Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working on an English translation of Halbwachs’s La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte (The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land). A paperback version with its vivid red cover, sitting at the foot of my bed, has been catching my eye for many months. Recently, I finally picked it up and started reading it again, happy to find that he wrote in not some impenetrable scholastic French, but in a rather conversational (yet still quite proper) register.
I had three years of French in an American high school, so my competence is suspect. However, starting several years ago I’ve been working at getting better with the help of Duolingo and Pimsleur. That said, I often find myself entering sentences into various online services to compare my translations to theirs.
The Original Source
One of the sentences that popped out at me was this one from the last paragraph of the introduction:
Si, comme nous le croyons, la mémoire collective est essentiellement une reconstruction du passé, si elle adapte l’image des faits anciens aux croyances et aux besoins spirituels du présent, la connaissance de ce qui était à l’origine est secondaire, sinon tout à fait inutile, puisque la réalité du passé n’est plus là, comme un modèle immuable auquel il faudrait se conformer.
(Halbwachs 1941, p. 9)
I have translated this passage as:
If, as we believe, collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient events to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, knowledge of what was originally there is secondary, if not outright useless, since the reality of the past is no longer there as an immutable model to which one has to conform.
(Halbwachs/Widowfield 2023, bold emphasis mine)
It sounded awfully familiar. And then I remembered a Halbwachs quotation in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity that I hadn’t been able to find in the original text. Schwartz wrote:
In The Legendary Topography of the Gospels, he declares, “If, as we believe, social memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, then a knowledge of the origin of these facts must be secondary, if not altogether useless, for the reality of the past is no longer in the past.” (Halbwachs 1992b, 7).
(Schwartz 2014, p. 19, bold emphasis mine)
Back in the day, I had been confused, because Schwartz’s bibliographical citation for “Halbwachs 1992b” contained this note:
Translated into English as pages 193–235 in On Collective Memory. Edited and translated by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [orig. 1941]
The unsuspecting reader (in this case, me) might think La Topographie had been translated in its entirety and placed at the end of the English translation of On Collective Memory. However, if you’ve read my series on the Memory Mavens, you will recall that it was only the final chapter — the conclusion — that Coser translated.
In his introduction, Coser condensed Halbwachs’s perspective:
Halbwachs was without doubt the first sociologist who stressed that our conceptions of the past are affected by the mental images we employ to solve present problems, so that collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present.
(Halbwachs/Coser, p. 34, bold emphasis mine)
However, you will find the original quotation only in La Topographie, which has yet to be translated in to English. (But I’m working on it.) To be clear, in the 1941 version, the quotation appears on page 9, not page 7. Schwartz and his disciples will persist in that mistake.
The New, Preferred Source
The first instance of Schwartz’s idiosyncratic translation appears in his 1982 paper, “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory” (Schwartz 1982, p. 376). In this early incarnation, the “of” and “in” are italicized with no indication that the emphases did not appear in the original. By 1986, he rectified his mistake:
If, as we believe, collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, then a knowledge of the origin of these facts must be secondary, if not altogether useless, for the reality of the past is no longer in the past. (p. 7. [sic] Italics added)
(Schwartz, Zerubavel, and Barnett 1986, p. 149, bold emphasis mine)
I am compelled to point out that there could be no original emphasis in the phrase “no longer in the past,” since this literal phrase doesn’t appear in the original text. Halbwachs actually wrote: “. . . the reality of the past is no longer there as an immutable model to which one has to conform.” We could argue that the past — especially the past of Jerusalem after its destruction and depopulation — had no controlling influence at all over the pilgrims and inhabitants who had lost access to it.
In fact, the gist of Halbwachs’s statement contradicts Schwartz’s peculiar translation. To say the reality of the past is no longer in the past implies that it now resides in the present, which coincides with Schwartz’s labeling of Halbwachs as a “presentist.”
I would argue instead that Halbwachs was saying the reality of the past is gone. We don’t know, for example, where Golgotha (if it actually existed) was located, but we’re able to reconstruct — or, more to the point, — construct its memory based on the needs of the present. Our break with an “immutable model” of the past is no obstacle to the creation of social memory. If anything, it makes the task easier.
The Context of the Original Source
But was there a total interruption with the past? To be fair, Halbwachs presents arguments from both sides. On the one hand some scholars said there was a total break with the past, such that when Christians under the auspices of Constantine arrived in Jerusalem, they had to deal with competing claims for the location of holy sites, with no hope of meaningful authentication. Besides the destruction and depopulation, Hadrian’s colonization of the city likely erased the recognizable rubble.
On the other hand, some scholars said there must have been some continuity. He quoted Renan here:
Christians in particular kept the memory and worship of certain places. Since no reconstruction took place in the city and its surroundings, the enormous stones of the large buildings remained undisturbed in place, so that all the monuments were still perfectly recognizable.
(Renan 1863, p. 17, my translation)
And so now we have a more thorough context for the quotation from Halbwachs. Was Renan correct? Halbwachs is unsure. He wrote:
Perhaps. Unfortunately, these hypotheses involve too much personal judgment. Moreover, we do not need to examine them. We are not seeking to determine whether the traditions about the holy places are accurate or conform to ancient facts. We take them all as they are presented to us, at the moment they appear to us, and we study them over the centuries that follow. If, as we believe, collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient events to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, knowledge of what was originally there is secondary, if not outright useless, since the reality of the past is no longer there as an immutable model to which one has to conform. The research we have undertaken, regardless of its scope and inherent interest, is for us nothing more than a investigation into collective psychology, and the laws that we can derive from it will have to be confirmed and refined by similar investigations carried out with respect to other phenomena.
(Halbwachs 1941, p. 9, my translation, bold emphasis added)
As I mentioned above, Halbwachs’s language is clear and direct. Anyone with an intermediate understanding of French should be able to translate it. However, scholars after Schwartz seem uninterested in trying. Hence, his translation, despite its peculiarity, has become the standard. It has, in effect, become a social memory that has lost its connection to an easily retrieved past. The present needs of scholars have superseded the “immutable model.”
Adventures in Quote-Mining
Online scholastic search tools reveal a number of scholars quoting Halbwachs via Schwartz in full:
- Campbell, Stephen Daniel, (2019) Remembering the Unexperienced: Cultural Memory, Canon
Consciousness, and the Book of Deuteronomy, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham
E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/13068/, p. 16 (Translation credit in footnote 28)
- Dimbath, Oliver, and Michael Heinlein. “Pioneers of the Sociology of Memory.” In Social Memory, pp. 75-114. Brill Fink, 2022.
- Gronbeck, Bruce E., “The Rhetorics of the Past History, Argument, and Collective Memory” (pp. 56-57) in Turner, Kathleen J., ed. Doing Rhetorical History: Concepts and Cases. University of Alabama Press, 1998.
- Martinez, Garcia. “A Mnemonic Approach toward History” in Williams Travis B. 2019. History and Memory in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Remembering the Teacher of Righteousness. Cambridge United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. (See p. 69, footnote 58)
- Sierp, Aline. History, Memory, and Trans-European Identity: Unifying Divisions. Routledge, 2014. See p. 16. Here, Aline misquotes Schwartz and pretends to have found the quotation on p. 7 of Halbwachs’ Les Cadres Sociaux de la Mémoire. The careful reader will be disappointed.
- Shoemaker, Stephen J, 2022. Creating the Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Study. Oakland California: University of California Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctv2tbwqhq. See p. 189. He also cites the wrong page (7), but does not cite Schwartz as the actual source of the quote.
Other scholars employ a partial quotation that emphasizes the end of the sentence, thus ensuring that the substance of Halbwachs is replaced by the more useful memory presented by Schwartz. For example:
- Simko, Christina, “Forgetting to Remember: The Present Neglect and Future Prospects of Collective Memory in Sociological Theory,” (p. 460) in Abrutyn, Seth. Handbook of Contemporary Sociological Theory (Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research). Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 2016. In this ironically named chapter, Simko, like many of her contemporaries, presents Halbwachs through the distorting lenses of Barry Schwartz and Lewis Coser.
- Corning, Amy and Schumann Howard, “Collective Memory” in Sanderson, Stephen K.; Zimmermann, Ekkart; Goldstone, Jack; Sasaki, Masamichi Concise Encyclopedia of Comparative Sociology, pp. 499-508. Brill, 2014. See p. 501, in which they cite Halbwachs, but copy Schwartz. The authors repeat Schwartz’s error of citing p. 7 of La Topographie, when the quotation actually occurs on p. 9.
- Zelizer, B. (1992). Conclusion: On the establishment of journalistic authority. In Covering the body: The Kennedy assassination, the media, and the shaping of collective memory (pp. 189-261). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/72. On p. 195, Zeitler uses Schwartz’s translation, but her citation says: “Halbwachs, Collective Memory, p. 7.” It is unclear whether she meant On Collective Memory or The Collective Memory as the work intended here, but no such quotation can be found in either work, regardless of the page number. Notice, as well, the lack of a publishing date. In any case, citing page 7 in “some book by Halbwachs” strongly implies an error reproduced from Schwartz.
In perhaps the oddest and most convoluted example, Pamela E. Walck, an associate professor at Duquesne University, who managed to misspell Halbwachs’s name four times in her 2020 paper, “Mutiny at Bamber Bridge,” quoted Gronbeck (see above), apparently failing to realize that he had copied Schwartz. She wrote:
[Gronbeck] notes that Maurice Halbwach [sic], who wrote the first book on collective memory, contends that for participants in the collective memory, “the reality of the past is no longer in the past.”
(Walck 2020, p. 368).
She cites only Gronbeck, demonstrating that third-hand information about “Halbwach” is good enough. Such is the state of scholarship today.
A Paladin Appears!
But all is not lost. As if to answer my atheist prayers, I have just stumbled upon a paper by Thiphaine L. Dickson published in an obscure (to me, at least) Serbian scientific journal. In the citation below, you’ll find a link to the PDF version of this essay. I highly recommend it.
In the first paragraph, she cites Jeffrey Olick’s point that engagement with Halbwachs among English scholars has been regrettably superficial. I will offer a more complete paragraph here from his 2008 paper:
Most important, in my opinion, however, is the lack of even the most basic agreement on canonical texts that might be read across all that divides us (indeed, while Halbwachs and Nora are universally cited, very often such cites seem more totemic than substantive or engaged), or at least a basic lexicon so that we do not all feel compelled to reinvent the wheel in our first footnotes, paragraphs or chapters.
(Olick 2008, p. 26, emphasis mine)
I would go even further. Most American scholars who have claimed the mantle of social memory have treated Halbwachs as a kind of sock puppet — or worse. They use him as a mascot on the one hand and a straw man on the other.
Dickson points out that Coser, who translated the material in On Collective Memory, treats his mascot so harshly in his wordy and scathing introduction that reading the work that follows “seems rather like an unnecessary chore.” (p. 114) Coser, following Schwartz, condemns Halbwachs’s “presentist” views. Dickson isn’t having any of it.
The “presentism” charge has stuck. It was originally formulated in Barry Schwartz’s “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory,” citing the penultimate paragraph of the introduction to Halbwachs’ The Legendary Topography of the Holy Land: “If, as we believe, collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts to the image of ancient facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, then a knowledge of the origin of these facts must be secondary, if not altogether useless, for the reality of the past is no longer in the past” [Schwartz 1982: 376]. Schwartz then argues that Halbwachs’ approach (distilled as it is by a single sentence) promotes the idea that there is “no objectivity in events, nothing in history that transcends the particularities of the present”.
(Dickson 2022, pp. 114-115, bold emphasis mine)
And what about that peculiar Schwartzian translation?
“The reality of the past is no longer in the past,” translates Schwartz (whose footnote refers to the wrong page number in Halbwachs’ work). This can certainly seem to support Schwartz’s view that Halbwachs has introduced “relativistic theory, which locates the significance of events in the standpoint of the observer.” Unfortunately, however, Schwartz’s translation distorts the meaning of Halbwachs’ sentence. The final portion reads: “puisque la réalité du passé n’est plus là, comme un modèle immuable auquel il faudrait se conformer.” This ought to be properly translated as “the reality of the past is no more” (or no longer here) which is the opposite of the claim that “the reality of the past is no longer in the past”; for Halbwachs, obviously, the reality of the past is in the past, and because it is no more, it does not have to be a model to which collectives (in the case of his study, pilgrims who travel to the Holy Land) – note here that we are not interested in a single observer, as suggested by Schwartz – are obliged to conform. That Halbwachs has shown that successive waves of believers seeking geographical evidence or vindication for their faith got history (and even precedent) very wrong is not tantamount to claiming that history is impossible or that there is no objectivity in events: it is in fact that very objectivity against which Halbwachs contrasted the pilgrims’ shifting conventions about holy places.
(Dickson 2022, pp. 115, bold emphasis mine)
Tiphaine Dickson is now my hero. I will have more to say later, but for now I must take some time to let it sink in: I am not alone!
Dickson, Tiphaine L. “America in an Age of Memory: Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘The Assassination of Maurice Halbwachs’–Commentary and Translation.” Зборник Матице српске за друштвене науке 181 (2022): 111-127.
Halbwachs, Maurice (1941). La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte: étude de mémoire collective. (Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine). Paris: Presses Univ. de France. https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-50461-4
Halbwachs Maurice. 1925. Les Cadres Sociaux De La Mémoire. Paris: F. Alcan.
Halbwachs, Maurice (translated by Lewis Coser), On Collective Memory. University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Renan, Ernest, Histoire des origines du christianisme. Michel Lévy, 1863.
Schwartz, Barry, “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory.” Social Forces 61, no. 2 (December 1982): 374-402.
Schwartz, Barry, Yael Zerubavel, and Bernice M. Barnett. “The Recovery of Masada: A Study in Collective Memory.” Sociological Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1986): 147-164.
Schwartz, Barry, “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire,” in Thatcher, Tom, ed. Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity: a conversation with Barry Schwartz. Vol. 78. Society of Biblical Lit, 2014.
Walck, Pamela E., “Mutiny at Bamber Bridge: How the World War II Press Reported Racial Unrest among US Troops and Why It Remains in British Memory.” American Journalism 37, no. 3 (2020): 346-371.
Latest posts by Tim Widowfield (see all)
- The Memory Mavens, Part 13: The Purpose of Halbwachs’s La Topographie - 2023-05-22 16:15:00 GMT+0000
- The Memory Mavens, Part 12: The Collective Memory of a Halbwachs Quotation - 2023-05-15 00:33:35 GMT+0000
- Expanding on My Essay in Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Part 1 - 2022-12-05 23:07:44 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!
6 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 12: The Collective Memory of a Halbwachs Quotation”
Your competence may be “suspect” but your translation of the Halbwachs passage is rendered in elegant and crystal clear English. Granted, that may be because Halbwachs was writing in elegant and crystal clear French, but you get my point.
However, I have one grammatically pedantic quibble. You render “un modèle immuable auquel il faudrait se conformer” as “an immutable model against which one has to conform”. That “against” for “auquel” doesn’t seem right to me, because (a) “conform” in English usually takes “with” or “to”; (b) “against” sounds confrontational, whereas conform sounds, well, conformist; and (b) “auquel” can be quite naturally be rendered “to which.”
So I think “an immutable model with which one has to conform” or “an immutable model to which one has to conform” would be a tad better, no?
Sorry. I am known in my house as a nit picker.
Not at all. I think your points are valid. “With” sounds more natural.
In conversational English, I might even say, “an immutable model we have to conform to,” but I can imagine my high school teachers shouting about ending a sentence with a preposition.
I agree, I think “to which” is the way to go. “that” might get the restrictive sense of the phrase across a little better in English as “which” in English is usually nonrestrictive, but “to which” preserves a bit more of the original French vibe.
What about the collective memory and localizations of the lowly people of the land ʽAm haʼaretz (עם הארץ, people of the Land)?
The flock has always been there on the land. The raiyah (literally ‘members of the flock’) included Christians, Muslims, and Jews who were ‘shorn’ (i.e. taxed) to support the state and the associated ‘professional Ottoman’ class. So it was in 1900 AD and so it was 25 centuries before in 600 BC. As members of the tax-paying lower class of Ottoman society, in contrast to the askeri and kul the raiyah made up over 90% of the general population in the millet communities.
In his topography does your French man say anything at all the little shrines atop the hills in the high places? In a biblical context, “high place” or “high places” (Hebrew: במה bamah and plural במות bamot or bamoth) always means “place(s) of worship”. Some of the ethnographers and surveyors of the late 1800’s focused on them.
Maqams were dedicated to Biblical and Quranic, real or mythical, male and female figures from ancient times to the time of the Arab conquest or even late Ottoman rule. Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist, states that this built evidence constitutes “an architectural testimony to Christian/Moslem Palestinian religious sensibility and its roots in ancient Semitic religions.” In 1877, the British explorer Claude Reignier Conder wrote that:
“In their religious observances and sanctuaries we find, as in their language, the true history of the country. On a basis of polytheistic faith which most probably dates back to pre-Israelite times, we find a growth of the most heterogeneous description: Christian tradition, Moslem history and foreign worship are mingled so as often to be entirely indistinguishable, and the so-called Moslem is found worshipping at shrines consecrated to Jewish, Samaritan, Christian, and often Pagan memories. It is in worship at these shrines that the religion of the peasantry consists. Moslem by profession, they often spend their lives without entering a mosque, and attach more importance to the favour and protection of the village Mukam than to Allah himself, or to Mohammed his prophet… The reverence shown for these sacred spots is unbounded. Every fallen stone from the building, every withered branch of the tree, is carefully preserved. ”
Almost every village in Palestine has a wali, a patron saint, whom people, predominantly rural peasants, would call upon for help at his or her associated sanctuary. https://archive.org/details/quarterlystateme09pale/page/n100/mode/1up?view=theater
The following paragraphs are from an article Dr. Ali Qleibo wrote in 2007:
The diversity of the customs and manners of the Palestinian social landscape bears witness to the multiplicity of the early Semitic peoples’ ancient waves of migration and settlement in the various regions of the land of Canaan.
Research demonstrates that mosques in the countryside are modern phenomena. Until the end of the nineteenth century, in lieu of mosques, people turned to local patron saints, each of whom had his own maqam, the typical domed single room in the shadow of an ancient carob or oak tree. Each village has its own narrative that describes its holy man, his special grace with God (karamat), his power of intercession (shafa’at), and the miraculous context in which the maqam was built … Holy men, awlia’ Allah, were the centre of religious life at a time when the absolute transcendent other was deemed unreachable. These saints, tabooed by orthodox Islam, mediated between man and the Supreme One.
Saints’ shrines and holy men’s memorial domes dot the Palestinian landscape – an architectural testimony to Christian/Moslem Palestinian religious sensibility and its roots in ancient Semitic religions. The holy site may be a modest square room with a melancholy dome crouching in the shadow of an ancient oak tree perched on the lonely crest of a mountain (as in the villages of Anata, Atara, Halhul, and Yatta), or guarding the entrance of a tiny village or city (as in Husan, Bitunia, Jaffa, or Gaza), or tucked away in the labyrinthine alleys of Jerusalem (Al-Qirami or Sheikh Rihan), or simply a cave next to an ancient oak tree on the site of the rubble of an ancient forgotten abandoned town.
Biblical and Moslem symbols and personages furnished ready-made cross-cultural syncretism: Prophet Jonah (Yunes) in Halhul is both a biblical and Moslem prophet; St. George, known to Moslems as el Khader, provided another symbol. Invariably tombs of companions of the prophet became holy places. Even when names and personages were lacking, the local religious sensibility invoked spirits whose mediation kept humanity in grace with God … El-Qwedrieh is a cave that lies in the rubble of an old abandoned hamlet in the shadow of a huge oak tree outside Halhul. It provides yet another testimony to earlier forms of ancient Semitic religious beliefs masked in the symbolism borrowed from the Judaeo-Christian Moslem tradition. Significantly the big modern mosque of Halhul, El-Sheikh Yunes Mosque, was built so as to encompass the old maqam of el-Sheikh Yunes, which survives as a precious relic preserved within the modern construction.
“People used to pray in the maqam,” Abu Ala’ in Samu’ explained. “We were small in number; the village did not exceed three hundred members, and few men prayed …”
Until the Crimean War neither Moslem nor Christian religious identity was clearly defined. Religion as constitutive of individual identity was relegated to a minor role within Palestinian tribal social structure. Fr. Jean Moretain expressed his surprise concerning Christian/Moslem common practices. Writing in 1848 during the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he described his concern that Palestinian Christians could not be distinguished from Moslems. A Christian was “distinguished only by the fact that he belonged to a particular clan. If a certain tribe was Christian, then an individual would be Christian, but without knowledge of what distinguished his faith from that of a Muslim.”
Following the Crimean War, the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem was established. Until then the cultural/religious identity of both the Moslem and Christian Arab populations in the countryside remained amorphous. It is difficult to imagine that, until the nineteenth century, orthodox religious life outside the urban centres did not exist.
The Crimean War and its aftermath – the concessions given by the Ottoman Sultanate to its allies, notably France – had a great repercussion on the shaping of contemporary Palestinian religious cultural identity. The modernization of Palestine, the transformation of religion into an element constitutively constituting the individual/collective identity in conformity with orthodox precepts, was a major building block in the political development of Palestinian nationalism. Henceforth it became possible for the state to penetrate, through church and mosque, the Palestinian heartland.
If one delves deep into the ethnographic accounts I remember one specifically where an old man with a hereditary office to keep watch over a certain shrine high on a ridge was entitled to foreleg, cheeks and maw of every animal slaughtered there. https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0518.htm#3 That was in like 1885.
As interesting as all this is, that isn’t the book Halbwachs intended to write.