Tag Archives: borges

There is an experience that many well-read Americans have when they visit Paris. They head to the first patisserie and order up a small box of madeleines. The result of this purchase is universally the same: utter disappointment, because the madeleine of their imagination is rife with the magic of memory, the power invested in this tiny cookie by the words of Marcel Proust. In the most famous section of his seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu, when Proust bit into one as an adult, the taste caused his childhood to flood back in an irrepressible wave of nostalgia.

The disappointment these readers feel is caused by the fact that a madeleine is such an unimpressive morsel, a sponge of little flavor or texture. It is primarily used for soaking in a cup of sweetened tea — the way we dunk a plain donut into our morning coffee.  The madeleine itself is insipid and boring.

Its magic for Proust was not in the eating, but in the association of the madeleine with his childhood. His, not yours. It was a door to who-he-used-to-be. But we have all had a similar, if not so profound experience concerning our own past. Often it is a tune. Perhaps you don’t immediately recognize why you react so emotionally to it, but then, you can recall exactly where you were when you heard it.

For me, it is often a color, a deep, dark blue, or the mix of green and cream white. That blue paired with yellow brings to mind a set of blocks I played with as a bairn. Not just any blue and yellow will trigger this rush, but only a very specific combination of colors.

One puzzles over what, in fact, a memory is. It would seem to be a videotape filed away in the synapses that can be retrieved by pressing the right buttons. But science can tell us memories are encoded as electrical impulses, carried between neurons by chemicals known as neurotransmitters. How does that farm I visited when I was two become a little zap in the cells of my brain, and what magic mechanism retranslates that buzz into the pictures I see so clearly behind my eyelids?

For Proust, the madeleine brought an involuntary flood of memory. And that memory inevitably exists not as a discrete neutral image, but as a wooly complex of image, emotion and thought, a whole ball of inextricable who-you-used-to-be.

The easiest aides-de-memoire are old photographs. That box of family snapshots holds a passel of memories. But there is always the sneaking suspicion that what you remember are not the events, but the pictures themselves. But then, some research implies that each time we retrieve a memory, what we are remembering is the last time we remembered that event, and so the memory degrades, like succeeding copies of a Xerox image — copying the copy multiple times. Details are lost, and what remains becomes murky and misremembered. You visit your brother or sister, now all grown up, perhaps retired, and you say, “Remember that day you fell into the creek?” and they reply, “That wasn’t me, that was your other brother, and it wasn’t the creek, it was the river upstate.”

Whose memory, then, do you trust? Your own feels so real, so re-lived in the recollection.

My late wife had a supernatural memory. She recalled events from her childhood in infinite detail. I asked her to write those stories down for her grandchildren, but she declined. “Then I will start remembering the remembering,” she complained, “and the original will be lost,” its authenticity diluted.

There is a difference, noted Proust, between the memory you search for voluntarily, and the involuntary memory summoned up, like a genie from a lamp, when you smell a smell; hear a sound, a song; see a color or a picture. The first, while not so spontaneous, is often more rewarding.

A number of years ago, I made a pact with my two brothers. We had all gone to college and moved away to our separate jobs, wives and lives. I wanted to know more about those missing years we had been apart. I suggested we each write a short autobiography for the other two brothers. I  began mine, which covered only the years from my birth to when I was about 30. Even though I thought of it as a summary, it grew to 250 typed pages. Even now, I could go back and between each paragraph add new detail.

Where does all this stuff come from? Each time I call up a memory, it is like opening a door into a forgotten room, and each room has three or four other doors, each of which opens into yet another room, each with its four doors, and on and on, like Borges’s fictional library. 

There seems no end, as one memory suggest two or three others. Colors come back, sounds, emotions, textures, smells, chronologies, acquaintances, pains both caused and suffered, moments of transcendence, moments of relief.

As I get older — I am already old — it becomes harder to retrieve simple things, such as words and names, but the older memories still burn underneath and can be accessed. I will sometimes, when I have trouble going to sleep, call up a scene of tranquility and walk through it like a movie or play and slowly drift off as the memory metamorphoses into a dream.

Originally posted Dec. 1, 2017 on the Spirit of the Senses website

marriage of figaro 1

I hate that we sentimentalize art.

We call it “immortal,” we call it a “masterpiece.” We call it “timeless.” But art is not timeless. All art comes with a shelf life. It’s just that some has a longer use-by date.

A few things, like Homer or Bach, seem to last for centuries, even millennia. But other art defuses after only a few decades. How many people still read Pearl Buck? Despite the Nobel Prize? Does that mean that Buck wasn’t really any good? What about John Dos Passos?

Some art speaks so directly to a certain time and place that we later forget how vital it is. It has moved from the “in” box to the “out” box.

Some creations last centuries, some just years. Some art lasts only a few weeks. Pop tunes are the mayflies of art.

That is no reason to discount them. Not everything has to be Shakespeare — and even the Bard, at some point, will cease to have currency, although it may be when the human race has either evolved into something else, or has obliterated itself.

The fact is, art is a response to the world around us, and sometimes the things we respond to are short-lived or even frivolous. The art gets made, the books get written, the songs get sung.

Too often in the past, audiences for classical music and opera have had the notion that only the old music is any good, that contemporary music is not worth wasting your time on, at least until its composer has been dead for 50 years. But that misses the very essence of what art is. That attitude turns something vital into a warm bath. Art is not a warm bath.

Whether it is dance, opera, music, poetry, fiction, painting, theater or filmmaking, art is the way we grapple with the experience of being alive, of turning the inchoate and complex into something comprehensible: an image or a metaphor.

All art is modern art. At least at the time it is made, it is always brand new. Leonardo was modern when he painted; Mozart was au courant when the curtain rose on “Figaro.”

Today, we think of “Figaro” as a masterpiece, but when it was written, it had a cultural and political import we know only from reading the program notes. Does that mean Mozart’s satiric take on aristocracy was irrelevant? When it was new, “The Marriage of Figaro” electrified its audiences for its bravado. The Figaro we have now is tamed. It’s been praised into submission, so we don’t have to think about it anymore: It has become a warm bath.

There is nothing worse you can do to art than to praise it: Praise is the lion tamer’s whip and chair. Whether it is music, poetry, theater, painting or architecture, the art needs to be refreshed. It needs new blood or it becomes irrelevant. If we let Beethoven sit there inert, he loses his charge. He becomes a warm bath. I want my Beethoven to be revolutionary. It is new music that keeps him so.

If our ears aren’t refreshed, we suffer ear fatigue — like retinal fatigue from something stared at too long — and we no longer hear. If we go to Symphony Hall merely to massage our ears with the familiar fuzzy teddy bear of Rachmaninoff, we have misunderstood even what Rachmaninoff intended.

Jorge Luis Borges understood this: The past didn’t create us, he pointed out; we created the past. It is through the lens of new art that we see the old art, through the ears accustomed to Philip Glass that we now hear Mozart. (It is the fallacy behind the supposed logic of the “historic performance practice” movement. Playing Haydn with instruments of his time cannot give us the music as Haydn heard it because we no longer have 18th-century ears.)

We need to keep our ears alive: Dead ears murder Mozart. Wake up! is the perennial message of all art. Become engaged. Notice what is around you. Some art does this through reacting to transitive stimuli — the current political situation, for instance, or the latest fashion. Some art looks underneath the surface.

But your engagement with the now in art doesn’t keep only Mozart and Beethoven alive, it keeps you alive.