dr. Sigurður

Metastories: Memory, Recollection, and History.

Anthology from Icelandic Popular Culture 11 (Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2005).- Sjálfssögur. Minni, minningar og saga. Gestaritstjóri Soffía Auður Birgisdóttir. Sýnisbók íslenskrar alþýðumenningar 11 (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2005).

The boundaries between truth and lies, which appear at times to have been obliterated, have influenced both people's conceptions of reality and virtual reality and their understandings of their own selves. How is it possible to work towards an integrated image of one's self when everything appears to be in flux? Without trying to offer any kind of definitive solution, I have attempted in this book to direct attention on the sensitive relationship between man and his environment and how this effects the shaping of people's ideas about life and existence. At times people will go to extraordinary lengths to put their own vision of society across - a vision that may be contaminated by political chauvinism and a conscious travesty of reality - and offer it to readers under the guise of 'truth'. It is salutary to remember a recent case in which various influential figures from Icelandic politics chose to defend the treatment and methods used by the author of a biography of the Nobel laureate, the novelist Halldór Laxness, methods that were patently based on lies and deception, viz. plagiarism. The author in question was, of course, a professor of the university, with connections reaching into the innermost core of the power élite of Icelandic society, and this was a state of affairs that could not be allowed to go undefended. There has been some discussion of how such cases impact on technical practice within academia - how students should be taught to treat sources in the light of these kinds of things - but less has been said about the ethical problems thrown up in this connection.

In this book I take the view that man is not one but many, that it is impossible to present a picture of a person as a single coherent entity that endures through the course of its life circumscribed and signposted by the sites of memory. The same applies to knowledge and scholarship: they cannot be treated as an integrated and permanent logical representation of reality; quite the opposite, they have to acknowledge and accept the oppositions and contradictions that present themselves in every case, with every 'truth'.

By accepting the multifaceted natures of mankind and learning we open up for ourselves ways of talking about the past in a far more exciting way than was previously possible. The perspectives become numberless and the voices that get to ring out uncountable. But this is not all: not only does the number of individuals that manage to emerge from the shadows and appear in their own right increase, but we also get the opportunity to bring out the varied approach of each individual in his own right when discussing society at any period and to present every person as an composite of many beings.

In this book I trace the forces that have shaped self-expression in Iceland over the course of the centuries and show how traditional debate has encouraged a particular understanding of this development. Scholars' ideas about the self and its creation have been greatly influenced by 'Modernization Theory'. But other grand narratives have also played their part in this: Romanticism, for instance, was instrumental in shaping Icelanders' ideas about the ancient literature of their country, and this in turn had a powerful influence on how individuals chose to direct their lives. The form in which the memories were cast proved to be a major factor in how individuals experienced the course of their own lives.

The individual in word is not the same as the individual in deed. Between these two poles lies a gulf that can never be bridged. For most of the 20th century scholars have taken as axiomatic that the testimony of individuals when speaking about their own selves is irredeemably flawed and worthless for work with any kind of scientific purpose in mind, while acting as if completely different laws applied to the supposedly 'objective' expression found in public sources of past events. Considerable energy has been expended in demonstrating that there is no way of using personal sources without sacrificing all claims to academic standards and principles. In this book I suggest that the only way to counter the attitudes of traditional historiography is to work systematically with the sources and break them down into their fundamental units. In order to do this, I attempt to classify 'life writing' into distinct groups on the basis of the impetus that appears to have lain behind the writing of each work. The results of this discussion bring to light a particular trend of development within life writing which provides some genuine illumination of the situation of individuals in modern societies. As part of this I believe I feel it is worth going over the changes that self-expression has undergone between the 18th and 21st centuries, while stressing that what I am dealing with here is a conjecture based on the research behind the book.

Biographies (base stage) are the first step in the systematic shaping of the self. Writers set out to describe the qualities of outstanding individuals who have had an influence on the collective memory of the group. Writings of this kind are well known from all times in Iceland, as evidenced by the quantity of such material held by the Manuscript Department of the National Library. Biographies of prominent men were produced in large numbers, designed specifically to record the qualities of members of the group and emphasizing their importance to society as a whole. These works were intended to act as a model for others and to preserve memories it was felt important for people to know about. The tradition for this kind of literary expression has its origins in ancient times in Iceland, with roots stretching back to the kings' sagas and bishops' sagas of the 13th and 14th centuries. These stories deal first and foremost with men and the world of men, for the obvious reason that it was men alone that occupied all positions of power in society.

Autobiographies (first stage) take over from biographies as a forum for self-expression; the form allows the individual to present himself and give shape to his own memories in a dynamic interaction with the historical memory that began to crystallize and gain force during the course of the 19th century. Autobiographies of the first stage are cast in the mold of what I term 'the culture of testimony', in a context where people step forward and testify to their part in the creation of the whole (which in Iceland is linked in with the development of the nation and its historical memory). At this stage the individual is treated as a subject for discussion, without personal association with his own self; he is objectified and thus becomes a building block employed in the construction of the edifice that is history. The autobiographical expression of men and women is strikingly similar, though at times with perceptible differences in tone that can be ascribed to differences in subject matter and gender imaging. Each group looks outwards when assessing their lives. Even when the material revolves around the individual's inner nature, the subject is objectified and set in context against the whole to which it belongs.

Memoirs or semi-autobiographies (second stage) are evidence of a specialization of the self. The main character is not in control of his own memories since the group to which he belongs has become fragmented in the face of a rapid burgeoning of the historical memory that took place in the early years of the 20th century. The increased complexity of society demanded greater specialization and the status of the historical memory gain appreciably in strength. By the fourth decade of the 20th century there was not holding back this specialization and one way in which it made itself manifest was in the rise of semi-autobiographies or memoirs. The historical memory found itself faced by a certain paradox. Initially it took on a position of great strength in the light of the key political debate of the period, that of national sovereignty, but its force was weakened in Iceland by the lack of an academic tradition of the sort that typically had a molding influence on the historical memories of most other societies. In Iceland there were very few men of learning that were capable of fostering the historical memory, of nourishing it with new material in reaction to the changing conditions within society. Semi-autobiographies or memoirs can be seen as yet another attempt to bring in a 'culture of testimony' and through them it was possible to do this more directly and efficiently than ever before. The 'experts' knew precisely what was needed in order to select the 'chosen' individuals and bring them to public attention and describe their part in the building up of society. It was irrelevant whether the main character was male or female, the aim was exactly the same: to demonstrate how the historical memory was based on compelling arguments and evidence.

Conversational books (second stage) owed their origins to the capitalist processing of the self. They provided a cheaper and more complete way than memoirs of getting into the life of individuals and their development went hand in hand with the new media that were going from strength to strength through the middle years of the 20th century. Conversational books have many similarities to semi-autobiographies but are in a certain sense freer and less constrained. They thus became the forerunner of new means of popular self-expression. In conversational books we find for the first time a 'culture of confession' taking shape in the public domain, built upon a turning away from the objectified self. In such cases, the whole discourse is directed inwards. Even so, this form of the self, at least in the early years of the 20th century, is characterized by determined attempts to uphold the historical memory - the sites of memory. The men writers tend to keep on along the old familiar tracks, but women show themselves to be more open to employing the new possibilities, more willing to put themselves into the public eye and by so doing fragmentize their own selves. The person that steps forward to be seen is not necessarily one and the same being; he or she come across as a multiplicity of different figures!

Autobiographies (third stage) that start to appear in the middle years of the 20th century have torn themselves free from the dominating influence of the ancient cultural heritage and from the first modern autobiographies published during the third decade of the century. They look inwards and bear witness to a ceaseless search for the self on the part of the authors, without regard to objective reality. They make no claim to provide evidence of anything beyond the lives of their own authors and thus mark a step in a new cultural phase of society that I have chosen to call 'the culture of confession'. The pioneers were far ahead of their times and enjoyed enormous popularity. They had a demonstrable influence on those who went on to write their own stories later in the 20th century, though initially they appeared to be voices crying in the wilderness. Their influence took some time to come through and was only patchy in the decades that followed due to the powerful status of classical Icelandic culture that persisted long into the 20th century. It is here that we find the beginnings of a trend that was to become increasingly marked, viz. differences in the ways that men and women chose to express themselves. Women became more adept at the fragmentation of the self, clearly having less to lose by holding it together. Men seemed more inclined to stand guard over traditional values and tended to be more occupied with objective standards against which they could measure themselves. At this stage women came to achieve the better and surer command over the autobiographical form, eventually changing its direction and emphasis.

Auto-fiction (fourth stage) provides the first clear signs that the self has become fragmented and lost. In addition, it is here that we first find writers consciously working with the idea that it is not possible to unify the intrinsic self, or, as entertainingly expressed by the well-known author Málfríður Einarsdóttir, the writer of a book I class under auto-fiction: 'The thing that I call "me", it doesn't exist.' Here we see the breaking up of the self in a text that is built upon an interpretation of the historical memory on a subjective level. The first writers to allow themselves the freedom to blend together fact and fiction while speaking of their own lives were men. Since then this technique has go on to supersede autobiography as the dominant form and in the last years of the 20th century the self has been given free rein. Women writers find it easy to express their selves in this context, their presentation of the self as composed of fragmentary units providing them with a tool in the political struggle over their status and position. Men jump at the opportunities that auto-fiction has to offer them and their reactions are in a sense the more striking for their having adhered to the traditional modes of self-expression that much longer. Women continue to express their selves within the traditional form of the autobiography but do this in a quite different and more fertile way than men.

'Perceptual sources' (fifth stage) become a medium for the aesthetic resolution of the self. At this stage the historical memory has become fragmentized and into the light step a diverse range of groups and individuals who describe their development on the basis of their own personal experience. The self is, so to speak, put on display and people are given the chance to observe it, take up residence in it, and assimilate it through its literary transmission. Men and women operate here on equal terms, uniting in an attempt to give shape to their memories. Each and every individual is a member of any number of groups possessed of different memories - collective memory - but these groups have little meaning until the person has described his own memories himself. The trend in the direction of perceptual sources brings to fruition the experiments carried out on the self throughout the course of the 20th century. The ways in which these ideas can be passed on and communicated are unlimited; they are present every day of the year, every minute of our lives.

Digital expression of the self (fifth stage) offers opportunities for new and unrestricted means of expression and becomes the focal point of the world that each and every individual chooses to create for himself. Digital communication is sensory and builds upon different mental associations of the sense organs. Communication over the internet 'deconstructs' all attempts to exert an influence on people's memories, breaking down traditional categories and making them meaningless. The postmodern age with its new perspectives is upon us. The collective memory and the historical memory, in the sense understood by well-known commentators on memory like Halbwacks and Nora, have disappeared, to be replaced by the memory fragments of different individuals who arrange them however they see fit. All kinds of things go on without significant constraints from the world around - or perhaps because of powerful constraints from the world around, depending on how we view the world. The traditions become subjects for treatment - materials for demolition or construction - and the individual conducts an unending dialogue with himself and society about his situation, self-image and connections with various forces that come up before his field of experience. Men and women step forward and 'blog' about existence. A basis for discussion is created constructed on completely different premises from conventional media, and not necessarily entailing mere personal ranting; the focus is on the individual, but freed from the constraints to which he is normally subject within a conventional environment. All types of humanity, male and female, present images of their lives, even brandishing the video machine and thus able to observe the world and his dog across the net from all four corners of the globe. Some take photographs and then arranged them as the fancy takes them, perhaps editing them by computer with different aims in mind. Others just present the world with a share in themselves by relaying over the net the most intimate parts of their lives 24 hours a day - life in its entirety, staged live and uninterrupted.

A classification of this type is fine so far as it goes. Ultimately, each narrative stands like a rock in the sea and can be used in countless ways without connection to other texts of the same sort. This is the subjective advantage of these sources and their most important property. The academic world has increasingly acknowledged this fact and started to use it as a basis to work from.

One of the most powerful influences here has been gender studies, which have wrought major changes to how life writing has been handled within the world of scholarship. People's ideas about the workings of memory and its connections with recorded recollections have also encouraged a more varied use of sources that arise directly from people's personal expression of their own lives. The present age has allowed us to hear voices that previously would have remained unheard because a particular ideology did not see them as serving its cause. Research into memory has thus revolutionized the status of life writing and strengthened people's faith in the value of memories as a channel for relaying their lives, for giving them a voice. In the atmosphere of the cold war, those who were permitted to present themselves to the public at large were selected along particular ideological lines (the grand narratives). Now, in the present, everything is possible. We have achieved meltdown!

On the basis of my research it appears that the authors of the vast majority of books written by women and classified as life writing tend to avoid the self. The writers make a conscious attempt to absent themselves from their own narratives. In this I go along with other scholars who have looked in greatest depth into Icelandic women's autobiographies. Where I differ from the analyses of these critics is that, as I see it, this is also one of the chief characteristics of autobiographies written by men who were born in the 19th century and the earliest years of the 20th. They manage to talk about themselves and their lives' work in a way that gives the reader the impression that they are the center of the narrative, just as happens with many women's autobiographies, while in reality employing a narrative technique based on an attempt to objectify everyone who comes into the story, themselves included. In order to do this, they need first to create a distance between themselves and what is being described. Exactly the same is true of the accounts written by women; they hold themselves outside their own lives and look at them from a distance, appearing for all the world to be describing extraneous objects from their own existence. As I see it, this is one of the most salient features of all autobiographies at this time. This is the period that is most strongly marked by what I have called 'the culture of testimony'; it is the period when the writers' main concern was to testify to their own part in the shaping of the nation or other collective undertakings, when people viewed themselves as one part of a greater whole working towards a common goal, viz. that of making Iceland a sovereign nation. It seems to me that the great majority of these autobiographical authors, both men and women, experienced difficulties stepping outside this framework and into their own selves. The centrality and visibility of the self of course varies between individual works, but as a rule it is simply not the main concern in these works. In my view, what matters more is to recognize that the self is being objectified, that it is being treated as a topic within a greater context where authors are providing testimony at their own trials of themselves and their society. For this there are, I believe, particular explanations that can be inferred from a general development within autobiographical writing and that it is important to treat as a special subject for discussion.

As mentioned previously, Iceland is somewhat anomalous as regards people's associations with memory in the 19th century. As I see it, the collective memory as I have defined it was exceptionally weak in Iceland. As a result of the geographical conditions groups found it difficult to coalesce within the kinds of bonds that were the prerequisite for sharing their memories and holding them in common. Even the group best placed to sustain their collective memory, viz. the educated, was dispersed among the ordinary people and absorbed the thought and activities of the agricultural community without being able to maintain its earlier links forged during schooling and education. In other words, the collective memory was so weak that extra space was available for the other two forms in which memory manifests itself. Thus individual memory was given much greater freedom to express itself than in most other parts of Europe. At the same time the position of historical memory was strong, especially in comparison to its rather weak position in other countries in the 19th century. The situation was thus this: Individuals had more latitude to shape their own memories, and this was buttressed by the historical memory with its direct links to the ancient culture of the Icelanders. Each of these types grew stronger and stronger through the course of the 19th century in parallel with the powerful arguments put forward by the leaders of the independence movement. In this, the ancient cultural world of Iceland, and above all the material of the family sagas, was used to create a national historical memory and an image of what was felt to be worth focussing on. However, despite this strength of the historical memory, the individual and his personal memory held its ground, because it was individuals that had to read and pass on the historical memory to the groups to which they belonged and who thus became an important nexus between history and other individuals. Memory was thus built up upon the living experience of individuals, for whom there was no way of avoiding coming to terms with the historical memory. This perhaps suggests a reason why autobiography became a more widespread form of expression in Iceland that in most other parts of Europe.

In the book I consider the question of whether people in Iceland have had the confidence to look at their own selves face to face and to what extent society has offered them the opportunities to do this. It is possible to answer this in various ways, but one thing is certain, that as things stand nowadays people are explicitly encouraged to 'open' themselves up in the public arena. Those behind 'the Emotional Square' promote meetings where people are urged to tell their own stories and receive support from others taking part. Thus a Reykjavík newspaper announces that a well-known writer will be 'receiving guests on the Emotional Square, to be held at the restaurant Hressó [High Spirits] today between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.' It is clearly appropriate to conduct a meeting of this kind at this particular eating place, especially as such events are intended as therapy, i.e. to lift the spirits, for those who put themselves forward to air their problems in public. 'On top of this, the artist Steinunn Helgadóttir is going to sell feelings, and all feelings will be on sale,' as the newspaper announcement goes on to say. What follows in the article suggests that those behind the event are by no mean entirely tongue in cheek about themselves and their project, since we hear that Steinunn will be offering 'among other things genuine feelings, and they are more expensive that other feelings and are sold singly.'

Events of this kind fall under what I term 'the culture of confession', in which people put themselves forward in public to tell their stories to other people. But although this kind of expression appears to be much more open than that which went on within the bounds of 'the culture of testimony', it should never be forgotten that both are narrative forms which give shape to people's thoughts and actions - a genuine rhetoric.

In this connection one may ask, how do thoughts come into existence? and how do people remember their lives or the events connected with them? In the book I look in some detail at how commentators have talked about memory and people's ideas about existence. It is interesting to consider the interplay between the collective memory and the historical memory, in which the former determines the construction that smaller groups put upon the events and activities that connect its individual members together. Memories of this kind are supposed to have lost their significance in the complex societies of the modern age, once the traditional groupings, such as village communities, started to break down. They were superseded by the historical memory, which was a construct of specialists whose job it was to 'create' memories seen as being of importance. The complex process of memory production was long viewed as have 'disengaged' people from their own memories; such memories existed only in so far as they fitted in with the historical memory. This meant, for example, that at the time of 'the culture of testimony', which was a manifestation of the historical memory, there was little scope for narratives that reached outside the framework imposed by the form of testimony. Accounts of journey into hell, of death camps and gulags, were not believed if they were aired at all, and for this reason it was felt reasonable to subject individuals who expressed them to all kinds of force and compulsion. Within the narrative tradition such phenomena simply did not exist! The historical memory in this sense was a stern master with a tyranny constructed on the landmarks of memory, signposts that told people how they should live their lives and what was to be taken as important when doing so.

The problem with the understanding of memory production outlined above is that it denies the individual any input into his own fate. In the book I show that this does not necessarily need to be the case, since the sites of memory, like in fact the historical memory as a whole, are frozen and fossilized images of the reality; they are templates that lock people's minds onto the idea that lies behind them, but the ideas about the historical memory build equally on the idea that they are to be interpreted and explained through individuals' experience of them. In other words, they are, when all is said and done, molded and interpreted on the basis of personal experience and so take on an entirely new life in the minds of individuals. Through this approach to the concepts of memory the individual becomes a considerably more active participant in his own life, since he reads the historical memory and interprets it on the basis of countless perspectives from within his own life. Seen this way, it is necessary to bolster and reinforce those conditions within society that provide people with opportunities to come to their own conclusions about life and existence. There are of course always forces ready to grasp any opportunity to control the historical memory in the hope that this will then enable them to influence how it is received. Over this there is competition in various areas of society and at all times.

Scholars have applied different concepts of memory to pin down the nature of the struggle that frequently prevails between different forces. Research of this kind has sharpened people's awareness of the effectiveness of their own lives and the possibilities for expression that are available to them.

This process of deconstruction indisputably involves a heterogeneity and thus creates certain dangers. The structures that held expression together - in orbit around specific ideas - are breaking up, creating a certain dissolution. This is something to be welcomed in that it allows different viewpoints easier access to the present. We can clearly observe this happening in autobiographical expression; such expression has grown exponentially and gained strength with every passing year and now forms part of the general communication process of societies. But with this dissolution comes a certain responsibility that has to be borne by those who put themselves forward. This responsibility is shouldered in a variety of ways in society, whether by private companies, the public authorities or individuals.

The book contains definitions of all the main concepts used in it, a little over 200 in total. It is my great hope that this glossary of concepts may act as a kind of manifesto of how I envisage the past and how historians can approach it. In this connection, it is my belief that people's understanding of history and the past must always come through their own knowledge and consciousness - their thought and imagination - and thus be part of individuals' experience of what has gone before them.

Translation Nicholas Jones

Academic liturgy
From Re-evaluation to Disintegration
History War
Dreams of Things Past
Education, Love and Grief
Pieces and Molds
The Sound of Divine Revelation
Microhistory - Conflicting Paths
Brothers from the Stranda Commune
Modes of Living in Reykjavik, 1930-1940
Away. Faraway! - And to Another Continent
The Contours of Social History
Method facing a Dilemma
"I am 479 Days Younger than Nilli."...
Modern fairy tales...
Dissertation: The Continuity of Everyday Life
The Reykjavík Academy
Íslensk heimasíða
© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon