The challenge of presenting a balanced representation of the past through the exploration of history and memory is dealt with very differently by the two composers Mark Baker and Alexander Kimel a direct result of their varying purposes. In Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate (1999), the author attempts to create a balanced account of the past (i.e. One that is true, historically and emotionally relevant), while in Kimel’s poem, “Do I Want to Remember?” (1989), the purpose is not so much in representing a balanced account of the past as it is a conscious decision to represent only the emotional and memory-oriented aspects of the past .To this end, the varying degrees to which the past is presented as balanced representations of history and memory is a direct result of the author’s purpose: Baker’s challenge being to accurately trace his parents’ lives, Kimel’s challenge being to record the emotional suffering of his father.
The challenge of presenting a balanced representation of the past is combatted in Mark Baker’s memoir The Fiftieth Gate by using both history and memory in conjunction” using one to vindicate the other. Baker’s purpose is to broaden his understanding of the Australian survivors of the Holocaust by retracing his parents’ lives during the Holocaust. As such, Baker’s memoir is a journey towards redemption, as symbolised by the motif of gates: “whoever enters the fiftieth gate sees through God’s eyes from one end of the world. The darkness and the light.” The dichotomy of light and dark is used by Baker to represent the very challenge of presenting a balanced account of the past, the metaphor representing the truth and ambiguity. Thus Baker attempts to elucidate the past by using history and memory in conjunction to create a complete past, and to fill in the gaps in his knowledge. This is highlighted in Baker’s appropriate of Dan Pagis’ poem “Written in Pencil in the Seated Railway-Car,” changing it so that it is pertinent to his parents’ story.
The poem itself is unfinished, “here in this carload… tell him that,” the result of which is a reflection of his desire to represent a whole and complete past: “I am Hinda, tell him that I.” Baker acknowledges the flawed nature of both history and memory, indeed this is the very reason for the challenge of presenting a balanced past. As an historian, early in the memoir, Baker has a tendency to rely more on history than memory, constantly using lists and historical documents to validate the past, such as Graetz’s Geschitche der Juden,” and the use of his grandparents’ wedding certificate. The result of this however is a lack of emotion: history by itself cannot explain the torment of a child forced to live in darkness for two years, or the anguish of a thirteen year old forced to watch his mother taken to be gassed. To this end, history is represented as cold and clinical: “what are these sheets of paper anyway except echoes of the past, dark shadows without screams.” This over-reliance on history leads to conflict with his parents, as seen in the constant use of the clinical onomatopoeic refrain of “tak tak tak” and “Left. Right. Left. Right” to demonstrate the objectivity inherent in history. Baker’s parents berate his use of “fecks,” and indeed he himself admits his shame in having doubted his parents’ memories. Thus by demonstrating the clinical nature of historical sources, Baker shows the challenges of presenting a balanced representation of the past.
Baker also demonstrates this difficulty in the nature of memory, which is portrayed as ambiguous and prone to fault. This can be seen most clearly in memory’s degradation as a result of age, disease and time. For instance, Baker’s grandfather suffers from dementia, resulting in difficulties in procuring information from him. This is explored further in Baker’s doubts over his mother’s past: as the only survivor of an Aktion in the obscure Polish town of Bolzsowce, verifying the past is made near impossible. Indeed this is reflected in his mother’s low modality: “maybe I forgot.: Baker suggests that memory must be aided, his way of achieving a balanced representation of the past.
His father Joe’s memory is part of a collective whole, with the place names of Auschwitz and Treblinka metonymically serving to represent the shared memories of other survivors: “the next terrifying chapter jumped at him like a jack-in-the-box.” Thus Baker suggests that memory requires historical validation to metaphorically release “the torrent whose flow went backwards into his darkest might.” This metaphor serves to show the extent to which memory is an emotive force, Baker also using olfactory imagery in “pungent odour of fresh vomit and faeces” and aural imagery in “screaming sound of shots” to demonstrate the aspects of the past that historical record cannot present.
Thus Baker deals with the challenge of presenting ag balanced representation of the past by amalgamating history and memory into one accurate representation of the past. This can be seen in the visit to Buchenwald with Joe, in which Joe’s memory supplies some detail, while Baker’s historical interjection provide other details. To this end, Joe provides the emotional responses (“a great noise. Hurrah!”) while Baker verifies this with objective facts (“10:30am on 11 April 1945”). The triumph of truthful representation is presented in the Buchenwald Ball, where they “danc[ed], not there, but in spite of there, in defiance of then, in celebration of now, in memory of them.” Therefore it is clear that Baker in The Fiftieth Gate uses both history and memory to deal with the challenge of presenting a balanced representation of the past.
This challenge is dealt with somewhat differently by Alexander Kimel in his poem about his father’s time in a concentration camp, “Do I Want to remember?”. Kimel’s purpose is not to present a balanced account of the past, but to deliberately ignore historical fact and create a homage to his father’s life. He stresses the importance of remembering emotions not facts, thus intentionally creating an unbalanced account of the past. Kimel uses the refrain of “Do I Want to remember?” at the head of every stanza, the repetition of this rhetorical question serving to highlight the necessity, and difficulty, of recording memory as well as history.
The refrain of “I cannot forget” which ends every stanza is also used to reflect the ability of an omnipresent memory to remain forever, thus creating a legacy. To this end Kimel is very selective of the past, intentionally stressing what he sees as important and interesting in his father’s life. His text is reflective, not didactic like Baker. Like Baker however, he uses graphic imagery to stress the emotions and subjectivity of the past that history cannot hope to portray: “faces of mothers carved with pain.” Kimel also uses the metaphor of “shadows on swollen legs” to demonstrate the atrocities experienced by his father, and thus the necessity he sees in recording only his father’s memories of the past, an unbalanced account.
Kimel presents this unbalanced account due to his distrust and skepticism of the nature of history. He repeatedly refers to history as “numbers scrawled on a page,” suggesting that history without memory creates a history in which there is nothing personal: “no not people, numbers.” This belief is reflected in his intense desire to record the past, his subversion of the refrains in the final stanza showing this. Kimel says, “Do I want to remember the world upside down?: concluding that “Yes. And I will never let you forget,” which serves to show both the need of Kimel’s to portray a purely emotional and memory based recreation of the past, as well as the moral imperative that survivors have to pass on their legacy.
This is shown in the shift to the second person narration, which suggests that the audience too should be considering the nature of history, and the necessity of emotional content. Furthermore, Kimel uses the metaphor of history as “sandpaper” and memory as “silk,” to portray his very intentional ignorance of history. Therefore unlike Baker, Kimel does not attempt to create a balanced representation of the past, instead making a conscious decision to stress the importance of memory, and the emotions that only memory can convey.
In conclusion, the challenge of presenting a balanced representation of the past is reflected in the texts of both Mark Baker and Alexander Kimel, Baker suggesting the necessity of a combination of history and memory to create an interpretation of the past that is accurate, Kimel suggesting that only memory need be used to create a past that is emotionally viable.
Very assured voice – Good focus on question
Unfortunately, you begin Baker (after your treatment of the epigraph) most obscurely. The Pagis section is unclear and feels muddled/muddling. And its a rather minor way to start the text!
This quickly gathers momentum, though and becomes far more effective
Try to use the words “represent,” “presentation” in conjunction with the specific “events,” situations,” “personalities” you’re exploring in your examples
Keep key words clear as part of your argument. Your second paragraph on Baker essentially ignores the idea of a “challenge.” You end your treatment of the text in the next paragraph well.
The poem is treated very well and the links to Baker are pertinent and illuminating.
“Challenge” is lost. There appears to be no challenge for Kimel and this should have been stressed, further in relation to his thoughts about historical documentation/discourse.