Performing the Past: Memory, History and Identity in Modern Europe
by Karin Tilmans, Frank Van Vree, Jay Winter, Editors
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2010
368 pp., illus. Paper, € 34,50
Reviewed by Giuseppe Pennisi
Professor of Economics Università Europea di Roma
A few word about the authors. Karin Tilmans is a cultural historian, fellow of the Department of History and Civilisation, and academic coordinator of the Max Weber Programme for Postdoctoral Studies, both at the European University Institute. Frank van Vree is an historian and professor of journalism at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Jay Winter is the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University. The book was conceived at the conference Theatres of Memory . A Conference on Historical Culture when a project was conceived that involved interdisciplinary meetings and three different academic institutions in Europe and in the US. Its preparation required nearly five years. It is divided in an introductory “Framework” and three Parts (“The Performing Turn”, “Media and the Arts”, “Identity, Politics and the Performance of History”) with 15 different essays by 16 authors.
Performing the Past is an investigation of the multiple social and culture practices through which Europeans have negotiated the space between their history and their memory over the past 200 years. In museums, in opera houses, in the streets, in the schools, in theatres, in films, on the internet and beyond, narratives about the past circulate today at a dizzying speed. Producing and selling them is big business; if the past is indeed a foreign country, there are tens of thousands of tourist agents, guides, and pundits around to help us on our way, for a fee, to be sure. This collection of essays by renowned scholars from, among others, Yale, Columbia, Amsterdam Oxford, Cambridge, New York University and the European University Institute in Florence, is essential reading for anyone interested in today's memory boom. Drawing on different national and disciplinary traditions, the authors ultimately engage us with the ways in which Europeans continue a venerable tradition of finding out who they are, and where they are going, by “performing the past.”
Many aspects of culture, performing arts, and technology (as it affects culture and performing arts) are examined, mostly from a European standpoint. The central issue of the papers if there is and there can be a European own identity without a European own memory. The answers are different especially when culture and performing arts are examined through the eyeglasses of technology.
The main issue explored is how memory performed (in novels, in plays, in movies) does contribute to collective memories. The 15 papers are mostly case studies ranging from music and memory in Mozart’s Zauberflö to evocation of present past in the Czech Republic and Poland after 1989, from memories of the Holocaust to how readers of novels filter them through their social framework. A main theme runs throughout the book: whether or not Europe has an identity based on a collectively shared memory. In the last chapter––Chiara Bottici’s essay––the contention is that such a European collective memory, and thus a European own identity, is still far and distant. The contention is documented, inter alia, through a comparative examination of history textbooks in Italy, France, and Germany and their diverging presentations of fact of the recent past as well as of the rationale for European integration. The proposal is that Europeans are still at the level of collective remembrance and a long way to a common and a shared identity.
In short, this is a very interesting book that raises several pertinent questions on the future of Europe and its purported common culture.