|Ars Memoria with Cat by Zoe Blue|
“Every event in the visible world is the effect of an ‘image,’ that is, of an
idea in the unseen world. Accordingly, everything that happens on earth is only
a reproduction, as it were, of an event in a world beyond our sense perception;
as regards its occurrence in time, it is later than the supra-sensible event.
The holy men and sages, who are in contact with those higher spheres, have
access to these ideas through direct intuition and are therefore able to
intervene decisively in events in the world. Thus man is linked to heaven, the
suprasensible world of ideas, and with earth, the material world of visible
things to form with these a trinity of primal powers” (Occult America, Mitch
This drawing has formed as a process of exploring so many different ideas, it’s difficult to put them all down in a manner that seems even in the least bit linear, i.e. following logically from one point to another without jumping around all over the place. But here’s an attempt.
In one of my favorite books of all time, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, author Haruki Murakami explores, among other things, the idea that a central mental image drives everything that occurs to us and around us in the physical world. The image could be of a small, idyllic village surrounded by a high wall, with a few people placed in various spots. Maybe there’s snow. What happens is this: the snow will mean something, maybe cold, isolation, loneliness (maybe beauty, perfect smoothness and clarity, crisp clean air in your lungs). The way each of the people are dressed will give some hint as to profession or place in society, which in turn means something about the “types” of people you expect to see (and therefore see), and the way the village is structured or something about the walls can tell you something of the rules governing interaction or the innate behavior of the villagers towards each other. This meaning-laden image is the way you see the world. It will control your behavior, your interactions, and it will color the behavior of others, giving it meaning that it might not otherwise have. It will decide what kind of news you receive, what kinds of problems or miracles you are aware of, etcetera. Now, for part of your life (I’ve rambled on and on about this here before, and suggested that this “part” of your life lasts about five years), you are creating that image. Afterwards, you are driven by it, a little slave imagining himself as a free-willed being (so yes, you are both free-willed and fated).
What I’m insisting here is, if you commit yourself to the process, you can change that image later.
So here’s the girl’s image, shown via a cut-away of her skull: a princess trapped in a tower, waiting for her savior. There are monsters above her, and below her is a long way to fall, and she is weeping (her tears slide down and mingle with her hair, finally creating a small pool or lake in the ruins of an old castle below). And she is waiting. Because in all the stories, if the princess is good and beautiful, and she waits, her prince will come and fix things right up.
So she accepts certain details in the world, which you can see throughout. The spires of the church (tower) hold up a drawer borrowed from Dalí to hold the pomegranate, sometimes called an apple, which represents the sinful bite that Eve took which sent us all spiraling away from the garden of Eden. The fact that the two fruits are confused is interesting if we keep in mind the older story of Persephone, who was kidnapped and taken to Hades against her will (princess trapped in an upside-down tower). In that story, she would have been freed, when her location was finally discovered, except that in the meantime, she’d eaten three tiny pomegranate seeds—out of hunger, not sin—and anyone who has eaten in Hades stays in Hades (although later, it is worked out that she will stay down there for one month for each seed out of every year, thus creating winter). So, just like in the garden, the memory of what she has already done continuously punishes her, puts her in a place of darkness and suffering and brings winter and death to the whole world. Because that is the story that is told. Because why? God is not big enough to forgive even that transgression? Zeus is not strong enough to tell Hades to stick it? Sometimes we know that the monsters (and devils) are a figment of our imagination; sometimes we don't. Sometimes, we believe in a god, and we imagine him with hideous attributes. Here, the pomegranate is in the drawer of her false heart—her mirror-left, not her real left. That’s important.
“There was a time prior to the 20th century when imagination and memory were
seen as one and the same thing, Ars Memoria. Memoria was the old term for both.
It included the idea of memory, imagination, the unconscious and reverie. James
Hillman writes, “Memoria was described as a great hall, a storehouse, a theatre
packed with images. And the only difference between remembering and imagining
was the memory images were those to which a sense of time had been added, that
curious conviction that they had once happened” (Hillman, Healing Fiction).
She angles her head and gaze towards a particular constellation, that of the Centaur. According to Wikipedia, “This half-human and half animal composition has led many writers to treat them as liminal beings,” that is, beings occupying the uncertain boundary between two worlds. That is what I want him to do here. First, he is between animal and man, also he is between the stars and the earth; this centaur is her prince, not the one she is to wait for, but the one she is imagining; not simply a man, not simply human, but something more. And she will push him to become real. He drops to earth, attempting to incarnate, first as the two horse-headed men, a concept borrowed from the maquettes of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who flounder in the pool of tears, not quite what she needs, and then as the two horsemen, leaving the ruins to travel up the path. She imagines him in the stars, she imagines him in the reflection in the water, and he struggles to solidify, to incarnate out of that faint line of light in the sky, out of that faint reflection, and finally, he does. He becomes flesh. He becomes these horseback twins. A different constellation altogether. Gemini.
Centaurs were generally, in mythology, basically rowdy teenagers—but there was a very notable exception, named Chiron. Chiron “represents honor, moderation, and tempered masculinity” (Wikipedia), and he is a doctor. That connects him to the horseman holding the caduceus; of the Gemini twins, who were once upon this earth as Castor and Pollux, one is a medical man (the other is a boxer, so, again a liminal area, two distinct sides of masculinity: the listening and healing, and the fighting). And Castor and Pollux bring us back to the title and the opening quote; they bring us back to Ars Memoria, because history tells us, or mythology tells us, or someone’s memory, anyway, that the Ars Memoria was born in the rubble of a natural/ supernatural disaster, helped along by the twin gods Castor and Pollux:
A man named Simonedes had been hired to give a flowery speech honoring the host of a huge banquet in an elaborately wealthy hall. He had, in a manner that was not unknown at the time, introduced his introduction with yet another flowery speech, this one honoring the twin gods (who were later turned into the Gemini constellation). Afterwards, the host had given Simonedes only half of his pay, snidely remarking that he could get the other half from Castor and Pollux, since they were so great.
And he did. There came a knock at the door, and Simonedes was called to respond to the summons of two unknown men. As he exited the hall, seeking his callers in vain, the building collapsed behind him, killing everyone inside. The bodies were so mutilated, they could not be identified, and it was by visualizing the great table and the interactions of the people at it that Simonedes was able to identify each corpse so that the families could give them a proper burial. Thus began the Ars Memoria, a method of active, visual, representative memory, so successful that it was referred to by some as witchcraft—a deadly accusation at times--, and it was, in fact, believed by its users to offer some control over the physical world (again, twisting memory and imagination into a single thing, again operating in liminal space).
The idea here is that she finds some obscure detail, some story that maybe shouldn’t resonate with her, and she focuses on it until it does. She’s unhappy with her lot, so she looks outside her lot. She finds some idea, she commits to it, and she makes it real. She is trapped, her life mapped out before her by the image she created before she knew what she was doing, created really by the circumstances of some mixture of her genes and her “lot” in the first five years of her life, and yet, if she unfocuses her eyes until something bizarre and outside her reality can be picked up and pounced upon, if she focuses hard on some meaningless detail completely outside her normal experience, she can reroute her associations, she can change everything. Her memory of how she got there, and her understanding of how to get out. Ars Memoria. With cat, which I’ll get to now.
III. They head up the hill, which we see is only a mantel, the mantel borrowed from Remedios Varo’s “Embroidering the Earth’s Mantel,” where she reflected on the feeling of a Catholic female, who at once creates the world but takes no part in it herself, cloistered away from events and color and living, trapped high up in a tower with her had down, focused on the rules of her task. In her painting, Varo imagined and then incarnated an escape, a hidden embroidered detail of herself and her lover climbing down the wall and into the world. Here, we are doing the same, first in the form of the cat, who, far from feeling trapped in the tower, uses it as a better vantage point from which to leap for a star, thus pushing the constellation of the centaur to earth and beginning the minute changes that grow into other changes, that butterfly-effect which rolls around this little universe. Underneath the pathway is the dark and shadowy forest of the unknown, where our once weeping princess is now swathed in an explorer’s attire, and she is wandering off the edge of the universe. She is followed, not led, by her saint—
IV. St. Mark: patron saint of painters, interpreters, and law-clerks, (shown as) a lion, which brought to mind, for me, the green lion of alchemy, and he was actually accused, in his time, of sorcery (witchcraft, again!). These leaves all around, the ones swirling down from the sky, burrowing out of the cathedral and landing on the tops of the trees which hold up the path over the dark and frightening forest—these leaves and the blooms here and there are of the datura plant, of special use to witches, especially for love potions. As is usually the case with a witch’s weed, too much is poison, but just enough can do some pretty amazing things. Among the effects of ingestion of datura are “a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy, and amnesia. (Just a side note to the curious, I don’t recommend eating it. You have to really, really know what you’re doing, or it’s really, really bad news.)
Back to Saint Mark, so we can go back to that rubble from which everything is arising: tradition had it that St. Mark’s boat was blown by accident to Venice, and that angels came to him saying he would be buried there, so, many years after his death two Venetian men stole his remains from Alexandria and brought them home with them, ostensibly to protect them from desecration at the hands of the Saracens. A church began to be built to house the remains, and during the building, those relics were lost. Upon completion of construction, “it was resolved, in June 1094, to keep a fast throughout the city, and to make a most solemn procession through the church, without devout supplication to the Almighty that He would be pleased to reveal the place of concealment of the holy relics. And, lo! While the procession was moving, of a sudden light broke from one of the piers, a sound of cracking was heard, bricks fell upon the pavement, and there, within the pier, was beheld the body of the saint, with the arm stretched out, as if he had moved it to make an opening in the masonry” (Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, William Shepard Walsh). So, the constellation is brought to earth via a mighty leap from the cat escaping the tower; the centaur goes through one permutation that doesn’t serve him well, there in the lake created by a waterfall of tears and tumbling hair crashing down over the rubble of the great disaster which started the whole history of the Ars Memoria, out of which finally emerge Castor and Pollux, the twins who saved Simonedes from the disaster, as a gracious show of gratitude for his public praise—twins who here embody the man and horse combination, one the fighter and one the healer; but also, if we concentrate on the detail of this rubble-with-spring borne of tears and birthing new creatures (in whatever form we need them to be in order to make sense of them), we can just imagine that St. Mark was also unearthed from that ripped open building, and alive, why not, and also…a big cat. So there he is, calmly following our now intrepid explorer through the darkest, unknown regions of her own mind and off the edge of the universe--
V. –which does, in fact, curve up around that other (Leo the lion, the big cat, of course) constellation to continue in some other form with people of a castle: the red queen and her puppet, the as-yet-unenlightened Alice in a topiary garden of not-quite-real people and, well, cat. It looks like, perhaps, an old attempt at a fantasy escape which didn’t quite work out for her (well, she woke up, right?).
|Detail of Ars Memoria with Cat by Zoe Blue|
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards” (White Queen, Through the Looking Glass).
In argument form: Things don’t change through a process of logic. It’s a focus on detail that ends up making a huge perspective shift of the sort that ends up somehow changing the universe—tomorrow, you wake up, and things are completely different, yet we believe that all of history as moved us inexorably to this moment. One example of this is what happens to your life when you focus on all your weaknesses, your failings, your inabilities, and then go out and try to do something. Spend a week like that and then share your life story with someone, and you know what it will sound like: a laundry-list of disasters and tragic flaws and chance occurrences that insisted on a hopeless existence (the theme of the movie Babel comes to mind). On the other hand, don’t spend a week like that. Why would you? The way we tell a story, from a ghost story around the campfire to bedtime story for a little one (that we don’t want to scare) to the story of our own lives (even the evening news! That counts!) is the way we form our own lives. It’s Ars Memoria, both memory and invention, past and future, and now.