Burning Memory. On Koselleck’s Use of Lava as Metaphor

Lava landscape with glowing lava front. Image rights: USGS, “`A`a flow“, Public Domain.

We know Koselleck’s work primarily for its strong legacy in conceptual history and for his theory of historical times. However, a few years ago, research on his contributions to understanding memory began to gain impetus. What were his main contributions in this field, and why were they so controversial? This short article looks to better situate his understanding of memory, drawing attention to his peculiar use of lava as a metaphor.

Although Koselleck’s use of the lava metaphor has become famous since the publication of “Glühende Lava, zur Erinnerung geronnen,” published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,1 he employs it to refer to memory on several occasions. It appeared two more times – in an interview and an article – while he was alive2 and three more times in some recently-published notes.3 The lava metaphor emphasizes a difference between the individual and physical aspect of a memory, which, on the one side, distances itself from a written or narrated memory, and, on the other side, shows the unfeasibility of collective memory.4 Regarding the first aspect, Koselleck maintains that while there are memories that tend to disappear or lose their sensory force, there are others that remain physically fixed, like a scar. Therefore, memory is double-faceted: it can be mobile, but at the same time, there are aspects of it that Koselleck defines as permanent and unassailable. In a note from 1993 about the war, he writes:

Memory may be jagged and mobile, but stretches of it are immovable and unassailable, unique and enduring. A coagulated mass of lava, once glowing and flowing, pours into the body and lays down immovable layers on which the rest of life builds or steals around. These layers need not be uncovered. They are just there, present. When one refers to them, smells, hearing and seeing, feeling and touching can be activated as if they were present.5

Lava is neither the first nor the only metaphor referred to by our author.6 Especially in Zeitschichten, Koselleck states – as an anthropological premise – that history (Historie) necessarily lives and is nourished by metaphors because it is impossible to describe anything temporally without relying on the sensible substratum of empirical intuition.7 For this reason, historical science relentlessly borrows terms, which in principle are alien to it, from other scientific disciplines. In an autobiographical note on the war written in 1993, Koselleck refers to lava as a literary metaphor:

Often narrated, these stories detach themselves from the spontaneous and unchanging initial experience, they take on a life of their own, they become literature, grounded literature. In doing so, the author changes the genre. There is nothing against literature in which memory and invention inspire each other, in which invention becomes a form of experience. But the status of the coagulated mass of lava – itself a literary metaphor – remains unchanged. The peripheral zones may become unclear as they are narrated, but the core cannot be moved.8 

As Niklas Olsen points out, Koselleck admits that when he later hears or reads testimonies he himself once gave, they seem no more than a literary creation, since they no longer have any presence in his body.9

In the 1995 article, the Bielefeld professor shared for the first time his experiences as a prisoner of the Russians after World War II, which he connected with his conceptualization of memory. In this short text, he relativizes the definitive end of the war on May 8, 1945, while also bearing witness to his own suffering during the conflict and in its aftermath, recalling lost relatives, the lucky breaks that saved his life, as well as the sensations of uncertainty, hunger, cold, and fear felt during his captivity. These sensorial memoires have what he has described as a “carnal presence”:

Some experiences pour into one’s body like fiery lava and congeal there. From that moment on, they can be recalled, immovably, at all times and unchanged. Not many of such experiences can be translated into authentic memories; but if it happens, they are then intrinsically connected to their sensual presence. The smell, the taste, the sound, the feeling, and the visible surrounding; in short, all senses – in pleasure or in pain – reawaken and don’t need an effort of recollection (Gedächtnisarbeit) to be true and to remain true.10

This association of memory with something physical also reinforces the idea of an untransmissible memory, to which Jan Eike Dunkhase has helpfully drawn attention, tracking the influence of Jean Cayrol, with respect to lava and non-transmissibility.11 In interviews and brief autobiographical fragments, Koselleck’s experiences during captivity seem to play a more important role than the war itself. In fact, Koselleck has admitted he had not been fully aware of the gassings of the Holocaust until he had an encounter with a Polish watchman while peeling potatoes, when he suddenly understood the truth of such claims. This allowed him to leave behind the notion that such murders were a Soviet propaganda lie, an idea which apparently prevailed among many of his comrades. This manner of becoming fully aware of what happened is also linked to his notion of Primärerfahrung, which understands memory as an individual experience, that preserves a sort of a veto power.12 This concerns the second aspect we mentioned earlier, namely, a fierce defense of the individuality of memory over the possibility of it acquiring a collective form. Any attempt to create a collective memory inevitably leads to a problem of ontological order: while the subject is easily attributable in an individual’s memory, the same is not true in the case of the collective subject. Koselleck maintained his position in this respect, on the one hand, by warning against the manipulation of the past, and, on the other hand, by insisting on the impossibility of transmitting memories. What Koselleck recognizes is the existence of common conditions under which a memory is formed, something he develops particularly in relation to war memories. In other words, there is a collective level that Koselleck admits, but which is prior to the constitution of a memory.13 

Although Koselleck did not go into much detail in describing the use of the lava metaphor, the associations we can make are rich, and through them we can discover some oppositions that are analytically productive. The image of an outburst, of something that burns, blazing and scaring the body, comes to mind. Lava is explosive. It is something subterranean that emerges suddenly. It is wild, uncontrollable, and leaves traces. There is an easy affinity between a volcanic eruption and memory, the effects and power of which we can hardly foresee. A memory that erupts splashes memories like fiery sparks all around it, modifying the memorial landscape. The lava forms rivers charged with hot magma that sweep away whatever they find in their path, establishing a new topography. Lava has, however, an ambiguous relationship between destruction and creation, fluidity and stability. It is true that it destroys whatever it finds in its path – it is important to say that Koselleck does not dwell on this point – and the havoc it wreaks is often drastic, which means that it takes time for something new to emerge. Thus, an erupting volcano is also, above all, destructive. However, with the use of this metaphor Koselleck does not speak of a blockage or contamination of memory, but of its explosive potential, which burns and leaves marks. He seems to overlook these opposing dimensions that appear with the association of lava and memory.

A fierce and wild memory – a term Saul Friedländer employed during a 1997 conference where Koselleck also took part14 – is like an outburst, out of control, untamed; the memory emerges unexpectedly, without being cultivated or called up. Just like weeds and wild plants, which grow without our tilling or caring for the soil and the seeds we plant to germinate and grow, this memory is wild precisely because its emergence has a high degree of autonomy. It actually seems to be a hidden memory, but in order to discover it we do not have to engage in the Benjaminian task of digging and remembering,15 either groping or planning, for it appears suddenly. It is not that one wants to or can dominate this memory, but that one is subjugated to a mnemonic sensibility, which remains forever inscribed in one’s body. This memory, which casts sparks around it, contains a great potentiality, whose use and consequences cannot be defined in advance because it is linked to a web of previous and future memories that have not yet manifested. Contrary to Koselleck’s contention, I think that this involves not only the person remembering, but also a virtually infinity of others who are affected by the sparks and therefore implicated in the memories. Like actions in Hannah Arendt’s thinking, memory seems to me difficult to control and therefore to belong to a single person.16

Lava has the particularity of being a melted matter, which once cold and in a solid state acquires diverse forms. The liquidity and mobility of magma make it changeable, capable of great transmutations in color, shape, and temperature. This instability also characterizes memory and the stories offered by the protagonists of experiences, whose memories and interpretations are transformed each time they are evoked. That is why this wild and capricious form, which makes it somewhat uncontrolled, differs from the fixity of petrified lava. Koselleck underlines the variations of the memory, but not exactly thinking of a fluidity in the narration, but in the role that plays the perspective. He gives an example in relation to his own history, again focusing on the individuality that prevails in memory, despite the existence of shared experiences: 

Every historian knows this from interrogating witnesses. I myself check my memories by talking to my friend who saved my life in Russian captivity. I keep talking to him, and we realize that we were in the same prison camp in Karaganda for a year and a half, and yet we have very different memories of the same situations. So many people, so many memories. So, as I said, memory is tied to personal experience.17

The metaphor of lava cohabits both the register of nature and that of history, oscillating between the cold and the hot, the fluid and the static, the explosive and the petrified, and the controllable and the uncontrollable. Having said this, we could conclude that the lava metaphor plays a double role in Koselleck’s thought. On the one hand, it functions as a support in the composition of his own autobiographical accounts, presenting a vivid picture of his memories during his captivity. On the other hand, it reinforces the rejection of the collective form of memory by emphasizing its corporeal aspect. This physical aspect of memory makes it intransmissible and therefore compatible with Koselleck’s concept of primary experience. The lucidity with which Koselleck describes memory through the metaphor of lava contrasts with his elusive – or let us say problematic – rejection of collective memory and a limited and obstinate association with a manipulation of the past. In short, we can say that his boldness, disruptiveness, and eagerness to go against the memorial paradigm of collective memory thought from Halbwachs,18 offer us a stimulating panorama to continue thinking about the tension between the collective, the individual, and the physical aspect that memory treasures.

Lucila Svampa is a researcher at CONICET (National Council of Scientific and Technical Research) and Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is also an Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and DAAD Alumni. Her most recent peer reviewed article follows: Lucila Svampa (forthcoming), “Digresiones sobre el concepto de historia en Hannah Arendt,” Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía, no. 50. Lucila Svampa, “Towards Conflicting Chronologies. A Topographic Insight Following Koselleck’s Work,” História da Historiografía 15, no. 39 (2022), 203-228.

A complete list of her publications can be found here.

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Cite this blog post
Lucila Svampa (2024, February 27). Burning Memory. On Koselleck’s Use of Lava as Metaphor. Geschichtstheorie am Werk. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vwok

  1. Reinhart Koselleck, “Glühende Lava, zur Erinnerung geronnen,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 06.05.1995. []
  2. Reinhart Koselleck, “Ich war weder Opfer noch befreit. Reinhart Koselleck über die Erinnerung an das Kriegsende und Formen des Gedenkens (Gespräch mit Christian Esch),” Berliner Zeitung, 07.05.2005 and Reinhart Koselleck “Formen und Traditionen des negativen Gedächtnisses,” in Verbrechen erinnern, ed. Volkhard Knigge and Norbert Frei. Munich: Beck, 2002, 21-32. []
  3. Reinhart Koselleck, “Primärerfahrung und sekundäre Erinnerungen,” “Krieg” and “Lazarettlager Spassk,” in Geronnene Lava, ed. Manfred Hettling, Hubert Locher and Adriana Markantonatos. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2023, 335-345, 454-462, 480-490. []
  4. For an in-depth examination of the lava in relation to the collective memory, see Margrit Pernau and Sébastien Tremblay, “Dealing with an Ocean of Meaninglessness. Reinhart Koselleck’s Lava Memories and Conceptual History,” Contributions to the History of Concepts 15, no. 2 (2020), 7-28. []
  5. “Mag die Erinnerung zerklüftet sein und beweglich, sie ist streckenweise unverrückbar und unüberholbar, einmalig und dauernd. Geronnene Lavamasse, die sich einmal glühend und fließend in den Leib eingegossen hat, um unverschiebbar Schichten festzulegen, auf denen das ganze weitere Leben aufbaut oder sich darum herumstiehlt. Diese Schichten müssen nicht freigelegt werden. Sie sind schlichtweg da, präsent. Wenn man auf sie rekurriert, lassen sich Gerüche, Hören und Sehen, Fühlen und Tasten aktivieren, als sei es Gegenwart.” Author’s own translation of Koselleck, “Krieg,” 455. []
  6. For more on the use of metaphors in Koselleck’s work, see Falko Schmieder, “Geschichtsmetaphern und ihre Geschichte. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Reinhart Koselleck,” Forum Interdisziplinäre Begriffsgeschichte 10, no. 1 (2021), 25-37. []
  7. Reinhart Koselleck, “On the Need for Theory in the Discipline of History,” in The Practice of Conceptual History. Timing, History, Spacing Concepts, translated from German by Todd Samuel Presner et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, 1-19, here 7. []
  8. “Oft erzählt, lösen sich diese Geschichten ab von der spontanen und unveränderbaren Ersterfahrung, sie verselbständigen sich, werden – Literatur, geerdete Literatur. Damit wechselt der Autor die Gattung. Nichts gegen Literatur, in der sich Erinnerung und Erfindung gegenseitig inspirieren, in der Erfindung eine Form der Erfahrung wird. Aber der Status der geronnenen Lavamasse – selbst eine literarische Metapher – bleibt unverändert. Die Randzonen mögen unklar werden, wenn sie erzählt werden, der Kern läßt sich nicht verschieben.” Author’s own translation of Koselleck, “Krieg,” 456. []
  9. Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural. An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012, 290. []
  10. Reinhart Koselleck, “Fiery Streams of Lava, Frozen into Memory. Many Farewells to War,” translated from German by Margrit Pernau, and Sébastien Tremblay, Contributions to the History of Concepts 15, no. 2 (2020), 1-6, here 2. []
  11. Jan Eike Dunkhase, “Glühende Lava. Zu einer Metapher von Reinhart Koselleck,” in Die Vergangenheit im Begriff. Von der Erfahrung der Geschichte zur Geschichtstheorie bei Reinhart Koselleck, ed. Jeffrey A. Barash, Christophe Bouton, and Servanne Jollivet. Freiburg/Munich: Verlag Karl Alber, 2021, 155-164, here 163 and Jan Eike Dunkhase, Absurde Geschichte. Reinhart Kosellecks historischer Existentialismus. Marbach am Neckar: Deutsche Schillergesellschaft, 2015, 27; see also: Jan Eike Dunkhase, “Absurdität,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (21.03.2023), URL: https://gtw.hypotheses.org/13906 (20.02.2024). []
  12. Reinhart Koselleck, “Die Diskontinuität der Erinnerung,” DZPhil 47, no. 2 (1999), 213-222. For survey of these concepts, see Ulrike Jureit, Erinnern als Überschritt. Reinhart Kosellecks geschichtspolitische Interventionen. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2023. []
  13. Reinhart Koselleck, “Sluices of Memory and Sediments of Experience. The Influence of the Two World Wars on Social Consciousness in of Time,” in Sediments of Time. On Possible Histories, translated from German and edited by Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. []
  14. See summary of the Workshop “Memory, History, Narrative. A Comparative Inquiry into the Representation of Crisis,” Warburg-Haus, Hamburg, available in the Deutsches Literaturarchiv. []
  15. Walter Benjamin, “Ausgraben und Erinnern,” in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser. Vol. IV/1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991, 400-401. []
  16. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998. []
  17. “Jeder Historiker kennt das von der Zeugenbefragung. Ich selber kontrolliere meine Erinnerungen, indem ich mich mit meinem Freund, der mir in der russischen Gefangenschaft das Leben gerettet hat, unterhalte. Ich spreche mit ihm immer wieder und wir stellen fest, dass wir anderthalb Jahre im selben Straflager in Karaganda waren und doch sehr verschiedene Erinnerungen an dieselben Situationen haben. So viele Menschen, so viele Erinnerungen. Also, wie ich schon sagte, Erinnerung ist zurück- gebunden an die persönliche Erfahrung.” Author’s own translation of Reinhart Koselleck, “Gibt es ein kollektives Gedächtnis?” Divinatio 19 (2004), 23-28, here 27. []
  18. Maurice Halbwachs, La mémoire collective. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950. []

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