April 27, 2006

Prof Surveys Memorials of September 11th

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Prof. emeritus Jeremy Hartman, comparative literature, Yale, took a critical look at memorials of September 11th yesterday, putting them in a wider context alongside memorials for the Holocaust and the Vietnam war. The lecture marked the 40th anniversary of the founding of Cornell’s comparative literature department during the 1965-1966 academic year.

Author of 16 books and widely renowned in his field, Hartman referred to his introduction as a “historical survey.” He worked as a professor of comparative literature at Cornell from 1965 to 1967. Reflecting on the changes he has seen, he wondered “will we recognize our own discipline in 10 years?”

Called “Like Niobe, All Tears: Reflections on Monuments and Memorials in the Aftermath of 9/11,” the lecture refers to the tragic figure from Greek mythology, Niobe Queen of Thebes. Hartman contrasted the “improvised shrines” that often occur in the wake of a disaster, or the loss of a public figure with formal memorials that follow, calling the shrines “grand, but not grandiose,” containing a personal touch that is often absent in official recognition. However, both kinds serve to “dramatize a collective act of mourning.”

Prof. Debra Castillo, comparative literature and romance studies, found this interesting.

“We constantly need reminders because we’re always forgetting, there’s an interplay between remembering and forgetting,” she said.

Hartman also discussed the Vietnam Wall memorial, and the ability to interact with it by touching it or taking a rubbing and the proposed “Freedom Tower” design that will be erected on the former site of the World Trade Centers. He discussed the commercial, emotional and symbolic factors that influenced the design. He talked about tragedy in the modern age, contrasting the delay in information during the Holocaust to watching the Twin Towers collapse in real time on television.

“There is suffering going to us from a distance, and we suffer because we are distant, and can not do anything about it.” Hartman said. “Our fund of sympathy runs out.” He added that it becomes impossible to “preserve the uniqueness of each loss.”

Video is a strong medium, both “overpowering and desensitizing,” Hartman said. He is involved in a project started in 1979 that records the stories of Holocaust survivors on videotape. Although there had been audio recordings of survivors previously, Hartman prefers the video format, as it “puts a human face to the words,” while audio can be “ghostly, though that might not necessarily be a bad thing.”

Hartman is renowned for his work on classifying testimony as a genre that can be compared with other genres. He described the project as being more than just “a safe place for survivors to express themselves;” it is also a “portable memorial.” However, there are further repercussions to the project. In the words of Prof. Anindita Banerjee, comparative literature, “The interesting thing is if this video testimony is used, the next logical thing would be to put it on the web.”

On the other hand, Hartman recommended going in the opposite direction, making the videos “only available upon request,” in order to preserve their full impact. He feels that the sense of reality with video may be dulled and weakened because viewers are aware that the image can be altered.

Hartman also discussed the “mystery of numerals,” covering how they were used to dehumanize victims in concentration camps, showing “the human capacity of symbolic action.” He also talked about the implications of “9/11,” calling it “a strange kind of shorthand, especially when in quotes.”

Of all of the memorials he discussed, the one Hartman found to be the most effective was one he stumbled across accidentally. In the Berlin train station, among all of the other trains, an old one sits on a rusty track that leads nowhere. It is there to memorialize the hundreds of thousands of Jewish Berliners that were taken away on trains to concentration camps. There is no display, just a small sign outside the station to explain that the train itself is a monument.

Archived article by Laura Rice
Sun Staff Writer