The Artist as Rememberer (Part 1)

In an interview, Wendell Berry once remarked: “In a truly grounded, locally adapted culture, the artists would be rememberers.”[1] This statement brought up several questions for me:

  • How important is art to our sense of memory and belonging in a place or community?
  • In what ways can art cultivate a sense of memory?
  • Does thinking about the artist as rememberer change the way we think about art?

Before answering these questions more generally, I think it will be helpful, considering that he has taken up this very role of artist as rememberer, to look at Berry’s own artistic contribution in order to see what role he affords memory in community life.

Throughout Berry’s fiction, we find the suggestion that overlapping and connected memories are one of the main ways in which we form a community with other people. For instance, in the novel Jayber Crow, Jayber is constantly recalling stories that he has been told and acquiring the history of the town of Port William through the memories of each inhabitant. Such stories form part of Jayber’s own identity that grows into the place and people of Port William. He says:

My mind had begun to sink into the place. This was a feeling. It had grown into me from what I had learned at my work and all I had heard from Mat Feltner and the others who were the community’s rememberers, and from what I remembered myself. The feeling was that I could not be extracted from Port William like a pit from a plum, and that it could not be extracted from me; even death could not set it and me apart.[2]

The identity of this character and many others in Berry’s novels are directly related to the memories of fellow members and places in the community. Without the passing on of memory by those whom Berry refers to as “rememberers,” the identity of both places and people can be lost.

If identity is associated with the transferral of memories, then this is partly because memory is both rooted in and reinforces the importance of place. Memories are dependent on place to situate them within the wider context of community and time. They become abstract and disconnected from reality when separated from place. The narrator of Berry’s story Are you all Right? says regarding the memory of Art Rowenberry: “It was not that he ‘lived in his mind.’ He lived in the place, but the place was where the memories were, and he walked among them, tracing them out over the living ground.”[3] Here, there is the assumption that the place is what memory is grounded in, both literally and metaphorically. Because the people had such a close relationship with the land, they maintained strong memories of their own and other communities stretching back over time. This served to solidify their views on their own particular community along with their concept of a more universal membership in Creation.

I could highlight countless other examples in Berry’s work that suggest the central role of memory in a placed community life. Hopefully, though, we can at least see in this brief space that memory is central to the way that we conceive of ourselves, our relationships to others, and our relationship to particular places. Berry’s characters acquire a sense of continuity and communal identity through the imaginative activity of remembering not only one’s own thoughts and experiences, but remembering how those experiences are connected to the lives and memories of others.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll address more directly the questions I posed at the onset and explore what the implications are of Berry’s statement on the artist as rememberer. For now, do you agree with Berry’s assessment of the role of memory in community life? Is it helpful to look to literature to think about these issues?


[1] Morris Allen Grubbs, ed. Conversations with Wendell Berry (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,2007)., 53.

[2] Berry, Jayber Crow, 204.

[3] Berry, That Distant Land, 368.

Author

  • Jennifer Allen Craft is a regular contributor at Transpositions. Jenn is from southwest Georgia (think swamp, red clay, peanuts, and gnats) and holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Humanities from Atlanta Christian College and an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from St. Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD on the theological significance of place with special attention to the role of the arts in the way we make and identify with places.

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5 Comments

  1. says: Jim Watkins

    Hi Jenn,

    Thanks for this post. The idea that artists contribute to the collective memory of a place or community is a very interesting one. And I look forward to your next post when you explore this idea more directly in connection with the arts. But, until then, I was curious to reflect upon the relationship between identity and memory. In you post, you say “Without the passing on of memory by those whom Berry refers to as “rememberers,” the identity of both places and people can be lost.” This made me wonder about the case of someone who has amnesia. If a person forgets himself, has he lost his identity? Perhaps the person with amnesia does not know who they are anymore, but I would like to affirm that the person remains the same person. Do you think memory is essential to the continuation of identity (i.e. if no one remembers who I am, not even myself, then truly my identity is lost), or do you think that memory can be lost, but that identity can remain (as in the case of a person with amnesia)?

    1. says: Jenn Craft

      Jim,

      Sorry to take so long getting back to you. I think there is a strong tie between identity and memory, and Berry definitely makes this connection in his work. Berry, of course, like most everything, connects it with place. So for him, the question of “who” is always related to the question of “where”. But we can’t know anything about a place (its history, use, how we and other people are related to it in various ways) except through the passing on of place and community memory. So our identity in a place, then, is always going to be dependent on memory. Philosophers like Mary Warnock, Paul Ricoeur, Gaston Bachelard–as far as I’ve read, make a similar connection to Berry regarding the relationship between identity and memory.

      More generally, I think there are probably a couple ways to approach it. I don’t think I was trying to say anything too metaphysical about it. In the case of amnesia, I think it gets tricky. Because while the person is still composed of all the same features and has even had all the same experiences (so for instance, would still have a chicken pox scar or something), if they don’t maintain those same connections to the rest of world, and so might become a totally different person with different interests, grows attached to different places and so on–can we really say that person has the exact same identity? I’m really hesitant to answer that question, because I do believe strongly that our identity is tied to the people and places we have encountered. If we would have lived in different places and encountered different people, well, we’d be different! But I also believe that there is a certain continuity between ourselves now and ourselves, say, 10 years ago. So I may not be interested in the same things as then or have the same physical particles, but I’m still the same person.

      So, have I answered your question? No, not really, and I’m sorry for that. Maybe I shouldn’t have stated my point so strongly. But then again, I do think that by placing strong importance on the act of remembering, we are further able to identify ourselves with particular places and people. And that’s something at least. 🙂

  2. says: Steve S.

    I know that many literary artists have taken this view. James Joyce, for example, said that he wanted his novel _Ulysses_ to give such a detailed picture of Dublin that, if it were destroyed, it could be rebuilt just as it had been in June 1904. He exaggerated, of course, but part of his great project in that novel seems to have been the preservation of his memory of a very specific place.

  3. says: Cole Matson

    When I saw the film Of Gods and Men, I was struck by the sense of the filmmaker as telling a story for the community (not even necessarily for a community to which he belongs). The martyred monks of Our Lady of Atlas are people our community of Christians would like to remember, and ought to remember. Telling their story not only honours their actions, and their lives given for God, their brothers, and their local (Muslim) community, but also keeps their memory alive for us. I definitely agree that one of the primary roles of the artist is to remember and tell the community’s stories, whether those stories belong to the local geographic community, to the Body of Christ, or other communities of shared place and/or history.

  4. says: Michelle Roise

    What does this mean for Americans whose history of place has ever been disjointed— from their divergent immigrant forebears (who often purposely strove to forget) to the present day mobility of the much of the culture? Is American interest in genealogical research perhaps one of the attempts to patch this wound in our collective psyche? I would also be interested in exploring how the Scriptures address the importance of place and remembering. It is curious that in just the last few months I have been moving that very direction in my art; translating my memories of places and people important in my life, into color and form. Appreciate your thoughtful posts.

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