An Imaginary Line Into the Past

“Lineage reveals an identity stronger, more interesting than legal status – more reassuring as well, for the thought of origins soothes us, whereas that of the future disturbs us, agonizes us; but this discovery disappoints us because even while it asserts a permanence (which is the truth of the race, not my own), it bares the mysterious difference of beings issuing from one and the same family: what relation can there be between my mother and her ancestor, so formidable, so monumental, so Hugolian, so much the incarnation of the inhuman distance of the Stock?” (Barthes 105)


In Chapter 43 of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes talks about family resemblances and how they reveal “a certain persistence of the species” (105). In this persistence of the human race, a link connects each and every one of us back to our parents, and our parents back to their parents, and so on, in an infinite line that leads back into the past. Family photographs can help us recognize that we are all objects within a larger picture whose frame exceeds that of the photograph by far. In a figurative sense, a family photograph depicts not only those people who are actually present in the scene but it also hints at the existence of others, of ancestors and relatives whose traces may or may not be discernible in their descendants’ features.

Barthes says that the “thought of origins soothes us,” whereas the insecurity of the future “disturbs us, agonizes us” (105). The imaginary line that connects us with our ancestors can be traced only into one direction: the past. While our origins are constant, our future is not – we cannot tell how much further our family will branch out, or where it will stop, whether we will have children or whether our offspring will. At the same time, Barthes claims that, while the soothing permanence of lineage is affirmed, this discovery must disappoint us because “it bares the mysterious difference of beings issuing from one and the same family” (105). Although there is much that may be shared with our ancestors – culture, language, place of residence – none of these similarities necessarily applies to everybody. People migrate; their progeny may end up in a different region, in a different country, and may grow up with a mother tongue that is different from their ancestors’. The only constant is the genetic material that is passed on from parents to their children. However, not even genes are necessarily significant: They may influence a person’s physical appearance, their health or even their character traits, but they don’t have to. Our ancestors – unless they are still alive – do not normally affect the way we act in everyday life. This genetic line is basically irrelevant unless we attach symbolic or cultural or even personal meaning to it by insisting on our own spot on that line.

On the day of my brother's baptism

This photograph of my family depicts my great-grandmother, her daughter, her granddaughter, and both her great-granddaughter (that’s me) and great-grandson (that’s my brother) on the day of my brother’s baptism. When I looked at this photograph, it suddenly occurred to me that it represents four generations along a matriarchal line. The likeness of their facial features attests to the kinship of the grown women –I do not resemble any of them much. And even though they are mothers and daughters, unquestionably connected through their genes, cultural practices have deprived them of the outward bond of a shared family name: my great-grandmother’s last name was Wirosaf, my grandmother’s last name is Hügel, and my mother’s last name is Hinkel.

What are the connections between these women? They knew each other; the mothers watched their daughters grow up; they learned from each other; they passed on the stories of their lives; they shared experiences. This is true for me, too, but since my great-grandmother died when I was six years old, I have only very vague memories of her; I learned most of the things that I know about her from my mother and grandmother. When I try to go one step further, to my great-great-grandmother, my knowledge becomes scarcer. She is more of a stranger to me than anything else; my connection with her – although one exists – is even weaker.

My great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents grew up in the same village or at least region in the German-speaking part of Romania. My parents moved to Germany just before I was born; my grandparents and my great-grandmother followed them within a few years. Even though my family has lived in the same location for as long as I can remember, they also have a shared memory of another time, another place. I know this place from their stories; I have an idea of what it must have been like to live there. But this doesn’t change the fact that their past is not my past, that they grew up with customs and habits that are different from those that I learned, that they speak a different German dialect than I do. We are connected by our genes, but we are also very different from each other. I imagine that the children that I may have one day will have a similar experience: they will live lives that are different from mine; they will be even further removed from their grandparents and great-grandparents. But we cannot tell yet; maybe I won’t even have children; the future is insecure.

The line that connects us, the people in the picture, is almost tangible. The farther we follow it back into the past (when we leave the frame of the photograph), the more does this line fade, until it becomes invisible, or at least invisible to our eyes and in our memory. But nevertheless, we know that it is there, and the thought is indeed soothing: There may not be obvious connections with our ancestors, but we are certain that they existed, even though we do not know much or anything at all about them or their lives. Each one of us originated somewhere; we are all part of a bigger picture.


2 thoughts on “An Imaginary Line Into the Past

  1. Pingback: The Generalization of Singularity | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

  2. Pingback: Memory and Temporality in Photographs | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

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