I became involved in The Life Story of Life Stories rather late when three of the organisers, Eva Hoffman, Patricia Hampl and Anette Kobak asked if I would like to be part of the discussions that were due to run to several conferences. I was pleased to be asked, of course, partly because it is flattering to be asked, especially by people as gifted and wise as they are, and partly because it was interesting, and had always been so to me, in a important personal way. Anette, I had met briefly some years ago and Eva was, and is, a dear friend. I had first met Patricia at Eva's, over dinner.
What is it? What is the project?
In their own words, as written in the conference papers:
We are a group of academics and writers working in different fields but sharing a common interest in the way words and their development into stories shape responses to human rights violations, from individual injustices to genocides - and in the power of narrative both to encourage violence and to restore justice..
At this gathering of scholars, journalists, memoirists, psychologists and human rights worker, we aim to pool information from our different disciplines as well as from first-hand testimony, in order to map the trajectory of this narrative process
The other organisers were Brian Brivati who is the Director of the John Smith Memorial Trust, Meg Jensen, who is the Director of the Centre for Life Narratives at our host university, Kingston, and Philip Spencer, the historian who is the Director of the Helen Bamber Centre at Kingston.
The first step in establishing such discussions is to try to decide what we are discussing. The six organisers each talked about their own way of approaching the subject and how they became involved in the organisations or enterprises they represent. That is a help.
Are we trying to prevent conflict and genocide? Are we trying to describe the conditions out of which they arise in the hope of prevention? When we talk about stories do we mean documentary accounts, or other kinds of account in the form of memoir or fiction or film, or some hybrid that deals specifically with specific conditions (such as who did what to whom, and who hit whom first and why)? Or with exemplary stories in which certain virtues characteristic of one people are pitted against certain vices supposedly characteristic of another people (our values triumphed over theirs)? Or the dramatic narrative of the history of a suspect people (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion)? Or with other stories altogether that can, nevertheless be drawn on and activated in a certain way when one group of people feels another's being is either a threat or a blot on the earth's copybook?
These and other questions arise. One suggestion was that we might construct a kind of 'tool kit' to help us construct or deconstruct the machineries of hate that bring about violence and genocide. But what do we do with these tools? Who operates them? Are we to audition for the role of the engineer of human souls, as Stalin put it? We all shrink from that, of course. No, we are more a harmless bunch of what Dr Johnson might have regarded as drudges, the kind of drudges that, like Dr Johnson, labour to put together a dictionary rather than a tool-kit. Though, heaven knows, dictionaries too are useful, so it wouldn't be a bad place to start.
We were an international bunch. We talked in small groups, had our discussions reported back to the plenary, divided into more small groups and returned again. At the end, over wine, I was asked to read something, and read the first part of Seeking North: A Hungarian Nova Zembla (from The Burning of the Books), and the sestina Esprit d'Escalier from the New and Collected), then Anette Kobak read a gripping passage from her memoir of her father, Joe's War.
First steps are full of good will. The next conference will be next July - in the meantime things to think about and respond to.