Oral History and Memoirs

Written by: Mohsen Kazemi
Translated By: Mrs. Zahra Moqaddas

Having become scientific and methodological, oral history has created a field which contributes to other fields of the humanities or benefits from them. It has been based on drawing up remembrances, their analysis and preparation. Memoirs are not only a source for oral history but also one for literature and art. Memoirs-recording is a specialization capable of turning the knowledge and learning bound in the mind into publicly useful information; that is to say, it converts any advantages of such knowledge and learning, usually exclusive to the holder, into socially-beneficial information available to the whole community so as to enrich its history and accordingly to raise social awareness. This short article aims to provide the reader with the definition of memoirs-recording and the related terms.

Are oral history and memoirs-recording the same? The present article seeks to answer the question. To find the answer, perforce, we need have recourse to the definitions of the two terms in order to compare and contrast their distinctions and finally conclude that in what ways oral history and memoirs-recording are related and where they lie.
Oral History: Oral history is a method for recording, in the form of speech and discourse, memoirs and observations of the person who has experienced the [historical] event (whether directing, implementing or playing a role in it) or has been an onlooker of or witness to it, his/her hearsay and rumors as regards the event by the use of audio and visual devices.
Memoirs: Memoirs is a set of images, sounds, smells, tastes, and even the feelings aroused by life events and happenings together with the mental impression of them which resides in the mind. In other words, memoirs are the process of present retrieval of the memory already stored in the mind. This may include the childhood memory of naughtiness, plays and games, solving difficult math and geometry problems in school, going on a class outing as a high school student, making new friends, hearing good and bad news like that of one's new arrival or of the death of one's bosom friend or next of kin and millions of other events of the same ilk; in causing them to take place man has either played some role or heard about or seen them and also to which he has reacted or for which he has expressed his emotions. Thus memoirs are the process through which man retains his impression of events and their nature, what he has observed, heard, and felt in this regard, or his role in occurrence of such events, and the reaction he has had in dealing with them. It goes without saying that such events are abundant in everyone's life in society. As a matter of fact, memoirs is all contents recorded in one's mind (memoirs) which may include our remembrance or power of recall of what we have seen, heard, done, tasted, and smelled to date.

Collective and Individual Functions of Memoirs

As continue residing in one's mind, memoirs are merely of individual function and it will equip one with the knowledge and experience to cope with any potential event of the like in the future and such a person enjoys this function practically for a considerable time in his or her personal life. Any result and behavior rooted in those memoirs demonstrated by the individual, even if they affect others in society, serve only as an individual function yet in relation to the society because they are bound to his/her mind. Such memoirs can be of both individual and collective functions only if they are freed from the limits of the mind and become recorded and written down by using the suitable methods and techniques in this regard; if not, the fruit of such memoirs would not transcend the scope of activities of the individual and undoubtedly, they will not promote to the elevated level of collective function.

Picturing, writing down, and recording memoirs will aid the materialization of a collective function only when exposed to other people’s judgment, experience, and examination. In fact, when the memoirs are less serving as individual functions, the more they begin to be of collective use. It is true that memoirs originate from one’s mind, yet naturally they can benefit others.

Thus when memoirs are capable of being used in [providing insight on] evaluation and analysis of the past political, social, and cultural events, in shaping the social identity of a society or part of it, and in casting illumination onto the path of the future people, in fact they can make history. Actuality, it is only in this sense that keeping diaries and memoirs-recording come under the umbrella term of “historiography”.

Diary-Keeping and Memoirs-Reporting

Diary-keeping, memoirs-reporting (not making a report about memoirs), and memoirs-recording are all deemed to be a man’s mental outputs and impressions of the events that he/she has observed, heard, and felt according to whatever that has happened to him/her. What distinguishes diary-keeping from memoirs-reporting is that in diary-keeping the person to whom such events have happened personally embarks upon putting down the pertinent memoirs, that is to say, he/she directly puts pen to paper and notes down the contents of his/her mind. This process is inadvertently influenced by the person’s existential, personal, and mental viewpoints which permeate him/her. In memoirs-reporting, again, contents of the mind are put down, yet it is not influenced by the aforesaid elements; rather the memoirs-reporter writes down what others have observed, heard, and got on their memory about their contemporary phenomena and events in whose occurrence he/she had no role and bearing. For instance, any writing or recording of ours in the future as regards Bam Quake will be counted as memoirs-reporting, for we were not immediately involved in it, did not directly see the ruins and rubbles, the torment, anguish, and pain suffered by the quake-stricken wretched, did not provide relief to its survivors and the injured, and our information in this connection is based on the news, words, and reports of the injured, relief and rescue workers, and  mass-media correspondents.

Memoirs-Recording: a Subcategory of Oral History

Dairy-keeping should not be mistaken for memoirs-recording. In dairy-keeping one directly puts down the contents of his/her mind while a memoirs-recorder, like a hunter, seeks for the memoirs in someone’s mind and extracts them. The memoirs-recorder gathers the outputs of a person’s mind then puts them in order, commits them to paper, and gets them published via his/her know-how and specialty and pen. Memoirs-recording process includes the interviewee, the researcher or interviewer, and the editor.

Irrespective of the aforesaid components, and the type and nature of the memoirs, wherever the memoirs-recording, because of its collective function, is evaluating and analyzing the previous collective political, social, cultural events and casting light onto the identity of whole society or part of it and illumines and paves the way for the future and in this regard benefits from interview, conversation, and audio-visual equipments, it is considered as a subcategory of Oral History.

Distinction between Memoirs and Literature

Memoirs-recording – and, by extension, oral history – holds an interdisciplinary position amongst the disciplines of the humanities, i.e. it involves the ideas from several majors or acts as a link between the disciplines like political, social, and economic sciences and literature and proportionate to its nature, function, and objective, it derives the benefit from each and, in turn, contributes to each of them. The closest of such affinity is felt between memoirs-recording and literature; a propinquity which is noteworthy.

Memoir is distinct from literature in terms of meaning, existence, and indication. Memoir receives its meaning and existence from the reality of the mental inputs and also the peripheral phenomena which, willy-nilly, happen in a person’s life. Actually it swings between the truth and lack of truth. On the contrary, the meaning and existence of literature is derived from the mental and inner need of the man and society; such a need is true but not necessarily real. The contents of memoirs are reality oriented, yet this fact is not essentially applicable to literature. In other words, whenever literature is establishing a thinking order and human relationships, it is reality; however it may not be true, on the contrary, when literature has a tendency to be fictional, imaginative, and ideal (utopian), it is not real anymore; however, it may be true. But, memoir, whatever it may be, is the reality through which man and his society have gone and the history of that people and their society can be extracted out of its contents; and whenever literature is employed to establish such a communication system it is reporting the reality.

The Functions of Memoirs-recording

Regarding the individual and collective functions of memoirs, it seems necessary to outline the functions of the process of memoirs-recording:

·           Disclosing information

·           Accumulating information to be used in researches in the humanities

·           Casting light on the deepest recesses of the issues concerned and accordingly working out new meanings

·           Laying a sound foundation so as to promote research and historical criticism

·           Providing the sources required for Oral and Written History

·           Learning lessons from the memoirs and developing new approaches for the present and the future

Thus taking these functions into account and pondering over them, it is evident that memoirs-recording is a subcategory of oral history.


Zamaneh Monthly/ Issue No.34/July 2005

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