Places have a way of absorbing and bearing memories that they then relinquish, bidden or unbidden. In three artful paragraphs Michel de Certeau enchants us with a series of poignant reflections on place and memory built upon a string of evocative metaphors. The whole discussion appears near the conclusion of a chapter titled “Walking the City” in The Practice of Everyday Life.
The context of walking and moving about spaces leads de Certeau to describe memory as “a sort of anti-museum: it is not localizable.” Where museums gather pieces and artifacts in one location, our memories have dispersed themselves across the landscape, they colonize. Here a memory by that tree, there a memory in that house. De Certeau is principally developing this notion of a veiled remembered reality that lies beneath the visible experience of space.
And not only spaces, for as he puts it, “objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps,” suggesting then this metaphor: “A memory is only a Prince Charming who stays just long enough to awaken the Sleeping Beauties of our wordless stories.” But it is principally with places that de Certeau is concerned, places made up of “moving layers.” We point here and there and say things like, “Here, there used to be a bakery” or “That’s where old lady Dupuis used to live.” We point to a present place only to evoke an absent reality: “the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences.” Only part of what we point to is there physically; but we’re pointing as well to the invisible, to what can’t be seen by anyone else, which begins to hint at a certain loneliness that attends to memory. Reality is already augmented. It is freighted with our memories, it comes alive with distant echoes and fleeting images.
The loneliness of memory is also captured in a comment incorporated by de Certeau: “‘Memories tie us to that place …. It is personal, not interesting to anyone else …'” It is like sharing a dream with another person: its vividness and pain or joy can never be recaptured and represented so as to affect another in the same way you were affected. It is not interesting to anyone else, and so it is with our memories. Others will listen, they will look were you point, but they cannot see what you see.
And perhaps it is this invisibility of memory stored away in places that inevitably suggests to de Certeau the haunting metaphor: “There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not.” But, he goes on to say, “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.”
At this juncture de Certeau notes that this unseen, absent reality laid over our perception of present places “inverts the schema of the Panopticon. This is a curious aside given that de Certeau is in conversation with Foucault, for whom the Panopticon becomes a metaphor for disciplinary society in Western cultures. Rather than being seen by an unseen presence, we see an unseen absence. Is this also then a form of resistance, a way to disperse the power of disciplinary society? Do we invoke our memories inhabiting our spaces in order to inoculate ourselves against the pressures of conformity? Our memories, especially perhaps childhood memories, are so particular that they reinforce the uniqueness of our experience.
Finally, de Certeau points to the embodied status of these memories: “Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read … symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body. ‘I feel good here’: the well-being under-expressed in the language it appears in like a fleeting glimmer is a spatial practice.” We not only see our memories, we feel them. Of course, the proper vocalization of this feeling is not always, “I feel good here.”