Lectures Outline / Synopses:
When people experience a traumatic event, such as war or the threat of annihilation, they often turn to history for stories that promise a positive outcome to their suffering. During World War II, the French took comfort in the story of Joan of Arc and her heroic efforts to rid France of foreign occupation. To bring the Joan narrative more into line with current circumstances, however, popular retellings tinkered with the original story so that what people believed took place in the past was often quite different from what actually occurred.
I see this interplay between story and history as worldwide in scope, found in countries that are in many ways radically different from each other. In my talk, as in the recently published book on which it is based, I focus on Serbia, Israel, China, France, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, all of which experienced grave crises in the twentieth century and, in response, appropriated age-old historical narratives that resonated with what was happening in the present to serve a unifying, restorative purpose.
A central theme in what I shall talk about is the distinction between popular memory and history. Although vitally important to historians, this distinction is routinely blurred in people’s minds, and the historian’s truth often cannot compete with the power of a compelling story from the past, even when it has been seriously distorted by myth or political manipulation. One of my goals is to attain a deeper understanding of why this is so.
But I also want to highlight a broader issue. The focus of my talk is not on a particular country or culture. Rather, it is on a supracultural phenomenon—the part taken by story in popular memory—that, if not universal, is certainly encountered in a vast array of places around the world, regardless of the religious, social, cultural, and other differences that pertain among the people living in these places. In brief, what we have, I would like to suggest, is a different sort of world history, not the conventional kind based on conjunctures, comparisons, and influences, but one that is manifested in recurring patterns, clearly bearing a family resemblance to one another, yet independently arrived at and very possibly rooted in certain human propensities—above all, the universality of storytelling in the human experience—that transcend the specificities of culture and place.