memory

Ruminations

I’m driving a two-door 2001 gold grand am. The air conditioning no longer works after the transmission broke, wooden clothes pins and duct tape secure the windows. It must be August because I’m heading towards the city public library to flip through stacks of CD cases for a Canadian indie pop album. Is a locality with less than 10,000 residents a city? A town, maybe.

We had spent the summer in South-West Michigan working on the shores of a lake, teaching children about ecology. Cold mornings on the peninsula gave us the perfect excuse to have the kids make fire; transformation of endless consummation. A taurus, I don’t remember if I knew at the time. People thought we were dating, but that would be too simple of an explanation for how close we became. Over the years I would make trips to see you, and you’ll be the one to come find me when I move to New York.

As the disc sinks into the dashboard I imagine that the oncoming sounds will ease your absence.

Reading Disc

00:01

When there is nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire

The story is about two ex-lovers who smile as they are reintroduced by a distant friend. They share a taxi without saying a word – he can’t remember her name. The listener learns that it has been awhile since they’ve seen each other as the song progresses. There seems to have a been an inarticulable gap in their relationship when they were close. They fail to tell the same story of what they were; eithers experience of the relationship too excessive, or strikingly absent.

The melody belies the confidence that the two try to assert at the end of the song. Listeners know that something has been lost here, although neither persona can+ name it. The continual repetition of “I’m not sorry there’s nothing to say,” in face of the untranslatability of that which they lost, fills the space between them.

Freud says that melancholia differs from mourning in that it involves the loss of an ideal – a love object. The problem for the melancholic, Freud continues, is that they understand whom has been lost, but not what has gone missing; outside of their conscious awareness. Actually, what the object-loss has been eclipsed; the melancholic experiences the sense of ego-loss as libidinal energy withdraws into the ego once it’s severed from the love object; through insistent communication the melancholic becomes self-deprecating.

 

You asked me to move to New Jersey to take care of the house and I felt myself turn into a statue as the ground gave way beneath my feet.

 

Is this the nothing left, that prompts [us] to set [ourselves] on fire?

I am reminded of Donne:

But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire

Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore

And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,

And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal

Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal

  • Holy Sonnets V.

One of the competing beliefs on melancholia in the Early Modern was that it was both a physical and spiritual disease. Already Freud’s obsessive fear and sorrow can be read. Gallenic tradition tells us that the melancholic has an excess of black bile; this could either be addressed by balancing the humors or through correcting the thought of the melancholic. Donne tells us that it is the ‘black sin’ that has lead the speaker wish to ‘drown [their] world with [their] weeping earnestly.’ Tears are not enough to cleanse the wound for the speaker – a husk calling to be burnt.

Is that what happens to our desire?

Firewood destroyed the same instant our passions realize.

 

You gifted me stones forged de la tierra, and a lantern that has never held a light.

 

Baudrillard says that objects provide an access point for understanding the inner life of a person; objects as external structuring devices of the psyche. They mediate a historical narrative of the relations between the owner, their ideologies, and other bodies.

 

What do you see when you look around your room?

I’m left with languid memories of late mornings when I still listened to the old fool.

The planets that I take note of this week are Saturn and Venus – Kronos and Aphrodite. While Venus resumed its direct progression on April 15th, we will have almost one-hundred and thirty more days of Saturn retrograde. Mediated reflections on the love that we’ve known and now is gone – the sharp crash of reality that we try to prevent.


Tyler Smart, an MA student in English at Syracuse University,  is primarily interested how space produces certain subjectivities, locally and transculturally, in literary and cultural imagination. Other research interests include cross-cultural influences, queer theory and the history of sexuality, subjectivity, phenomenology, eco-criticism, and post-humanism.

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Things you think about when you’re in the ICU holding your dad’s hand and he’s still under anesthesia from open heart surgery but he opens his eyes for the first time

NoteWhen I agreed to write for Metathesis this month I planned on starting off with something strident, political, and sharp. I had this series all planned out about football and fascism, “third way” pro-lifers, and Stardew Valley in the age of Trump. Maybe I’ll revisit these before months’ end, but I did not count on how tired I would feel by the first few weeks of our new regime, nor how acutely I would sense the Internet’s saturation with thinkpieces on yet another new advancing horror to resist. These last several weeks have felt inhumane to me in a vague way, not because of any great suffering on my part, but because the relentless grief and anger that the rise of white nationalism to our country’s highest offices inspires has a deadening effect on the senses. In that spirit, I want to share something that, at least in the reading, feels more humane to me.


That it makes sense why they need to lower a person’s body temperature to 92 degrees for such a major surgery but it still feels awful holding his frigid hand.

~ ~ ~

That his hands and feet are swollen, so swollen the skin feels stretched like a cheap water balloon.

~ ~ ~

A conversation you had in the days leading up to the surgery. You didn’t talk much — he wasn’t too forthcoming about his feelings and your attempts to solicit anything from him felt trite and obvious.

How are you feeling? Well I had a heart attack and doctors are about to break my sternum open, run all my blood through an external pump while my heart gets cut up, so pretty bad I guess.

So you don’t have that conversation, and instead, after a while, you ask him something more open-ended and he tells you that it’s weird to be on a hospital bed surrounded by family so soon after burying his own dad. You think about both scenes. With his dad, there were no father/son conversations at all. Grandpa’s shallow breaths were slow and quiet; everyone in the room traded stories in hushed, laughing tones about the shared violence of their childhoods. Snow piled up on the deck furniture outside the sliding doors of his hospice room. Different with your dad. There is a lot of worry, a little self reflection, and a lot of middling conversation that helps stave off the heaviness of futurity and risk. Not like with grandpa who was practically already gone. Your dad’s well enough to make the waiting hurt. With your dad, the room is smaller, and there’s a roommate who’s a lot older and has just had the same surgery your dad is going to have. The roommate dies overnight.

~ ~ ~

You think his trimmed beard doesn’t look that bad at all and that his chin is way less recessed than your mom says it is.

~ ~ ~

The thing about your dad is you feel like if you had lived his life you’d have a lot more to share with your kids when they visit.

~ ~ ~

His eyes open and you get the sense that maybe they shouldn’t open yet. His eyes bulge. You think he looks confused. When your mother cries he looks concerned, maybe a little guilty. You wonder about your own cholesterol and look at your wife. One of your sisters starts to cry too though not the one you expect.

~ ~ ~

You think about that breathing tube.

~ ~ ~

You don’t feel regret but an adjacent feeling about not talking to him more before the surgery. You wonder when the last time was that you both had an extended conversation about something you mutually felt was important and that was not triggered by a family crisis. You’re both people who like to argue, like to be right, but you’ve stopped arguing with any regularity, in part because it stresses your mom out, but also because it’s hard work and makes you feel a little depressed. You always get the sense that he thinks you’re patronizing him. But when the arguing went away, so did the sense of intimacy. You figure the last conversation like that must have been five or so years ago in Canandaigua at a bar you had been to once with some old friends from high school. They have good dark beer on tap which gets dad tipsy fast but makes him feel good because its darkness signifies legitimacy. It’s about forty minutes from where you live and forty minutes from where he lives. Feels more like neutral ground than most places. You initiated under the pretense of catching up, which was true, but also because you had two things to disclose, one religious and you thought minor, the other academic and you thought more serious. He saw it the opposite way. You disagreed but didn’t feel angry. You felt respected and friendly.

~ ~ ~

There was that time — it comes back now, flies by unsolicited — when you were a kid, who knows how old, young, and were getting ready to play in the snow outside (a loop forward to that hospice room). It was a process and dad was helping out. Sweatpants. Wool socks over sweatpants. Flannel. Sweatshirt. Snowpants, zip, clip, clip. Jacket, go Bills. Gloves. Here you got hung up. Your fingers won’t go into the right spot. They kept slipping into a space between the glove’s shell and the fuzzy lining and you were hot and whiny already, itching to get outside, climb the hill from the plow, make angels, play with next-door-neighbor Sarah. Sisters already outside. Dad’s trying to help, shoving, pulling, telling you to push. Then you’re crying and dad yells, incredibly, “be a man.” You remember him saying be a man a few times but it might just be echoes in the remembering. You cry harder, say, I’m just a kid not a man.

~ ~ ~

Think about how bad it feels to have come so close to losing dad and not given him a grandkid yet. Think about what a bad reason that is to have a kid. Think about futurity in the academic sense, the bad politics of the nuclear family, and dysfunction, but still you consider bargaining with God about letting dad pull through if you both would just make a kid finally.

~ ~ ~

Why you remembered the incident with the glove.

~ ~ ~

An uncanny, happy intensity when he squeezes back in response to your squeeze.

~ ~ ~

Think about kissing him on the forehead, remember you performed the same ritual for his dad as he lay on his deathbed, and then again in his casket. Decide not to here. Superstitious.

~ ~ ~

Mostly just you wanting. Want him to be comfortable. Want him to feel ok again. Want him to not die. Want him to have to face the fallout of his choices. Want to be able to yell at him. Want him to be honest with you. Want your relationship with him to be less angsty. Want him to not have to feel bad about the stuff you think he should probably feel bad about. Want to recapture a common ground. Want to not put your own partner through this mess of tubes and numbers and sutures. Want to not have to talk to people about this experience. Want to leave. Want to not cry. Want him not to die. Want and want and want.

~ ~ ~

The nurse talking about fluids and temperatures and involuntary twitches due to the sedation starting to wear off.

You think about what it means that he looks beautiful.

 

Thanks to Charles Matthew Petrie, Rachel Elizabeth Arrieta, and John Stadler for their invaluable feedback.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones

 

I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my own head for the time being, I found myself back in Oakwood Cemetery, on the steps of a mausoleum, with a tattered American flag in my hands. It wasn’t often I strayed off the path during my runs – my feet followed a 5k race route whose markers faded long ago – but since I found myself in a wandering mood, I decided to do some exploring.

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Founded in 1859, Oakwood Cemetery lies about a block away from Syracuse University in what used to be the outskirts of town. The graveyard is sprawling; at 160 acres, Oakwood plays host to over 60,000 individuals and counting. Between the oaks, monuments, and mausoleums plotted along the rolling hills wind approximately 10 kilometers worth of trails (some paved, others dirt) shared by visitors and mourners alike. It is very easy to get lost among the stones, as I soon found out.

You never really understand just how odd a graveyard is until you try to walk among its stones. The place is full of conflicting messages. The architectural features of so many grave markers beckon visitors closer, whether than be because of interesting architectural features, places to sit, or just tiny print. Or all three, in the case of this massive monument:

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This makes sense, of course – graveyards, like funerals, are for the living. We are encouraged to visit the resting places of our loved ones to mourn or to give gifts or simply to talk. In Western culture, at least, these acts help to create an aura of reverence around those who have passed on, sanctifying the ground under which their remains are buried. Much like the concept of nationhood, this layers a virtual space upon material reality, giving what were stones and dust the weight of the secret and the sacred.

This makes things incredibly hard to navigate when you have something like this blocking your path:

 

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For the superstitious or the particularly pious, a graveyard is a nightmare to navigate. Perhaps the dead do not mind people stomping all over their resting places. There is, after all, six feet of earth and a coffin to insulate them from the tremors of the world above. But once I knew there was someone beloved under there, I created a virtual barrier of reverence in my mind. Such a thing is hard to unsee.

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Another odd thing about graveyards is their aesthetic of incompleteness. All around Oakwood were stairs that led to nowhere, pillars holding nothing up, archways huddled over aborted paths, locked iron doors without working handles, and yards and yards of unused space. Even some of the gravestones themselves like stray slabs from unfinished foundations, especially those that have been overgrown or worn down with age. All of this lends cemeteries the same uncanny air a ruin might have, hinting at some former glory that now goes unremembered.

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Oakwood in particular also has more mausoleums than I’ve ever seen in a graveyard, and these fascinate me most. They sit in the muddled middle between monument and place, having all the fixings of shelter but (for the most part) being eternally locked to anyone who would want to enter. Whereas headstones seem to jut into the physical space of the living, the barred doors of these larger structures create a clear barrier between the living and the dead. Gravestones can be touched, stroked, grasped as if they were virtual stand-ins for the one interred; the remains within mausoleums, it seems, can only be peered at through barred or broken windows.

How does one mourn at a mausoleum? Must it be opened to bridge the void between the living and deceased, or does the distance not matter? And what does it mean to sit on the steps while pondering these questions only to find you are standing on an actual welcome mat?

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(Seriously, why is there a welcome mat?)

Graveyards are odd places, to be sure, but they are also very human (perhaps I repeat myself). The burial of the dead is one of those cultural touchstones that seem as ancient as they are ubiquitous, and are perhaps the oldest constructed spaces known to humankind. As easy as it is for some of us to put them out of mind in day-to-day life, it is important to remember that these “Cities of the Dead” (as one old flyer for Oakwood proclaims) are built for the living. This not only means that we are obliged to respect and protect them – burial grounds are frequently neglected, littered, or (all too frequently) bulldozed – but that we ought to find time to visit them in order to look into ourselves. We will all end up like those buried beneath, after all, and I find graveyards are one of the few urban places that are quiet and empty enough to allow for self-reflection.

So, what I’m saying is go visit a graveyard. Turn off your phone and take an hour to meander the grounds, read the epitaphs, pick up any litter that’s blown in. Take a look at what there is to see before it gets too cold. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find there is life among the stones.

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John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

The English Renaissance “Timeline” (11 December 2015)

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

– Susan Sontag, On Photography

In a post for her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova introduces the above quotation by asserting photography as “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it.” “This seems especially true,” Popova continues, “if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines – our very lives – are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.”

Popova’s post and, in particular, Susan Sontag’s quotation, reminded me of an image I came across about a year ago while studying at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was doing research for a dissertation-related project exploring the relation between practices of literary invention and English Renaissance ideas about mutability, mortality, and memento mori (Latin: “Remember that you have to die”). The following turned up in my search results:

fig1_amy

Fig. 1   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 43r. [i]

Click here to zoom in.

The image is of an illustration from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book, or miscellany, A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures, compiled between 1592 and 1598, to which he later made additions in July 1622. Fella was a calligrapher and draper from the Halesworth area of Suffolk County, England. He didn’t attend university, and most of what is known about him derives from two extant writings, including his commonplace book. Perhaps this is what I find so interesting about him: little is known about Fella – “who” he was, what his life was “like.” But if we turn, for clues, to the images and aphorisms copied into his commonplace book, or “timeline,” as it were, it’s striking that those which he thought to include seem to be, as Popova writes, reminders “that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.” While the invention of photography postdates Fella’s commonplace book by about two and a half centuries, Popova and Sontag are, I think, instructive for how we might interpret certain of Fella’s illustrations and, more broadly, a particular historical moment in print, visual culture, and memory.

*

Issuing from the man’s mouth in Fig. 1 is a banderole, or “speech bubble,” on which appear the words “Tempus Omnia terminat” (Latin: “Time ends all things”) – a sort of memento mori proclaiming “time’s relentless melt.” What initially attracted my attention to this image, however, was the phrase written within the second banderole: “Life is death and death is Life.” Fella’s appropriation of the phrase isn’t unusual; I’d encountered it before in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sermons, all of which place it within the context of St. Augustine’s City of God (462 AD). Variant iterations of the phrase crop up in other English Renaissance texts, most famously in Hamlet’s musings on being and not being – “To be, or not to be.”

However, Fella’s deployment of the phrase participates, per Sontag, “in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” namely English Renaissance printer John Day:

fig2_amy

Fig. 2   Folger MS, f.515v

Click here to zoom in.

In the 1563 edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, there is, included at its end, a woodcut-cum-miniature portrait (quasi-photograph?) of John Day, Foxe’s printer. The woodcut is included in all editions of Actes and Monuments. Engraved within the ribbon that encircles Day’s profile is the phrase, “LIEFE IS DEATHE AND DEATH IS LIEFE,” bookended by Roman numerals indicating Day’s age. Forty.

The few scholarly paragraphs devoted to Fella’s commonplace book are driven, primarily, by a desperation to find out how he was able to access texts such as Foxe’s Actes and Monuments – whether he owned them, borrowed them – and what other texts the images might have been copied from: the “irrepressible desire to return to the origin,” as Derrida has it.[ii] I share this desire somewhat differently, however: what fascinates me is the delicate balance that Fella strikes between his meticulous attention to the original medium of Day’s woodcut and the apparent differences in his copying of it.

While this image suggests a heightened attention to the sensuous particularities of everyday objects, namely Fella’s interest in the materiality of the woodcut, I think that copying the woodcut communicates this interest in a different way: it holds the memory of its past engravedness, of its former life, in Foxe’s book. The aesthesis of Day’s woodcut is memorialized in the shading techniques used by Fella to detail Day’s apparel, hair, and beard. If memory, as defined by William Fulwood in The Castel of Memorie (1562), is the faculty by “which the mind repeateth things that are past,”[iii] then copying – repetition – is, for Fella, an aesthetic technique through which he preserves, yet also recreates, the medium of the woodcut in his own “timeline” – the English Renaissance commonplace book.

Indeed, the phrase and numbers that encircle, confine, Day’s profile in Fig. 2 are, in Fella’s rendering, notions over which he has physical and sensual control: life and death he grips with his hand, but Fella also used his hand to write those italic words into the swirling banderole on which they appear. Whereas Day’s woodcut indicates his age, or the passage of time, via Roman numerals, Fella’s illustration ostensibly speaks of time’s finitude, and of age, as memento mori – “Remember that you have to die.” Fella thus participates in Day’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” by “slicing out,” or copying, the woodcut into his commonplace book.

*

Fittingly, the phrase “Tempus omnia terminat” – “Time ends all things” – is the epigraph to Fella’s “end” page (Fig. 3), at once testifying “to time’s relentless melt” and acknowledging the inevitable end point of his own timeline/commonplace book: “And all must ende that ever was begonne.” The whole of Fella’s miscellany is preoccupied with mortality – and, for someone alive during the plague-ridden English Renaissance, understandably so. But if A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures is “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it,” so, too, is my interest in it. I participate in Fella’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” as I look at, and write about, a digitized image of his copied image of Day’s woodcut image.

However, the phrase “Life is death and death is Life,” especially Fella’s deployment of it, has a chiasmatic formulation – it implies circularity rather than antithesis. Time’s melt is relentless; but, as Hamlet so often reminds us, memory is the only human antidote to mortality.

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Fig. 3   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 75r

Click here to zoom in.

[i] All images from Thomas Fella’s A booke of diverse devices and sorts of images are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.

[ii] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 91.

[iii] Guglielmo Gratarolo, The castel of memorie, trans. William Fulwood (London: 1562).


Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.