Friday, April 10, 2009

The Uses of Memory

Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, all I have and possess; you have given it me; to you, Lord, I return it; all is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will. Give me your love and grace, because that is enough for me.
-- Saint Ignatius of Loyola

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will probably know certain things about me, its anonymous author: for instance, that I had a dramatic conversion several years ago, which led to gradual changes in my life and reasoning process from one way to its near-complete opposite; and that I consider myself a penitent. Having gone from espousing and living a self-absorbed, promiscuous, bohemian ethos that caused a great deal of harm to myself and others, to striving to espouse and live a Christian life, has been no easy transition. I struggle daily with the discipline and humility needed to shoulder the cross of my mundane responsibilities, and the past is always beckoning to me over that shoulder -- not so much the events of the past, which mostly ended in heartbreak and failure, but the sensations that accompanied and illustrated them.

I recall the way the light rallied bravely on a post-industrial street in early March in my old city; the taste of the coffee at a Puerto Rican lunch counter by the subway; the green glass bottles arranged on the window sill in a friend's apartment. The lime-green haze of the new leaves, like a diaphanous scarf caught in the black branches of the trees on Riverside Drive. The impossibly warm, nostalgic sound of my voice teacher's Bechstein. The buzzing haze of the city in summer, and the marvelously strange way that a hush would descend at certain moments over even the busiest street. The weeds that heliotroped and bloomed through chicken-wire fencing on a strip of auto-body repair shops in the Bronx. The playing cards I would often find on the street (I found a tarot card, "The Lovers," once). And the many, many goodbyes. While Rome is a city that is layered over with the history of Western civilization, New York is a city that is layered over and over again with the personal histories of its denizens. Certain corners are redolent, even overripe, with memory; certain neighborhoods become forbidden zones because of the heartbreaks to which they played host. And when one has tried to change one's life in a place that was the site of so much crash-and-burn, one occasionally feels as if it might be easier to do it elsewhere, and is tempted to take flight from the snares of memory.

Now I am elsewhere, with none of the sensations of my beloved city around me. And sometimes I mourn for the sights, sounds, and smells of the past, the beautiful fragments of a mostly unlovely life that shimmer even more in the refracted light of memory. And I wonder what God wants me to do with my memory. Must I ask Him to sever it from me? I suppose I would be happier and better-adjusted if I could forget the past. And these sense memories inevitably incur regret, because they suggest the past, which, since I cannot change it, leads to grief, and even depression. If God has forgotten my sins, must I remember them?

The quandary of conversion is that it must always be rooted in penitence. Can one be penitent and not mourn constantly? Saint Peter, according to legend, had furrows in his cheeks, gouged there by his incessant weeping for having denied Christ. And, according to Raïssa Maritain, the eyes of Blessed Ève Lavallière, a French actress and convert, were, after her conversion, always wet with tears of contrition for her past sins. Saint Ephrem the Syrian is said to have written:

The soul is dead through sin. It requires sadness, weeping, tears, mourning and bitter moaning over the iniquity which has cast it down . . . Howl, weep and moan, and bring it back to God. . . . Your soul is dead through vice; shed tears and raise it up again!

And yet, as Brother Roger of Taizé has noted:

It may be impossible to repent without feeling some regret. But the difference between the two is enormous. Repentance is a gift from God, a hidden activity of the Holy Spirit that draws a person to God. I do not need God to regret my mistakes; I can do that by myself. Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, "dispels my sins like the morning mist" (Isaiah 44:22).

What, then, is the place of memory in the penitential consciousness? Is it possible to mine the memory for beauty, and to use the beauty as a palliative for others? Is it the responsibility of those who are conscious of beauty to nurture it, wherever it is found, even in ugliness? Or must that beauty be left behind, even buried?

I recently had the opportunity to go back to New York to see the Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum (the image above, "Work Table," is the poster for the show). Retrospectives of Bonnard's work are rare -- the last one in New York was in 1998 -- and I enthusiastically recommend this show, which closes on April 19, to anyone who can go. It is wonderful. Bonnard is an artist who has always been important to me personally, and in fact, in his late paintings, there is an apparent attempt to come to terms with painful memory. He paints mundane domestic objects with luminous, even joyful, intensity, and yet the shadowy human figures who cling to the edges of his canvases hint at a tragic personal situation that caused great damage in his life and the lives of those around him in the mid-1920s, several years before he began producing this prodigious later corpus.

Were the dreadful events in Bonnard's life, then, somehow salutary for the rest of us? The beauty of his late paintings give the viewer great joy.

My fondest hope is that, out of the dreadful turmoil of my own past, some small healing for others might also be brought forth.

Happy Easter (and Passover) and many blessings to all my readers.


Betty Duffy said...

Very interesting. I have been working on a piece with very similar themes due to the suppression of my pre-reversion life and its resurfacing in the face of a long lost friend.

Reading this Sunday's Gospel, the apostles begin to mourn when they find that Christ is not in the tomb. They feel abandoned without him in their lives. They are so quick to accuse others, and in their way, to go astray--and Christ allows it. So that in having lost, they can reclaim.

In the fullness of time, it becomes clear why God allowed each one of us to go astray in our own ways. I am only now, nearly twelve years later, beginning to see a big picture taking shape. And it does include my past.

Pentimento said...

My reversion was six-and-a-half years ago. Perhaps I'll have a clue in another six years. I also sense that, as much as I feel in exile in my new city, it's probably good in some way that I do (I felt in exile when I moved from Manhattan to the Bronx, too, but I didn't know what exile was then). And long-lost friends . . . there are friends of good will in my past who I still don't know how to approach. I look forward to reading your post, especially since I'm in love with your blog.

Maclin Horton said...

As you may know from reading my blog, I'm haunted in much the same way by a prodigal past. But there's one big difference: I find it very hard to see beauty in that wretched part of my life. That is, I find it hard to see even the good things in it. The further I've gotten from it (which is a lot further than you from yours), the more I tend to see it as a uniform darkness. I have to remind myself that the good things of the time--of which there were many--are not robbed of their intrinsic goodness by the fact that I was, in general, very much astray.

No particular conclusion from this, it's just an observation.

Unlike you, I did not love the place where I lived most of my bad years. My leaving it was almost coincident with my conversion, and I didn't go back for many years. When I finally did, maybe ten or twelve years later, I had to overcome a sort of horror that made me want to turn around and leave for the first several hours I was there.

Perhaps we're different in that I was quite unhappy, and knew it, for most of that period?

Pentimento said...

Mac, in his book Conversion and Text, the historian Karl F. Morrison wrote:

"Conversion is often portrayed as a positive event, a turning toward. It also has a negative aspect, a turning away. The event of formal adhesion [to the new faith] may consist of this flight toward the future and from the past. But . . . . the old life overshadows the understanding of the new. The event may produce a transformation; but something resistant to change informs understanding it, and retention of the old may indeed have been a condition without which there could have been no change."

During that long period of time, I too was usually somewhere on the spectrum from vaguely discontented to wildly, desperately unhappy. But there was always a thread of good and even of beauty running through the disorder. Perhaps by following that thread I made it back to my faith. And I know that God brings good out of evil.

I wonder if our different responses to the pre-conversion past fall along typical male-female lines. We can acknowledge that the world is fallen, and that we are fallen, but still there is beauty in all of it.

Maclin Horton said...

I could say (and have said, actually) exactly the same thing about the thread, and my following it, except without the "perhaps." A male and female difference in our responses? Could be. Or it could just be that I'm more naturally melancholic. If not neurotic...heh.

Pentimento said...

More naturally melancholic -- and neurotic -- than moi? I'm willing to accept it, but it's a stretch. :)

Maclin Horton said...

Heh. A contest probably best left uncontested.

Sheila said...

Very interesting to me, too. I just posted quotations from a chapter on "repentance and resurrection" that talks about wounds, scars, and memories. If you haven't read it, please do check it out, and I recommend the book it comes from.

May God bless you in this struggle.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Sheila. Can you provide a link? I see that you have several blogs.

Janet said...

I almost wonder if Pentimento's memories aren't more beautiful because they WERE actually more beautiful. When I remember the 70's, there is little real beauty to recall. The art was trite and garish. Everything was papered over with a sort of psychedelic blechiness. The images that P. describes are really beautiful.


Pentimento said...

But Janet, the things I'm describing are things that can be witnessed anywhere, and probably could have been in the 1970s, too. I don't think it's era-specific. Beauty is everywhere, as I try to tell myself every day in my new hometown.