-Crazy Ladies, David Walley
I was shocked by the photo of a former lover. The face had not aged. It looked the same, unlike my time-savaged visage. There was no trouble in recognition; it was instantaneous. What threw me was how much of the face I had forgotten.
Not for me warehousing memories, placing them in a shoebox and hiding them under your bed, hoping you might prove your existence to yourself at some later date. I hate snapshots, photo albums, home movies and mementos. Life has made it easy to not accumulate the useless things: pictures, diplomas, awards, dried flowers, shoe polish, scented soap, finger nail clippers, dental floss, porn and colored socks have all been purged from my life. Thus, the shock of the face.
There is something about any lover’s face that makes me catch my breath. Seeing the photo sent me searching back into my memory for names, faces, places, and I find them lost. I felt like a child waking at midnight, alone. In that moment, I wondered what became of all the time, from those moments when heat was shared to the cold distance that followed. In that frigid space, time pursues me like a hound at my heels.
A lover’s presence is overwhelming and totalizing. Suddenly a life that was drifting has been given order beneath their reign. A lover becomes the sun, which places all else in orbit. Even with the lover’s absence the impression of their face remains upon the world, as if it were a silhouette of stars. The person is defined by their lack with a tragic clarity, before the skies shift and the heavens spin out of control.
It is important to forget. The memories that we maintain are already such jealous and petty creatures that perform near-infinite violence against our present. We must forget to live and over time, the face begins to disappear, as a face carved on a stone erodes beneath the rain. A lover’s face disappears like a Cheshire cat, till only the smile remains.
“She rested her elbows on the untouched bed, then stretched out on it with her whole torso, bending her pretty blonde head over the pillows and half-closing her eyes, as if to savor, in the freshness of the linens, the slumbers he was accustomed to enjoy there . A flock of swallows flashed headlong past the window, shrieking.”
-Through Other Eyes, Luigi Pirandello (Trans. Stanley Appelbaum)
With typical elegance (as always) Pirandello draws the protagonist of his story. She seems to course with blood as her emotions develop and become before our eyes. Yet, for all of her immediacy, the above is the only physical description of her in the story. Just as in a story one or two details can describe the totality of the character, so is a person maintained in memory by just a line or two.
It is an issue of economy. We must forget to live, but we must remember for our lives to have meaning. The process in which we preserve these memories is identical to the processes of description in narrative (at its best akin to Pirandello). Stories, be they of fantasy or reality, are accepted as memories to our minds which are, fundamentally, fictional.
We are our memories. Not only the memories we have generated but also those we have collected. A man reads about Napoleon and believes himself to be Napoleon. We feel he is mad. In The Red and the Black, Julian Sorrel reads about Napoleon and fantasizes about being Napoleon. We feel he is imaginative and romantic, but still sane. In class rooms all over the world, children read about Napoleon and believe there actually was a Napoleon. Substitute Napoleon with Lenin, Gandhi, Socrates, Jesus, Santa Claus or the Piltdown Man and you see where the problem is. There is a fluid relationship between our personal, private story we tell ourselves (our interminable interior monologue) and the public, transmittable, exchangeable, material memory we call art.
Our perceptions are a product of the endless process of revision. Look to all the times you could not remember something , but the person across from you recounts the tale, how suddenly did it come back? To what extent did you just appropriate the memory of your companion. How many times did you remember your current lover in the place of the former lover, the lover that was actually there (that must have been one of your other girlfriends…)?
Artists make memories, which in turn, makes people.
“Mouth, nostrils, eyes were penetrated by the cruel oblique light — it was a violation of identity. Her face, cast so far back and lit so raking from below, lost its conventional connotations and recomposed itself in an almost cubist manner into an unfamiliar landscape whose markers were all awry, eyes below the nose, mouth and left eye two similar forms balancing each other, ear tucked in behind the shoulder, so that her identity seemed to disintegrate into an assemblage of recognizable but alien features as you gazed at the painting…
“There was something faintly unreal about the way the figure’s echoing and concentrating lines in the joining of her arms, the flowing of her hair and the folds and creases of her cloths were abstracted into a thing in itself, Edward Munch like, that implied M was painting a feeling this time rather than a living model in front of him, a memory of Lena in a moment of abandon”.
-M, Peter Robb
The above is Robb’s description of La Maddalena in Estasi, painted by Caravaggio while he was fleeing from a murder charge. Here is the memory of a lovers face.
While it is obviously Lena (the model of several other paintings) Robb’s analysis, that her identity has both been violated and disintegrated, holds. For Robb it is the expression of the emotional agony of Caravaggio imprinted on the figure of Lena, and it is here I disagree. This recomposition of gesture and passion is what remains in the absence of model. La Maddalena in Estasi is the transmission of a memory, of what is left after the loss of a lover’s face.
What is preserved is not the normative, the formal or the general. What is preserved is the excessive, the whimsical, the exceptional and the different. Call the process expressive, purifying or distorting, what is clear is that our memories are not composed to best preserve significance. Our memories (and therein our identities) are formed to maximize their aesthetic force.
It is narrative which rushes forth like a medieval army, grasping the defensible positions against the siege engines of time. Structures are reinforced, reinvented and destroyed. What cannot be defended is lost as the earth outside the walls is raped and scorched by the rage of time.
I hadn’t seen my wife in weeks. She had been working in the West Bank again. I stole a luggage cart from a group of octogenarians on some Pirillo tour. I sat on it at the arrival gate.
There comes a point when you get tired of the games on your cell phone, where the arrivals monitor no longer seem to change, when the open door behind the customs boundary, with its intermittent trickle of travel wasted forms, can no longer hold your attention. I come to the point after about ten minuets.
In those moments, I let mind wander into desire, memory and fantasy.
I remember moments where the mask would drop and I would see that part impervious to time. A child’s eyes looking back at me, with joy, with love and most often, with tears As if all the time we had passed was a performance and for a moment, I had a glimpse of the actor.
It is not the boredom of beauty or sweet words that I remember. Record the differences, the strangeness, the odd motion of the head, the moment when the child shows through the tears, the funny face for a laugh, and the glance from the side of the eye. Then you can recall the scents, the sensation of an earlobe between your teeth, that sense of your finger disappearing into the profundity of the soft skin on the inner arm, the brush of lips across your eyes. This is what remains after the disappearance of a lovers’ face.
How swiftly it all disappears, the florescent lights, thieving cabbies, lost looking cleaning staff, and the luggage cart, in a moment. She softly shrugs her shoulders as she pushes her red hair, gently as if every strand could feel, back behind her right ear. An in that moment, I remember her sharp nose, her tender eyes forever shifting from hazel to green, her red hair curling on her shoulder, the sound of her laugh, and the way she slowly opens her eyes after we kiss. This is what waits with me as I gaze past the all too open door, as my white cast knuckles as my hands clench the steel of the carriage, with every pair of shoes that emerges. This is what happens as I gaze at that door, awaiting the reappearance of my love’s face.