The Fiftieth Gate

May 15, 2018 History

To what extent has textual form shaped your understanding of history and memory? In your response make detailed reference to your prescribed text and one other related text of your own choosing The way composers use textual form to explore the complex relationship between history and memory highlights the importance of using both when portraying past events.

The biographical memoir The Fiftieth Gate by Mark Baker is a comprehensive mix of various textual forms including historical documents and his parents’ memories. This contrast between history and memory highlights the fallacies of both and how in conjunction they provide a more cohesive representation of the past. Mark Baker explores this idea through the structuring of the text into fifty gates which is representative of the Jewish belief that the fiftieth gate is one of enlightenment.

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In the documentary Torn Memories of Nanjing, by Japanese activist Tamaki Matsouka, history in the form of historical records and memory presented through interviews are contrasted to challenge the perception that history is supreme and indisputable. By contrasting the accounts of survivors, Japanese war veterans and the official records by the Japanese, Matsuoka explores how history is sometimes more questionable than memory.

The form in which the text is presented emphasises the importance of the combined use of both history and memory to present a more comprehensive perspective of the past. The Fiftieth Gate is a biographical memoir wherein Mark Baker explores both his parents’ personal history and his own journey as a historian on understanding the importance of memory. Baker allows the audience to relate to his view of history and memory through the exploration of his own journey of understanding and discovery through the personal, memoir style of the text which in turn shapes the audience’s understanding.

The structuring of the text into ‘gates’ is representative of the Jewish belief that the Fiftieth Gate brings understanding and enlightenment and at the end of his journey, Baker comes to the understanding that memory plays just as important if not more important a role as history which is emphasised in the fiftieth gate where “it always begins in blackness, until the first light illuminates a hidden fragment of memory”.

In Torn Memories of Nanjing, Tamaki Matsuoka’s documentary form provides a historical backdrop upon which the memories of both the victims and the perpetrators of the events are compared and contrasted. This background of the events of the massacre gives the audience the few accepted facts surrounding the events of 1937 and provides the text with validity and a historical base. The rest of the documentary is composed of the recollection of numerous survivors and Japanese war veterans and the form of a documentary contrasts the story provided by history and the vivid description provided by memory.

The form of a documentary is highly effective in shaping the audience’s understanding of history and memory by the way it positions the audience through the comparison of recorded, factual history and collective memory. The way the past is represented is also highly influenced by the form of the text. The Fiftieth Gate is a non-fiction text, a form which is typically objective and factual however Baker subverts the medium by intimately and emotionally portraying his parents’ experiences, as well as his own.

In particular he explores his mother’s “darkest nights” in much more emotional depth than is typically seen in a non-fiction text. This subversion of form shapes the audience’s understanding of history and memory by highlighting the importance of emotion and the ‘human story’ in history which often attempts to be too objective to be able to convey the atrocities of past events. By incorporating both history and memory into the form of the text, Baker highlights how history and memory have a complex, holistic relationship and together they enrich each other to provide a more extensive portrayal of the past.

Similarly, the use of the documentary to challenge the perspective of the Japanese highlights the need for memory when there is no history or very little remaining history left. One Japanese veteran recalled that their officer said “It was perfectly acceptable to rape as long as they disposed of the evidence afterwards”, which shows how history can be manipulated through the destroying of records and cover-ups.

The graphic actuality’s used are short segments which were filmed by European missionaries in Nanjing, who witnessed the brutalities and this interspersion of clips throughout the documentary constantly contradict the official records which are presented in a voice over. This contradiction demonstrates how history and memory combines can give us a more accurate representation of past events. Different accounts of the number of casualties, “the Chinese say three hundred thousand…scholars say only a hundred thousand”, allow the audience to grasp the extent of the violence and an average estimate of the casualties.

Mark Baker uses various textual forms in order to explore the relationship between history and memory such as the use of interviews, report cards and concentration camp records. The use of these various forms reflect on the way history is gathered as evidence from many sources and in many forms which when pieced together give a whole story. When Baker, as a historian, is faced with the dilemma of having no evidence to support Genia’s recollections, he cannot believe her but comes to realise that history is fallible and “when history has no answer, I must turn to memory”.

Similarly, in Torn Memories of Nanjing, there is a constant struggle to find evidence to support the collective memories of the Chinese as to the events of December, 1937. Matsuoka includes various clips of footage shot by western missionaries but ultimately compares and contrasts the memories of the Chinese and of the Japanese veterans. This combination of the collective memories of both nations paints a horrifying image which is very different to the image put forward by Japanese officials.

In both texts, the importance of memory is emphasised by both texts by the extent to which memory has been integrated into history. In The Fiftieth Gate, Baker structures his text so that it’s fractured, non-linear approach to history is representative of the fragmented nature of memory. The inclusion of poems within the text is also illustrative of the emotive and sensory based characteristic of memory. Matsuoka largely uses interviews which are diffused with archival footage of the events.

This deep integration of history and memory emphasises the importance of both history and memory when depicting past events. The textual form is very powerful in shaping an understanding of history and memory as the presentation of history and memory together highlights complex relationship between the two. In The Fiftieth Gate, Baker uses the biographical memoir style to explore both his parents’ stories as well as his personal journey into understanding the importance of both history and memory.

The subversion of the non-fiction form challenges the perception that history is indisputable and memory is unreliable and suggests that together, they enrich each other. In Torn Memories of Nanjing, Matsuoka’s use of a documentary style integrates the history and memory of both Chinese and Japanese to provide a more thorough representation of the events of December, 1937. Neither history nor memory is necessarily more accurate but an amalgamation of both provides a more cohesive understanding of the past.


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