Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Persistence of Memory

How on earth can a clump of tissue possibly capture and store everything -- poems, emotional reactions, locations of favorite bars, distant childhood scenes? The answer is that brain cells keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out....

~ Benedict Carey, The New York Times

(Pieter Brueghel, "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent," 1559)

* * * * *

When I rounded the corner of the medina and saw the man sitting there, a sensation pierced my brain -- I know this picture. The man, the blue djellaba, the massive slab of flesh -- I have a file in my head already that contains this image.
(Morocco, December 2009)

There was no time to tease out the origin of my long-dormant memory, so I quickly snapped a photo and hurried to follow my husband and son before they disappeared headlong into the narrow alleys of Essaouira.
(Morocco, December 2009)

For the next few days, the image nagged at me. Where had I seen it before? The clues I kept getting from my brain cells were scattershot and confusing: Bohemianism. Loucheness. Smoky pubs. And instead of beef, I kept thinking of bacon. Why were these words so insistently linking themselves with a photograph of a Muslim butcher?

Finally it came to me.
(Francis Bacon)

(Man with Meat, Francis Bacon, 1954)

It was kind of stunning to realize that my brain had been on top of things (so to speak) the entire time, alerting my mental troops to harness any word or image I had ever associated with Francis Bacon. Sure enough, each clue led back to a connection I had made with him at one time or another.

Now whenever my memory is jogged, I think of Mr. Carey's description:

"Brain cells keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event."

From now on, I am visualizing my brain cells as villagers in a Brueghel painting, each one the possessor of a specific set of images and memories.
(Brueghel, "Netherlandish Proverbs", 1559)

When the call comes in -- "Alert! Need source image for Moroccan butcher!" -- they rally their neighbors and shout hints from the streets and rooftops, all trying to help the poor forgetful Gargantuan in whose body they reside.


pve design said...

I bet you must be the winner of the "memory" game-
You will live a long life with such respect for your memory! Love that image and the Bacon artwork correlation!

AB said...

Brilliant, Lisa. I love the juxtaposition of that wonderful Bacon painting with the photograph from Morocco. It's satisfying when memory makes those connections, all too often all one is left with is a nagging echo.

Alcira Molina-Ali said...

This is fantastic!
I love Bacon...and Essaouira ;)
What a wonderful case of deja-vu.


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, this made me laugh. I always imagine little men in my tummy waiting for food to arrive on a conveyor belt of sorts. I see them working away, sorting all the vegetables and fruits, and then, holding up a cheeto, one of them will shout, "What on earth am I supposed to do with this??!".

What sort of painting would that be do you suppose? No doubt another Breughel.

I'll be in Morocco in February. I'll look for the man.

Unknown said...

Power to associate.
Often this happens to me when my senses are alerted...Don't you remember things by smell too?
The brain is a wonder!
Love your connections! Isn't this great?!

materfamilias said...

This is a wonderful piece of writing, the way you bring together these different elements.
For me, it's always been an overworked little man scurrying to search through banks and banks of file cabinets. . . but the village imagery is so much more organic and communal -- maybe it's not too late for me to re-boot. . .

Emily said...

Ah Lisa....I love the way you think. I'm very visual, so I really get this! I would love to walk around in your head for a few days and see what other clever thoughts float around in there!

Dianne said...

Lisa, your posts always make me think. Love it!

Hels said...

Oh I do the same thing, especially in older age. But instead of saying "Self! Alert! Need source image for Moroccan butcher", I ask the students.

"Now who was the Bloomsbury woman artist who was married to a bi-sexual man and they both lived in the house of a gay man who was a writer? They all met in 1916, probably at Cambridge".

Someone always knows what I am talking about :)

Young at Heart said...

how brilliant...love Bacon and Essaouira and how your mind moves in mysteriuos ways...

columnist said...

How rewarding and romantic to jog memory through art. I wish I could, but I suspect it would be something more mundane. I do however remember extraordinary details, and always remember to look, (observe). Wonderful post.

24 Corners said...

I always wondered what those little cells in my head looked like and now I know! Thank you for providing the imagery...now, I've just got to see where they've all gone...must be a festival in another "village" somewhere that they're visiting...maybe in your neck of the woods! ;)
xo J~

Slim Paley said...

I adore this post on so many levels...
or rather, layers of tissue.




Blog Widget by LinkWithin