Memoria and the Underworld


Memory wells up from an unknown place- dark and hidden, unexpected.  It is a deep spring emerging from an underground source. A place where sight is obscured- things come out of the darkness and return there. One can only see things in glimpses and images appear as glyphs, mysterious elusive fragments. The Ancient Greeks referred to this residing place of memory (memoria) as the underworld, a “theatre of images”.
Memory and the dream connect us to this underworld experience.

Orpheus is the mythic figure of this world that takes the nekeyia, the underworld journey. It is a,”descent into the realm of the intangible dead and the return to the world of incarnate experience.” ( Cobb, Archetypal Imagination, p.205) He becomes a figure that brings together two opposing forces- where the conscious life descends into the dream. The poet Lorca says, “metaphor links two antagonistic forces by means of an equestrian leap of the imagination.” (Ibid,p.238) Orpheus emerges from these depths as a progenitor of metaphor, seeking to draw out the image that joins (Eurydice) these opposing forces that coexist within us- the conscious life and the world of images hidden within our being waiting for the moment to emerge from darkness and obscurity into the light of awareness. This creative act, this ability to draw out life, image, allows Orpheus to become the poet/artist whose work “adds to creation” through the power of the imagination. Gaston Bachelard states, “Imagination is always considered to be the faculty of forming images. But… it is especially the faculty of changing images. If there is not a changing of images, an unexpected union of image, there is no imagination, no imaginative action.”(Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination, p.19)

Art becomes the symbolic glyph that activates soul. The poet/artist sees objects in the world as “living glyphs” capable of efficacy. “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, a hieroglyph, but a hieroglyph far more eloquent than any cold representation, the mere equivalent of a printed symbol.” (Delacroix, Journals, p.213 Phaidon version) These glyphs speak of a deeper and richer meaning than words can convey. Lorca states again, “language is founded on images…A poetic image is always a transference of meaning.” (Cobb, p.238)

Orpheus is the archetypal figure who, “deepens imagination by imagining always greater depths to be ensouled.” (Ibid,p.247) He is the one who draws us into the depths at any moment. Bachelard expresses it well, “the fundamental word corresponding to imagination is not image, but imaginary. The value of an image is measured by the extent of its imaginary radiance…In the human psyche, it is the very experience of openness and newness.” (Bachelard, p.19)

This newness or re-imagining comes with an experience of deep loss. Orpheus loses Eurydice just at the moment he can posses her again. He experiences the “refining fires of loss” in the very act of forming the image and bringing it into conscious awareness. (Cobb, p.250) With the poet’s ability to join that which seems compelled to be separate,  in drawing out the metaphor of image, the poet/artist suffers. The image arises from the depths, yet, it is only a partial glimpse of a larger truth. The image returns to its source leaving the poet/artist with a feeling of incompleteness, conscious of his own inability. This loss or division pervades every artist work, “experiencing the humiliating inferiority of uncertainty and the impairment of potential… a sense of infirmity goes with soul.” (Cobb, p.250) But we all need a poet/artist that “can carry our suffering and give it voice.” (Ibid,251)

Because of this inherent sense of impairment, the poet/artist is haunted by a nostalgia, a deep longing, that can never quite be eased. “The experience of beauty is an experience of nostalgia or pothos. It is a longing for the literally unattainable… There is a great bottomless well of grief in our existence as human beings, and the garden of the soul is watered by the overflowings of these wellsrings in the soul’s experience of beauty.” (Ibid,62)

Memoria is that storehouse of images, a residing place of beauty and the voice of imagination calling us to wake and arise. One is called to be attentive to this voice that speaks through all things and “can bring recovery to an ailing world.” ( Ibid, p.253) As Blake proclaims, “the imagination is not a state: it is human existence itself.” (Bachelard, p.19)


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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