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

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Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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