social aspect of individual memory identified by Halbwachs. Socialization is not only a foundation but also a function of memory. Collective memory is the medium of collective identity. Memory plays the important function of bonding -- and the great theoretician of bonding memory is Nietzsche. Nietzsche, with his concept of "will's memory," shows that people need memory in order to be able to form social bonds: "The 'will's memory' is based on the resolve to continue to will over and over again what you once willed. This memory is not provided for in nature; man has 'bred' it into himself so as to be able to live in a society which has been culturally constructed"(Assmann 5). The capacity to establish social bonds "presupposes responsibility, soundness of mind, and reliability"(5). Assmann continues, "The task of this memory, above all, is to transmit a collective identity. Society inscribes itself in this memory with all its norms and values and creates in the individual the authority that Freud called the superego and that has traditionally been called 'conscience'"(7). Collective memory is particularly susceptible to politicized forms of remembering. The fierce disputes about the memorialization of the Vietnam War, 9/11, and the Holocaust illustrate this politicization of collective memory.

Assmann introduces the concept of cultural memory against this background. The key to understanding what is distinctive about cultural memory is the concept of tradition: "Tradition can be understood as a special case of communication in which information is not exchanged reciprocally and horizontally, but is transmitted vertically through the generations"(8). Cultural memory is a special case of communicative memory that has a different temporal structure: "If we think of the typical three-generation cycle of communicative memory as synchronic memory space, then cultural memory, with its traditions reaching far back into the past, forms the diachronic axis"(8). So, unlike Halbwachs who distinguished mémoire vécue from tradition, cultural memory includes everything that belongs to cultural traditions. And once we expand the concept of memory to encompass the full range of tradition, we open up new perspectives on the study of memory aids, rituals, festivals and writing -- all of which shape and are shaped by cultural memory. Consequently, with cultural memory we become conscious of the depths of time and develop a sense of simultaneity with a remembered past, making it possible to identify with forms of expression going back thousands of years. This is why it is necessary to study carefully the ways in which rituals, festivals, oral stories and canonical texts embody cultural memory. And it is also essential to study the history of cultural memory, the ways in which memories are transformed and revised over the centuries.

For Assmann, the concept of tradition itself takes on an expanded significance. Typically, tradition refers to the conscious handing down, the reception, and the continued existence of what is received. This classic concept of tradition leaves no place for the unconscious. Assmann is critical of the idea of a collective or cultural unconscious, but he does want to find room for an expanded concept of tradition "that includes unconscious aspects of transmission and transfer across the generations"(26). This is one of the major reasons for Assmann's interest in Freud, who sought to show in Moses and Monotheism how unconscious memory traces and repressed traumas shape a religious tradition.

What makes these essays so stimulating is the way in which Assmann explains and textures his theoretical underpinning with a wealth of concrete illustrations ranging from the cultural memory of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Israelites, and the Osage Indians down to recent controversies about the Holocaust. Let me illustrate this with reference to his brilliant interpretation of Deuteronomy. Assmann shows how Deuteronomy can be read as a great text in "making memory" in Nietzsche's sense: "What the children of Israel must not forget is, on the one hand, the law, and, on the other, the story of the exodus from Egypt that has been lived through and that thereby acquires the status of a normative past"(17). Assmann then shows that Deuteronomy lists no fewer than seven different procedures of culturally formed memory: learning by heart; education and conversational remembering; making visible through body-marking; storing up and publication; festivals of collective remembering; oral transmission; and canonization of the text of the covenant. (See pp.18-19.)

But Assmann, in his essay on Freud, shows us another role that Deuteronomy plays. Until recently, many scholars viewed Freud's last book, Moses and Monotheism, as something of an intellectual embarrassment. Freud tells what seems to be an outrageously wild story -- a sheer fantasy -- about how Moses was really an Egyptian, a follower of the monotheistic sun religion of the pharaoh, Akhenaten. Moses, the Egyptian, "creates" the Jewish people by leading a motley group of Semites out of Egypt. The Israelites eventually murder Moses in the desert. For years this "novelistic" account of Moses was ridiculed. And virtually everyone -- critics and defenders of Freud -- agreed that there was simply no biblical or historical basis for this outlandish tale. But insofar as Freud is telling a story about how traumatic experience lies at the heart of monotheism, Assmann expresses his agreement. He tells us:

I regard this as a very profound and thought-provoking analysis of monotheism, that is, of the religion of the Bible. As an Egyptologist, I am also fascinated by the idea of a link between the monotheistic Aten-worship and the biblical monotheism. Needless to say, the monotheism of Akhenaten's cosmic sun worship and the biblical belief in a transcendent God are worlds apart. But Freud's conception of a father religion undoubtedly identifies a common denominator, and the idea of the exclusive unity of everything divine was such an unprecedented novelty that it may have weighed more heavily than all the differences of substance. (51)

Assmann has already dealt at length with the cultural memory of Moses in the West in his splendid Moses the Egyptian, a book that culminates with a chapter on Freud. (The essay, "Egypt in Western Memory," provides a succinct summary of this book and follows the vicissitudes of the cultural memory of Moses from ancient times through the Joseph novels of Thomas Mann and Freud's Moses book.) Now, however, Assmann adds a novel twist. He thinks that Freud was "right to place the concepts of 'trauma' and 'guilt' at the heart of the history of religion, especially monotheistic religion, and to interpret this history in terms of remembering and forgetting"(46-7). But he questions Freud's methodology. Whereas Freud thought the way to discover this is through a depth psychoanalysis, Assmann claims that the themes of trauma, guilt, memory, and repression form a part of the "surface reality of religion and its documents"(47). Like the purloined letter, the solution of the mystery is not hidden; it is there on the surface -- for those who have eyes to see.

Assmann shows that Deuteronomy contains a theory of individual, collective, and cultural memory that corresponds to what Freud excavated with his depth analysis. The entire book is based on a deep fear of forgetting that threatens the Israelites. It constantly warns against this forgetting, and seeks to provide the procedures to insure that the people will not forget the meaning of the forty years of wandering in the desert and the Covenant with Yahweh. Assmann calls this the consolidation of "counterfactual" memory "that keeps present to the mind a yesterday that conflicts with every today"(53). In a way, Assmann turns Freud upside down because what Freud -- the archaeologist of the psyche -- excavated by depth psychoanalysis of trauma, guilt, remembering, forgetting and repression can be discovered on the surface in the archives themselves. "No hermeneutics of distrust is called for to shed light on these themes by reading 'against the grain' in order to penetrate the hidden depths of what has been repressed"(61-2). Freud's passion for archaeology -- the model for his understanding of depth psychoanalysis -- blinded him to what lay on the surface. In his pithy conclusion Assmann tells us: "Perhaps Freud's mistake lay simply in his insistence on approaching the biblical text as if it were a heap of ruins, whereas in reality it was an inhabited city, and in tackling it with 'picks, shovels, and spades,' when he would have been better advised to take a careful look around in the crypts and book stacks"(62).

Assmann's criticism is not directed to psychoanalysis as a clinical discipline. But he argues that when we use psychoanalytic concepts to deal with cultural memory, we find that they are manifestly exemplified in cultural texts themselves. The point that Assmann makes about Freud has a general significance for his own methodology. We must carefully analyze what lies on the surface -- the archives in written texts, canonization, rituals, rites, and festivals. But to do so requires hermeneutical sensitivity to how cultural texts are formed by and shape cultural memory. By carefully analyzing these diverse types of cultural texts we learn to grasp the structures and dynamics of cultural memory.

I have touched upon only a small portion of what is scrutinized in these rich essays. Assmann illuminates the ways in which the different functions of writing transform the dynamics of cultural memory. Using the example of Israel, he outlines five stages that lead from oral tradition to writing, and ultimately to canonization. He shows us how the process of canonization transforms oral tradition and cultural memory. He does not limit his analysis to verbal texts. "Cultural texts" include dances, rites, symbols -- indeed they include all media that "possess a particular normative and formative authority in the establishment of meaning and identity"(123). He analyzes how the tribal festivals of the Osage Indians and Sarsaru ritual of the Neo-Assyrians constitute the medium for cultural memory. He shows how cultural memory requires a new approach to temporality, including the ways in which the present can fuse with the past -- and even what a people take to be cosmic and eternal. He highlights the ambivalence of cultural memory whereby from one side (Nietzsche) it serves "the function of violent disciplining, but from the other side it is the means whereby we can be rescued from oblivion"(92). There is also a suggestive discussion of the various ways in which writing as a means of instituting "public memory" goes hand in hand with the emergence of states. Assmann's essays are always a pleasure to read. Whatever one's scholarly discipline or interest, one comes away from reading Assmann with fresh insights and new questions to explore.


URL: Assmann.html; Last updated: Winter 2007; mail to: Complitreview@brynmawr.edu
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