Memento Mori

“All that has dark sounds has duende…Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art.”

Garcia Lorca, Theory and Play of the Duende
Edward Manet, Bullfight, Getty Museum

Memento mori is a Latin term meaning, ‘remember death’. It was not meant to be morbid, but remind one of the inherent seriousness and fragility of one’s unique life. It was meant to be a vector- an arrow directed at our self-aggrandizement, our ability to create illusions about ourselves and the world, without concern for others. It was meant to strip away all the vanities that hinder us from seeing life with clarity.

I came upon this phase recently, in the work of Garcia Lorca and Joseph Conrad. Both great writers in search of deep wells and dark forests. Conrad uses the term as a moment of recognition joined to a heightened awareness. We all have experience of this state, of a sublime lucidity, where we seem to ‘know’ in a new way. This momentary intensity carves out a rawness in our experience and gives way to a transitory suspension of the senses, allowing authentic emotion to rise up from the depths of our being. This experience re-aligns our gaze, shaping our awareness to more closely reflect reality.

“We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand…”

Selecting to be consciousness of memento mori causes a shock, avoir un choc. It throws cold water on our face, confronts us, shakes us to our core, calling us back to the self we recognize. Including those darker parts of our personal selves and our complicity in the malign tragedies within our society. It humbles, disciplines, admonishes, and finally enriches our experience. It is these darker forces that we daily attempt to keep at arm’s length, that emerge in order to give our life dimension, character and authenticity. As Lorca states, “duende is the substance of art”. One cannot avoid these metaphorical brushes with death. They are what allows us to be creative and to create “…something new that no one had seen before, that could give life and knowledge to bodies devoid of expression”.

“The aid of duende is required to drive home the nail of artistic truth.”

I see the pandemic as our memento mori. It is the shock in the midst our looming uneasiness, our cultural blindness to the injustices of our times, and our detachment from reality in our own virtual worlds. Death is not just at our doorstep but sitting at our hearth refusing to leave. It forces itself upon us calling for our immediate and undivided attention. It strips us naked and places us squarely in this moment without buffering the tragic reality we are presently living in. “Duende (depth), won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death.” To carve out meaning and create in a new way, we have to let down our guard, to let go of the safe way, to modify our skill to meet the moment. We need to see our vulnerability exposed. Only in such a state can we empathize with the defenseless in our society and open up a space for depth to reside within us.

The duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.

Presently, our personal and cultural wounds are laid bare and it is possible that they may never heal. But that is the rub because without duende, we are only partially alive. Memento mori heightens our perceptions, increases our compassion and gives us an opportunity to heal the divisions within ourselves and society.

Edward Manet, Bullfight, Art Institute of Chicago

On Risk and the Attentive Mind, Part 2


As an artist, one must push oneself into the unknown, beyond what is comfortable, and always be on the edge of what one thinks one is capable of. On that narrow edge beauty and truth reside. It is a vital and dynamic place. It is the place of “wildness” within oneself. When I say wild, I mean it in the way the 19th century spoke about “dark Africa” or Terra Incognita- vast tracts of land that had yet to be explored and made known and in many ways, made subject to man. It was beyond contemporary consciousness.  Thoreau refers to wildness as that desire within that needs the unfathomable, the mysterious, that which is far greater than oneself and will always remain unknown and impenetrable. ”

” Our life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness…we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomable by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast titanic features…We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander… (Thoreau)

Man cannot live an expansive existence without this ever present immensity. Man desires depth. One needs to hold onto that wildness to make sure one remains open and unencumbered, where profound experiences within the soul find their place in the world.

Federico Garcia Lorca had his Duende, what he called the black depth which he gleaned from Cante Jundo, Spanish song with ancient roots. This Black Depth, this soul moving expression of will and desire that calls the listener or more clearly, recalls the listener to his true identity- an existence of depth and profundity. Lorca felt that this recalling had become the responsibility of the poet and artist. It was the artist task to dig down to this underground source that connects us to the” soul of the world”, as Carl Jung referred to it, and adopts us again as its child and reinstates us into an existence of profound engagement. It allows for the sacred.

But what is the sacred? It is a word that many are reluctant to use. Sacred is something that is given profound respect. One considers it holy, something that defies immediate definition. It is something that remains a mystery because one cannot use rational means to unlock its meaning. It will always remain impenetrable. Man has identified aspects of the natural world as sacred- holy mountains, natural land marks that align with the seasons or stars, the deepest realms of the ocean etc. These natural  phenomena are analogous to man’s innate desire and longing for depth and connectedness to what otherwise will always remain mysterious. Just because I know that that mountain is granite and that it arrived during a previous ice age, does not explain the awe I immediately feel when I gaze at it at twilight. Its very existence calls one back home to an existence of profound meaning. Modern man’s greatest suffering is a lack of meaning. This is why Lorca felt it the true responsibility of the artist to recall it once again and make it conscious. Because unconsciously, whether we want to admit to it or  not, life has no meaning unless one can feel the Black Depth (Black, meaning unfathomable vastness). When it is recalled, one inherently feels it without explanation. Art makes it recognizable.

One instinctively realizes that a wild animal contains a power that its domestic cousins no longer possess. Look into the eyes of a leopard and one immediately feels fear, wonder and awesomeness residing there.  It is an incomprehensible darkness that is ever present in those eyes and a link to a raw energy that is vast. When man co-existed in the same forest with such creatures, he feared and worshiped them. But this raw energy enveloping the pre-dawn world, also created a need for a heightened attentiveness allowing man a deep connectedness to the world. D.H. Lawrence called this type of man the “living” man. A soul that was confident, attached and made whole through the world and in the world. Art expresses, “it is so” and is the pathos of  a living , breathing, activated man. Living with risk allows for this heightened awareness to develop to a high level. When one knows that one’s life is held in the balance, one becomes acutely aware of everything. Risk sharpens us. Living in a “heightened” state, one becomes more sensitive to things and occurrences. More details are revealed, emotions are sensitized, intuitions are believed, images are made known to the receptive, color has power and one begins to trust one’s own feelings.

Art cannot be produced without this heightened awareness, without a feeling of risk. One needs an attentive mind to see how all these things fit together and create a new whole in the form of image. Charles Baudelaire believed in correspondences  where nature, people and relationships pointed to a language of veracity that the poet and artist could speak. That secret language of all things spoke in  “fits and whispers” and revealed to the initiated(artist) a new vision of wholeness that could unlock a world of mystery and beauty. The painter, Eugene Delacroix believed that,

 “The figures and objects in a picture, which to one part of your intelligence seem to be the actual things themselves, are like a solid bridge to support your imagination as it probes the deep, mysterious emotions, of which these forms are, so to speak, the hieroglyph, but a hieroglyph far more eloquent than any cold representation, the mere equivalent of a printed symbol…it is a thousand times more expressive when you consider, independent of idea, the visible sign, the eloquent hieroglyph itself which has no value for the mind in the work of the author, becomes in the painter’s hands a source of the most intense pleasure- that pleasure which we gain from seeing beauty, proportion, contrast harmony of color in the things around us, in everything which our eyes love to contemplate in the outside world, and which is the satisfaction of one of the profoundest needs of our nature.” (214)

Risk allows a lacuna where imagination can impact our world. As Edna St. Vincent Millay reflects,

“My candle burns ay both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-

It gives a lovely light!”