Memory, Magritte and La Memoire

I first saw Magritte’s “La Memoir” or “Mnemosyne” on a book jacket 15 or more years ago. She is an arresting image, Memory with a wound to her head. Is it memory bleeding out? Will memory be lost if the wound is not bandaged and the blood flow stopped? Or does she show the wound to the head that any of us has from one or another childhood insult or injury? Does the effort to re-member heal the wound and thus stanch the bleeding? Save the memory? And what about the bell and the leaf -- are they bits of memory? Has she forgotten? Did she ever know? Are we all surrounded by artifacts of memory that if we can only see them will allow memory to heal?

LaMemoire 1954


The words "memoir" and "memory" come to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means "mindful." Russell Lockhart  in Words As Eggs: Psyche in Language and Clinic  traces it also to an Indo-European root smer- -- which in one form refers to grease and fat. How is memory connected to ‘fat’? Think about how difficult it is to get rid of fat.  It sticks. It adheres. It won't leave. It leaves traces. A memory is what sticks, what adheres in the mind. Memory is the fat of the mind.  Related words that share the history of memoir include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. The word mourn also shares its derivations. The same root that gave rise to memory gives rise to mourn. When someone has passed away or slipped away, we mourn that memory. When we are in mourning, we are deeply engaged with the memory of that person. Our mind is full of memories. We can only mourn through memory and with memory. We mourn for what we had and can now have only in memory.

MAGRITTE1947


Returning to Magritte’s Mnemosyne, we can consider the possibility that the blood is an image, a  memory, memory sticking the colorless face of the woman, the only sign of life we see of her.  As mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne would give birth to spontaneous impulses toward speech, song, art, dance, poetry, and other manifestations rendering the numinous visible and experiential -- not just spoken of but enacted, enacted here in the splash of red on her head.

magritte1938

Think about a vivid dream you have had. When you write, it becomes something other than the dream. It becomes a text, an adaptation of the dream, but the dream, consisting of images, cannot be fully and accurately captured in words. The same with memory. The experience remembered is not a record, faithful in every detail. The memory is particular to the rememberer. Even in a family, the same event can and often is recalled differently by parents and children, even by siblings.

In therapy, a story is told and retold, altering slightly with each telling as the patient moves from innocent, from victim, to autonomous individual. Therapy itself has its beginnings in a particular story and a decision about the truth of that story. Dora told Freud a story about her father, about what her father did. At first, the story was believed. But it was difficult to accept that a father could do such a thing. So the story, the memory, was called a fantasy. Memory was made fiction to accommodate the sensibilities of fathers and of men. Fiction it remained until feminism revived it around 20 years ago.


© Cheryl Fuller, 2018. All  rights reserved.