Academic journal article Style

The Bog Body as Mnemotope: Nationalist Archaeologies in Heaney and Tournier

Academic journal article Style

The Bog Body as Mnemotope: Nationalist Archaeologies in Heaney and Tournier

Article excerpt

The sometimes beautifully preserved Iron-Age bodies that used to turn up from time to time in the peat-bogs of northwestern Europe have moved and intrigued writers since P. V. Glob published his classic archaeological account, The Bog People, in 1965. Locating the specificity of the literary bog body in its ability to compress time and to render the past visible in the present, the figure functions as a mnemotope, defined provisionally as any chronotopic motif that manifests the presence of the past, the conscious or unconscious memory traces of a more or less distant period in the life of a culture or an individual. Texts by Seamus Heaney and Michel Tournier serve to focus a study of the play of mnemotopic values in archaeologies purporting to shed light on the workings of national and cultural memory. Analysis of these texts foregrounds the part played by bog bodies in rhetorical strategies that have proved particularly controversial.

In following the entrails of ancient Nordicisms may we not be in danger of overlooking, for instance, the polylingual coincidence whereby bog, in modern Danish, is the word for book?

(Brown 153)

"High modernism," writes Brian McHale, "conspicuously privileged the spatial dimension of verticality or depth; indeed, the figure of depth was arguably one of modernism's master-tropes" (239). Which is not to claim that the widely held view of a modernism characterized by its temporal dominant is in urgent need of revision. "For 'depth' in modernism is spatialized time, the past (whether personal and psychological or collective and historical) deposited in strata" (240). Given the requirements of an argument framed by an overarching distinction between modernist and postmodernist poetic practices, McHale's sustained emphasis on the tensions between space and time comes as no surprise. His highly entertaining analysis of the archaeological tropes of modernism and their postmodernist detournement consistently foregrounds the devices used by modernist poets to privilege time over space, depth over surface, and the ingenious efforts of postmodernist poets to reverse those hierarchies. For my part, less concerned with making distinctions between modern and postmodern I will be slower to oppose time and space in my reflections on archaeological narratives, preferring to dwell, at least initially, upon their articulation in the work of archaeology and on the different ideological constructions placed upon that work, particularly with regard to issues of nation and nationalism. My approach will be informed by Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope.

As with any chronotope, the artifact in an archaeological excavation is "the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied," where "[t]ime becomes, in effect, palpable and visible"; it functions as "the primary means for materializing time in space," "makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins" (Bakhtin 250). Bakhtin's "Concluding Remarks," a late postscript (1973) to "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," are of particular interest here in that, turning away from the major chronotopes of the essay proper providing the basis for distinguishing between genres, they focus attention on minor chronotopes or chronotopic motifs. As motifs, these chronotopes are coextensive with the texts in which they appear, as are the artifacts I wish to discuss. Since the primary function of the archaeological artifact as chronotope is to materialize a past in the present, to serve as a vehicle for personal and cultural memory, I will refer to it as a mnem otope, a term that should be fairly transparent but that I will define provisionally as a chronotopic motif manifesting the presence of the past, the conscious or unconscious memory traces of a more or less distant period in the life of a culture or, metaphorically, an individual. Of course, the mnemotope might come in many guises and be inflected by attitudinal values ranging from nostalgia and melancholy through desire, obsession and remembrance to horror and denial. …

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