On enigmatic traces

Marc Bloch states in The Historian’s Craft that the primary characteristic of historical observation lies in the reconstructing of knowledge from tracks or traces:

Whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern, what do we really mean by document, if it is not a “track”, as it were – the mark, perceptible to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible, has left behind? (1953,54-55).

Thus, the trace stands for or takes the place of the past. An indirectness, which according to Ricoeur gives an enigmatic character to history from a philosophical point of view. Something that does not concern historians much, as their priority lies in their engagment with verifying the value of a documentary trace to a past event (TNIII, 143; MHF, 278).

Yet, history based on documents is meaningful, according to Ricoeur, so long as historians, in contrast to collectors of mass data banks, hold on to the idea of a debt “to people of flesh and blood to whom something really happened in the past” (TNIII, 118).  He sees the historian as providing a useful and nuanced corrective to collective memory, the final result of mass data collection. In view of today’s huge collections of big data and data mining, it is salutary to remember Ricoeur’s reflections from the mid-1980s.

The concept of traces was something Ricoeur reflected a great deal over in both Time and Narrative as well as Memory, History, Forgetting with the help of the writings of, among others, Bloch, Le Goff, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Bergson and Lévinas.  In his notion of historical time, as a connecting bridge between phenomenological time and ordinary time, he sees time as being refigured by historians through reflective instruments, such as calendars, generations, and archives, documents and traces.*

Of these, a trace is accepted as one, only when historians can recognize it as such, by rethinking, re-enacting, and retracing its significance, thus enabling a return to the past (TNIII, 146, 183, 77).

Traces are fragile. They may be altered, effaced, destroyed, made inaccessible or forgotten (MHF, 415-416, 472, 284). They indicate a here and now – of past events or activities of human beings. They mark the passage of time;  give a temporal distance. They are datable, and thus inscribed in time (TNIII, 229).

Ricoeur identifies 3 types of traces: the physical, material trace, which along with archived documents and the questions of historians constitute the basis of historical knowledge (MHF,177); the affective, the existential that we experience as impressions through encountering traces; and the cerebral, cognitive traces of memory (MHF, 415, 427).

Traces disturb, by their very presence. With Lévinas**, Ricoeur believes that traces imply an Other, a historical Other (TNIII, 124-126), thus attesting to Bloch’s “evidence of witnesses in spite of themselves” (Bloch, 61).

*See also my previous posts: On Calendars and Historical Time, and On intertwining history and the Other.

**Levinas, “La Trace”, in Humanisme de l’autre homme, 1972,  57-63.

On history and the fabric of life

Paul Ricoeur ends his magisterial work on history philosophy, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli with a reference to Søren Kierkegaard’s discourse on the biblical birds in the air and lilies in the field (2000, p. 656). Why does he do so?

The works of his compatriot, Albert Camus, may hold a clue. Camus, too, similarly to Ricoeur endeavoured to make sense of the history of the 20th century which they were born into. While their beliefs were unalike, Camus contrasts the fates of his characters against the sun, the light, and the sea.

What does this have to do with history philosophy, one may wonder. Many years ago, I followed a university course on history philosophy with a brilliant teacher, where we read the classical 19th and 20th century works of history philosophers. While I failed the actual exam, my readings and reflections left me with a vague glimpse into how human beings considered their relationships to the divine and to nature. Over the course of history up until today, it is our changing views of this threefold relationship that constitutes our thoughts on history. At times, we treated the forces of nature with awe, as being divine. At other times, we have believed that the divine had given us lordship over nature or that we had raised ourselves above nature. That humankind was progressing to a higher form of development.

It took a Freud to remind ourselves that we too are a part of nature. The muddy trenches of WWI shattered forever our dreams and visions of mastery. In the Shoah or Holocaust of WWII, we tasted its bitter dregs. In the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, very much current in Camus’ lifetime (he died on the 4th January 1960), we foresaw what destruction humanity was capable of. Ricoeur who lived into the 21st century and had time to reflect on both the Truth and Reconciliation commission at the end of Apartheid and the wars in ex-Yugoslavia before his death on the 20th May 2005, endeavored to find a way for human beings to live together with truth, justice and reconciliation.

What our present generation of human beings can leave to the future generation is thus, according to Ricoeur, in Kierkegaard’s words, for the human in distress to contemplate the birds and lilies, and see how glorious it is to be a human being, thereby releasing their worldly cares. Ricoeur proposes: “…in opposition to this ruinous competition … the possibility of a work of forgetting, interweaving among all the fibres that connect us to time: memory of the past, expectations of the future, and attention to the present.” (Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004, p. 504; á l’inverse de cette ruineuse compétition…le possible travail de l’oubli, tissé entre toutes les fibres qui nous rattachent au temps: mémoires du passé, attente du futur et attention au présnt-original French version, 2000, p. 654-655).

On a present absence

(see also blog post: On an impact of WWI)

Hayden White, in his 2007 review of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History Forgetting observed: “I am not sure whether it is significant for his philosophical development that he was orphaned as a child was technically considered a ward of the French state, and was raised by grandparents …” (Reprinted in H. White, The Fiction of Narrative, 318-39, 2010, p. 338).

Ricoeur, in the set of interviews he gave over the course of 1994-95 to Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay begins his reply to the question about his childhood, by stating: “Le fait décisif de mon enfance est d’avoir été un pupille de la nation” (The decisive factor of my childhood, was having been a ward of state La Critique et la conviction, 1995, p. 11).

Here he describes a photo of his father, taken in early 1915 when he had come home on leave from the Front, when the young Paul would have been barely 2 years old, sitting on his father’s knees with his 16 months older sister Alice (1911-1934). He explains how the photo hasn’t moved, but how he himself had got older to a point where he was forced to accept the paradox that he now had a father who was younger than himself.

Ricoeur alludes to a similar experience described in Camus’ unfinished posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme, which had just been published in April 1994.  Here, the protagonist stands in front of the grave of his father whom he does not remember, when he suddenly spies the dates on the gravestone, and realizes that he at forty is now older than his father who died in his twenties, and reflects with pity and sorrow on the unjust fate of his younger father, le père cadet (p. 31).

Although Camus, too, was a ward of state like Ricoeur, he unlike the orphaned Ricoeur had a mother, a partially deaf and largely silent woman whom the young Camus adored and whose silent suffering he observed over the years.

Silence was what Ricoeur experienced about the mother he never knew. He once explained he had never met anyone who had known his mother or who could describe her to him.*   In La critique et la conviction, he admits to his two interlocutors that the absence of his mother, and her family, and a mother figure in his life, as being highly traumatic (p. 13). He confesses that his only experience of the maternal is what he has learned from seeing his children with his wife. “Le mot <<maman>> a été un mot prononcé pas mes enfants, mais jamais par moi” (p. 13 -The word mother is one used by my children, but never by me).

Given some of Ricouer’s philosophical enquiries into memory, forgetting, and the passing of generations, as well as his emphasis on recounting stories, narrativity, and his search for who we are, our identity, a tentative answer to Hayden White may be that traces of Ricoeur’s traumatic beginnings lie at the very heart of his life’s work.

**Jean-Francois Duval’s interview with Ricoeur in 1997, Paul Ricoeur <<Ce que je suis est foncièrement douteux>> republished in Philosophie magazine 67 mars 2013.