Casablanca by Marc Augé

by The Editors

In Marc Augé’s Oblivion, the French ethnologist makes a case for the importance of remembering by way of forgetting; he draws the analogy of memory as a type of marchland or a shore where the thresholds are changed by each new memory. 

Casablanca, the movie, is Augé’s apparatus to recall the flight and travel of his family during the Nazi Invasion of France, and while a lesser writer would be tempted to draw parallels between the movie’s notion of flight and one’s own exodus, Augé employs it instead to encounter again the strangeness of that time, without romanticizing or condemning. Augé’s clear style, no doubt due to a thoughtful translation, avoids the pratfalls of sentimentality and academic jargon while communicating on both of those levels. The dichotomy balances personal discovery (the initial encounter of travel and departure), film history (the making of Casablanca), and an insightful meditation on what it means to sit in a movie and remember, not the film itself but recall instead first experiences, immediate reactions afterward, and the first time characters became metonyms for one’s life. Accomplished through the static nature of film, “In front of the big screen, they can without risk test the fidelity of their gaze in retrieving the immutable images of a film discovered years before,” the retrieval of the images is a journey into solitude; nothing is more lonely than a memory. 

The function of remembering and forgetting is also a central theme in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity  (Verso Press 1995); Supermodernity occurs from an overabundance of events, spatial excess, and the individualization of the reference. The three terms of excess are the figures of erasure to anthropological place, and the book concludes with a call for the ethnology of solitude. Casablanca extends Augé’s project into film, a medium hinged on the terms of Supermodernity, which informs the ability of the viewer to shape their story against the non-place of the movie theater. Augé evokes Casablanca as a fixed location, so he can gather and sort the details of his personal narrative, “Cinema must remain the medium of encounter.” 

Casablanca may not rupture film theory, but that is not the project. Augé labors to understand the Bogart and Bergman visages that have journeyed with him, perhaps not as a respite to his solitude, nor quite the cause of it. As Tom Conley’s illuminating afterword (aptly titled "A Writer and His Movie") suggests, “The mix of things familiar and strange is cause for abandonment of the time-held categories, common to autobiographical theory and to the art of the novel, of degrees of reliability, of veracity, or of picaresque ideal.” Augé furiously traces the solitude into his own development as an ethnologist, cinephile, and writer, and it is the contextualization of the past to begin a collective experience. He refers to himself as, “a failed Proustian,” and while Proust may be sought throughout Augé’s work, Conley calls it “mimed,” the labor to remember, to enter into the solitude of a Non-Place allows a fresh take on the old Proustian equation. We no longer covet the Madeline, but we should. And not for the sensational journey of emerging worlds, but that madelines taste good. 

While it may be heretical, Augé volunteers memory since it never pours forth from his perception.  But in Augé’s configuration of solitude going to the physical site of Non-Place proves more important. Going to the movies (and remembering!) shall prove as salient as a madeline dunked into a cup of tea. But the more we attend the cinema, the more we seek the Madeline, the less the will be there, to distill Augé. The attempt to connect to a deeper history, the grander narratives that leave us cold and alone in our minor narratives, and the salve for the subject is just that: to imbibe.


Casablanca, Marc Augé