The Tangle of Memory Can Have No End
How I ended up in M.J***'s attic I have forgotten. All I remember from that day are the contours of the object. I might have seen only darkness if a bit of secondhand light hadn’t fallen from a crack in the attic wall onto the booklet atop an oak crate. Moving towards the thin stream of light I tore cobwebs that clung to my head. There was something strange before me. The butterfly-blue words "The End of Memory" shone so brightly that they pierced clearly through a thick layer of dust. Surprised by those sapphire-wing letters in the rag-pile attic I recited: "The End of Memory."
Perhaps it was the heat or the stale air in my lungs that gave me the dizzy impression that I was leaping into a great abyss. "The End of Memory." I reached slowly towards the dust embossed rectangle. Shadows moved across my skin. They lurked like the low stomach of a heavyset cloud in a narrow mountain pass. The book seemed to recede and the attic seemed to grow in length. I heard the tick of spider legs on the crossbeams. One of my fingertips suddenly touched the cold book with a spark and my face burst into a sneeze, causing a dull puff to rise and stroll into a corner. I quickly picked up the quarto.
It was a finely printed antiquarian book. There was a stain along the top deckle edge but, for me, this minimal damage increased the allure. Cracking the cover, I was struck by the smell of juniper and bubblegum. Nothing was printed on the first page. In the right hand margin there was a watermark of a spider in a labyrinthine web. The second page contained the colophon. I held The Cantrip Review. It was a special issue entitled "The End of Memory" edited by Zishe Breitbart, and printed by The Cantrip College Press, 1951. Absolutely limited. On the following pages were an epigraph written in Voynich, the table of contents, and the 'Brief Biographies of Contributors’ that rhymed with one another like the faces in a village barroom. The editor’s preface expressed concern that all of humanity, including the reader, remember memory in this time of ever decreasing memory while there is still time to remember, lest memory fail.
You are reading my attempted cartography of that obscure Cantrip Review found one distant summer in M. J***'s attic. I will focus on what I remember best, the tortuous "Mímir and Memory" by Dr. Humbert Humbert. His brief biography described him as formerly of Beardsley College, and before that formerly of Europe, with interspersed and extensive adventures in distant northern lands. The abstract to his excessive article said that he would suggest among other original things, a general theory of perceptual time based on the circulation of blood and conceptually depending on the mind's being conscious not only of matter but also of its own self, thus creating a continuous spanning of two points (the storable future and the stored past). Blood circulates within the closed cardiovascular system. Blood flows through the body in the extensive network of capillaries, veins, and arteries. H.H. wrote, "In and out of my heart flowed my rainbow blood." There is also a colorful circulatory flow of time, desire, memory, and life itself. Humbert noted that in their similarly complex networks of interconnecting lines the body's circulation system was much like a highway map or a spiderweb. They have neither beginning nor end. They are always between, always in the middle. Humbert explained that for him, anything outside of the head was certainly uncertain and that all of these networks were indeed enclosed within the skull.
Preceding the lead article by Dr. Humbert Humbert was a dark engraving depicting the Norse myth of the Gods Mímir and Odin. A decapitated body sprawled across a reedy bank, torso in shallow flowing water. Both its arms extended out from his bare chest along the bottom of the image. Two tall reeds in the fore thatched over the naked legs echoing the vegetative form of these dead appendages. Where there might have once been a head, a pale bloom of moonlight moved upon the water. Beyond the acéphalic body was a patch of cattails, a shadowy horizon, a full white moon, and a gray sky. Descending the wide bank was a bearded figure in a loose robe and a slouchy hat decked with small horns. He was holding a tall trekking staff in his right hand. The caption below the image read, "Odin communes with Mímir's head - Snorri Sturluson 13th century."
Humbert the Wounded Spider's article is hazy to me now. I see only a few of the many threads of his tangled text. I recall that his paper cited the Eddas and the Ynglinga Saga extensively. He glosses the Norse mythology of Odin's gleaning of the head of the wise god of memory, Mímir. Odin happens upon Mímir's head that has been cut off as a result of the Æsir-Vanir War. Mímir watched over the well of wisdom and the great tree of life with his follow guards Present, Past, and Future. He becomes a military advisor during Æsir-Vanir War. As a result of diplomatic missteps his head was removed with an axe. Humbert imagined that Mímir's beheading could best be understood from these lines by the poet John Shade:
There was a sudden sunburst in my head.
And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
I felt dispersed through space and time.
And plop, the head fell to the dirt with open mouth kissing earth's debris. "Odin took the head, smeared it with herbs so it should not rot, and sang incantations over it. Thereby he gave it the power that it spoke to him, and discovered to him many secrets," says the Ynglinga Saga. I hear the rhythmic and repetitive sound of Odin's galdr beat on like the Baltic Sea against the side of a Viking ship. Perched upon Odin’s shoulders sat two ravens. One of these ebony birds was called Thought (Hugin), the other Memory (Munin). Onward marched the ghostly trio. Odin carrying Mímir's head become oracle reciting great wisdoms and memorials. Mímir's body lay rotting in some unknown marsh.
Humbert used this story to set the stage for his close reading of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait". The gloomy shades were like theater drapes, the head without a body the blood-red star. And thus out of a web of palpable shadows act one progressed. Humbert finds the bodiless head an apt symbol for the shape of memory. Chop, chop, and you have it all there in the head. Humbert quotes Nietzsche on this point, “If something is to stay in memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory.” The myth of Mímir the decapitated Man of Memory is the myth of the origin of memory, the torture and rift that had to be inflicted in order for man to be capable of memory.
"The Oval Portrait" is the tale of a wounded man and the portrait of a girl. His valet, Pedro, breaks into an abandoned chateau. They traverse complex corridors. Pedro places The Wounded Man in a rich yet tattered antique bed. It is acceptable to imagine a high chill wind at this point. The wall of the small room is bedecked with paintings framed in rich golden arabesque and dust-bearded webs. The Wounded Man, in incipient delirium, takes deep interest in these paintings. The eyes of the portraits flicker in candlelight as The Wounded Man's eyes grow more profound shadows. He looks slowly across the walls at the paintings. He alternated between these pictures and the perusal of a small volume which was found under a pillow and which purported to describe the paintings. Late into the night did the Wounded Man read and deep into darkness did Humbert read Poe's story. Humbert says he "leafed again and again through these miserable memories." The Woundman says, "Long ---- long I read ---- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed." The hours of the night flew by and deep midnight came. Still he studied these paintings. Moving his candelabrum, the light fell upon a niche hitherto unseen in its deep shade. There The Wounded Man saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. "It was a portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood." He bolted his eyes shut. I don't know why he did this. His vision became riveted to the portrait of the nymphet. It was a mere head and shoulders. It was a bodiless beauty, so to speak. Remember, Mímir fully became an oracle once his cranium was removed from his body. According to Humbert's theory, the slicing of the common carotid arteries is the On-switch for the workings of memory. The ends of her radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow that formed the background of the whole.
He is transfixed by the surnatural encounter between himself and the head in its arabesque frame. To him the night is silent. He hears not the wheeze of his sleeping valet, nor the ticking legs of a spider on the bedpost. Time stopped. The Wounded Man gropes the black bed sheets for the descriptive volume. He finds the book and opens to the entry on the portrait of the young girl. He reads that long ago in a land by the sea the maiden was married to The Artist. She loved The Artist and he loved her. She had but one rival for her lover’s heart. It was his art. To her horror he requested to paint her, and to his delight she submitted. The Artist became intoxicated by his lovely painting. "The brush was given ..." The Artist's sable drew life from the pallet of her face, taking the pink of her cheeks, the red of her mouth. In Poe’s story, the painting replaces the living model only by draining her of life. Many days he painted and she sat. “While The Artist yet gazed, he grew tremulous and cried with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ He turned suddenly to regard his beloved – she was dead!”
Humbert said that Charles Baudelaire said of Edgar Poe in an 1852 essay, "his head did not present an agreeable and harmonious whole: seen from the front, the dominating, inquisitional expression of the forehead seized and commanded attention, but his profile revealed certain deficiencies; at the front and back the cranial structure was massive, and in the middle it was relatively slight; in short, and enormous physical and intellectual power, and a lack of emotional and spiritual qualities." "The Oval Portrait" is a self-portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1835 Poe married his nymphet cousin - Virginia Eloza Clemm Poe - in order to paint her portrait in words. She died before reaching the age Poe was when he married her. Most artists who wish to do portraits of pubescent girls are dissuaded by the mass hysteria concerning pedophilia from approaching them. Hum-Poe was not dissuaded. Hum-Poe was sure to capture his Virginia in his poems and stories before she was to be (mis)represented by the woman who would "naturally" lay claim to her memories and usurp her name. The successful portrait of the pubescent girl must resist oblivion regarding her and produce oblivion for the woman who would otherwise lay claim to her memories. Either the portrait obliterates the woman, or the woman the girlchild. Lo! – Virginia dead in her youth faced total oblivion of herself as a woman, but her childish figure remains in those Poe portraits, those Poe poems; "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," and "The Oval Portrait". The death of a beautiful girl haunts Poe’s work even before his lover’s death occurs. Did he will it? The actual woman is not a concern to Poe. He is concerned with the portrait, with his pen. He picked up his untoward instruments in 1842 to paint "The Oval Portrait." She is dead by 1847 and Poe paints the last brush strokes of "Annabel Lee" in 1849, the year of his own death.
Memory is a multiple. Lines of memory fly in all directions like the strands of the vast highway system that spans the United States. It has intensified points along the way like those whirling ecstasies you have with your lover in enfolded roadside motels. Humbert said that there are two kinds of visual memory. One type occurs when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind with your eyes open (in this form of memory the object is seen as a general list of predicates: "honey-colored skin," "champagne eyes," "big bright mouth," the tint of lips," "radiant hair"); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors. Poe's Wounded Man saw the young girl just ripening into womanhood as a little ghost in natural colors. Humbert laments the immanence in which time has imprisoned us. “I surrender to a sort of respective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives which cause each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.” These lines cluster together in what Humbert called “tangled islands of entranced time.”
The girl is lost -- lost beyond those tangled islands. The girl is gone. This is when Humbert understands love. Love does not take place within the closed wall with its white web-work of the mind. Love is something else entirely. Life of the mind. No. Life of the spirit.
H. breaks down he closes his eyes he writes in the night. He compares himself to Dante Alighieri, to Edgar Poe. Sentences become fragmented. Tells of romantic poets - Poe in France and love - and the profound beauty of girls. Humbert’s brief biography of Poe must have come from a place of deep madness in the midst of his analyze of "the Oval Portrait" he said:
“I intend to introduce the following idea: Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there are certain maidens: they bewitch the traveler who is twice their age and reveal to him their true nature, which is not human but nymphic – I am speaking of a certain fey grace, of the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the preteen demon from the ordinary sweet found-faces child with a tummy and pigtails. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy."
Humbert wrote of a dream where he saw her. He addresses her. He repeats, “I saw you early this morning. I saw you early this morning.” He saw her come out of a white fog. There was a road on the other side of a fence and in the road were the tracks of tires and the tracks of horses. And the earth was all misty wet from rain and a young girl came riding down the road. The horse she rode was white as snow. Its sides breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. She’d been riding the horse in the river or in a low laid grove because the horse was wet to its belly and the leather fenders of the saddle were dark at their lower edges and her boots as well. Her golden hair was loose and fell halfway to her waist. As she rode past she turned and smiled and touched the brim of her hat with her crop. Then she pushed the horse into a gaited rack and disappeared down the road. He was still looking down the road where she’d gone. There was nothing there to see but he was looking anyway. An hour later the light rippled tensely and bowed shyly as a wet swan out of view. "You’re out of reach, you’re out of reach. And I I know you’re dying baby know you know It too. Everytime I see you I just don’t know what to do.”
There is only memory, that limited beast. But there is also Eternity. Humbert realizes somehow that his love is not in his mind. From his reading of Poe he knows that the only valid relation is between man and eternity, not man and history. The experience of eternity is void of memory – a victory over the moments of life. The beloved in ones own mind is a prisoner. Her truth is the eternal meteor of light outside of the lover's mind. The lover is the truth. Lo! - Humbert had an epiphany; truth (ἀλήθεια) is other than the circulation of perceptual time. Truth is indifferent to the accumulation of a so called "storable future and the stored past." Memories are constructions in a closed, removed head. Spinoza and Hegel both pose that truth is ultimately memory. They believe it is towards memory that one must turn for the truth. On the contrary, truth is forgetful. And this forgetting is not the simple forgetting of this or that, but the forgetting of time itself -- the forgetting of memory itself: the moment when we live as if time (this time) had never existed, or, as if we were immortal by being for far from our loved one. Every truth is the end of memory.
And so we come to the heart of Lolita when Humbert says,
"Gently, dreamily, not exceeding twenty miles an hour, I drove on that queer mirror side. And I saw the ghost of an old mountain. As I approached the friendly abyss, I grew aware of a melodious unity of sounds rising like vapor from a small mining town that lay at my feet, in a fold of the valley. That vapory vibration of accumulated sounds that never ceased for a moment and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord."
I read Humbert's essay with my mouth agape. I remained in the attic half leaning against a crossbeam with my vision fixed to the pages. Long ---- long I read –-- turning those dark pages, turning, turning those dark pages. The tide of light subsided. I stared deep into the image of decapitated Mímir. I read Humbert Humbert’s geographies of memory, and I traced a highway of veins through a blood filled globe. I observed the white web-work which gleamed from these cavern walls. I touched my clammy hands to the paper. And after reading many pages my eyes turned, with the guidance of Humbert’s ink, from the white web of memory to the black spider of eternity. I flipped back to re-search those beautiful moments in the Cantrip pages. My fingertips turned black and the black grew blacker up the flesh of my hand. I carefully turned the pages back. My heart was heavy and reached the extremities of my body. It became a black ocean. A huge wave washed over me. I held my breath. The Cantrip Review crumbled into a thin rain of charcoal against my stomach falling to the wooden floor and gone.
Zachariah Buck is a documentary filmmaker and poet living in Santa Cruz. He can be reached through his agent at email@example.com