Memory Is Moral: on Research, Art and Conscience

A few weeks into my project, I have made a rather surprising realisation: I have come to understand that for me, research goes hand in hand with art.

For the past month and a half, I have been analysing how the Jewish inhabitants of my Polish hometown – most of whom perished during the Second World War – are remembered. Trying to identify the narratives constructed by the local community, I have gone through articles published in the local press and spoken to those with a personal or professional interest in the history of the town. This has allowed me to trace the way in which the memory of the ‘absent neighbour’ – embedded in various written and oral stories  – has evolved, and create a timeline of commemorative practices undertaken by the current inhabitants of the town.

Although informative, this part of my research has left me with a feeling that I should be looking at something else as well, something more: I have been learning about the minority group through the eyes of my own community, trying to analyse the very lens in a detached, scholarly manner. Is it moral, though, to read about the Jews of Pułtusk without giving them a voice? How respectful is it to research people’s lives, with all their hopes and tragedies, and remain emotionally removed? Does an academic need to shy away from emotions?

In the words of Anne Michaels, “[h]istory is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers.” I believe that in the case of my project, academic rigour should go hand in hand with engagement with personal stories: acknowledging individual narratives and feelings of the gone and remaining inhabitants of the town allows not only for the preservation of their dignity, but, importantly, for a deeper knowledge of the subject of study.

And here is where, in my opinion, art steps in. While academia is well-equipped to explain reality, I think art has a unique capacity to make one understand it. As a means of creative self-expression, it arguably captures human experience in a way scholarship does not; it can point to the not infrequently irrational motives and intentions underlying people’s actions, articulating them in a language more universal than the written word. Consequently, if we assume the aim of research to be the quest for truth – if such a thing exists – then we can see art as complementary to scholarship on human societies.

The sense of wonder emerging at the intersection of science and art. Source of the image

Perhaps this is why I have instinctively reached for music, literature or film when doing my research – not just to take a break from being (or, rather, trying hard to be) analytical and objective, but precisely to be better at being so.

Leave a Reply