Enough of self-reliance. Today I begin a short section on memory. It’s short because memory mystifies me. Plainly it has a physical component, like everything else about us. We can get knocked on the head and “lose” our memory. But we can also be unable to remember things when there is nothing wrong with us physically. And sometimes we remember vividly putting the car keys where, in fact, we did not put them.
We think our memories, once put away, will stay the same, so when we take them out to be exchanged and find that they have not, we feel betrayed— estranged.
It is as if our stash of cash had turned to trash. We want to smash and weep.
But memories are never ours to keep They vanish like the stars at dawn but even when forgotten are not gone. They’ve shaped the kind of future that we seek.
I feel the same way Fanny Price does in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Fanny says: “The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at other again, so tyrannic, so beyond control!—we are to be sure a miracle in every way but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.”
This is not the picture I started out to paint. It took on a life of its own. I’m not sure where I came across the phrase on the bowl: finitum capax infiniti. I’m no Latinist. But I read it somewhere and looked it up. It means is we are capable of seeing what is infinite and eternal in things the are fragile and finite. I think that’s true and am reminded of that phrase every time I look at a still life.
Still life paintings depress some people, and I see why. The images of fruit and stemware remind them that real fruit rots and real stemware breaks. You can count on it. But the unreal painted images of fruit and stemware don’t break or rot. They just sit there in another world, and for me they seem to link what is fragile and temporary with what is permanent and eternal.
Here is another still life by a much better painter than I am: Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818). She made a speciality of still lifes. Most of her customers were guillotined during the French revolution including her friend and admirer Marie Antoinette, who was a witness at her wedding. But Anne kept out of sight and, against the odds, managed to live and paint again another day.
Above is a picture of a woman “making herself up”—i.e. “making something of herself.” She is “painting” herself into existence—creating a work of art.
Raymond Tallis is a doctor of geriatric medicine who branched out as a philosopher, poet and culture critic. He says that art is something—an object or a performance— that “offers us intermittent relief from the otherwise permanent condition of never having been quite there, of not quite arriving.”
I like that idea. It’s not an idea that we can explain exactly, but we all know what Tallis means by “the permanent condition of not quite arriving.” When the woman in my painting stands up, puts on her clothes, straightens her skirt, and rubs her lips together to smooth her lipstick, she has arrived, even if she hasn’t left the house.