Politics & Memories

by Luigi Benedetti

modena county council Politics, the art and science of governing, continually compares itself to memories. It even does it in a number of different ways at the same time.

In the most simple and traditional way, it uses memories to preserve the ideal presence of the past, bearing witness to the vital force behind a system of values associated with a particular period of our shared history. It goes without saying that the period of the Resistance is treasured in our common memory as an ideal presence: it is still full of life, as well as serving as the powerhouse behind a number of debates and reflections. The recollection of the past, used as a device of retention, recall, or recognition is so typical of memory itself: it does not fade under the passing sands of time, but becomes a promise of the future.

Yet as long as the memory is tied by its very nature to the past, it runs the risk (which often becomes a real danger) of these experiences lived becoming lifeless and stiff, set in icons and symbols so unnatural, deprived of that infusion of humanity all set to change the world, and which had made them such rich and fascinating figures in the first place.

And still, the memory bound up with the past is deformed and further detached from the situation in which the events took place, insofar as the memories are often subordinated to satisfy the needs of the present. This is a sort of “recollection supermarket”, in which everyone can help themselves to gather the ingredients they need for a symbolic yet extremely “partial” recipe. Thus, the outcome is invariably false: our mixing inherent mistruths serves only to alter the present as well.

Memories and our use of them may be seen as a pendulum, which always sways between two distinct points: the representation of the past and its ability (through symbolic representation) to generate the future. The task and the challenge for those who deal in memories is never to let the swing of the pendulum of memories come to a halt, not to let it crystallise and lose its peculiar capacity which is this gift of being able to create the future by feeding it with the energy of the past.

The memory and the presence of the Resistance were and continue to be both a precious resource and a daunting trial for those occupied with the “public service”. In a place like Modena and its province, and therefore also in its local councils, the memory of the Resistance has become both an individual and strongly collective heritage to be dealt with. It has interwoven the individual destinies and civic development of the territory, and it is written in the genetic make-up of the population. It is a rich and heavy inheritance, which nevertheless tends to blur as time goes by.

We might say that the administration of this inheritance was natural up until the moment in which the men who had breathed life into that period started to appear in those same institutions. It doesn’t matter if they took on different positions, or sometimes even contrasting ones. There was a common founding moment which generated a series of strong passions and radical political projects. The passing of time and age have worn down this prospective. The horizon of the Resistance having got further and further away has led to the overexposure of the “theory” of this memory, its ideological imprint, which in turn has led to the very human and individual charge behind the protagonists of an era being unwittingly relegated to second place. The stage still features certain “polished up” values and monuments reconstructed through a process of re-elaboration, while other faces, characters and stories have long since left the scene.

The disturbing and touching humanity of the protagonists of every side is muffled; the creation of abstract, black & white figures is preferred. Of course, they are far more suitable when forming a pretext for political battle, rather than a chance to reflect on the real and tormented experiences of civil and political commitment: in the final analysis, a chance to reflect on the path that led a country from its post-war ruins to become a democratic nation, incorporating all the protagonists and castaways from the previous historical phase into that new order.

The appeal and the intelligence of Conti’s project lie in his ability to grasp this link. He chooses to start from the men and the stories of those who lived through the period and who know how to hand the stories down, how to recreate sentiments by the sheer strength of their own humanity. The (apparent) paradox is that this project has not been carried out on the basis of ideological affinity; thus it does not bear that unpleasant smell of “propaganda”. It draws its strength from the telling of true and fascinating lives, and it urges us to reflect on the contrast which naturally emerges from the widespread sense of bewilderment in today’s society and from the difficulty encountered by those who now want to use politics to give life to a new social order.

The expressions and the stories force us to reflect on our relationship with the modern world, and on our ability to put back together the fragments of a common discourse which politics often seems to lose hold of. The past always bears anticipatory signs of the future. For this reason, now more than ever, it is vitally necessary to hold onto the thread which ties us to those years and those men, and to their civil and social passion.

“We were all equal” thus offers a precious opportunity to bring history back among us through the men that lived it. This is the sense behind the support of various Modenese institutions of this project: to shake up the society and the institutions that represent it through the voices, faces, objects and images that formed the background of those who then founded the political and social system in which we live today.