Everything is Illuminated

What is symbolic about Alex's shirt which is discovered to be inside-out?

Think about Jonathan's attempt to explain the concept to Alex. Did Alex understand Jonathan? Did he acknowledge its importance or did he dismiss it?

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Like a mysterious jewel box, this movie opens itself to us with special keys. I think there are two: the one theoretical, the other symbolic. The theoretical key is Bergson's principle that the past is never done. Everything that happened in the past remains with us in the present. Memory, strictly speaking, is a faculty that puts us into contact with the past that already inhabits our own bodies. Far from being merely recollection, it is the faculty that enables the past to illuminate the present. The last lines of the movie say as much with these key words spoken in voice-over by Alex: "I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside looking out. Like you say, 'inside out.'"

These last two words, of course, bring me to the symbolic key to the movie's jewels. Alex and Jonathan are standing on the threshold of the house of memories, waiting there while Alex's grandfather rediscovers what is on the inside. Jonathan notices Alex's undershirt, and says, without drama or flourish, "Your shirt is inside out!" Alex, being not so very "proximal" with colloquial English, doesn't understand. "What does this mean, "inside out?"

What does it mean, indeed!? It means that many of us, Alex and his grandfather --and many of us who live "inside out"-- often fail to recognize and deal with the past that is within. We have turned it outward in such a way that it can no longer provide any illumination. We have enclosed it in containers, like those that Jonathan regularly pulled out, filled up, and sealed away in his collection. Paradoxically, our acts intended and designed to promote illumination end up blocking it.

Does this paradox not bring to mind the museum vitrines? Might it not be so that museums operate "inside out?" If so, how might we alter museum practices? Can we imagine a form of public memory that is parallel to Jonathan's act of pouring the shtetl's earth out into his own life?