“Memory believes before knowing remembers.” William Faulkner
Visiting an art museum in a new city, I saw this little statuette, and liked it.
I also had an immediate and very strong feeling…like I ought to know her from somewhere.
I’d never been to Pittsburgh before, so it was surprising to run into someone familiar.
There are countless statues like this, drawing on Greek and Roman religion and images, around the older cities of the U.S.. Our museums, public buildings, squares and galleries are pretty much an endless toga party in stone and bronze. But somehow this one caused an instant sense of familiarity.
I don’t usually hang out with people dressed this formally. So where had I met up with her?
A protest march against palm oil production?
A militant vegetarian crosswalk guard?
An advertisement for Ivanka’s new “Agent Orange” line of radioactive spray tan?
It was closing time at the museum, and we were hurriedly hiking out of the back forty, having wandered way out there, out of our comfort zone, way past the post-Impressionists, lost in the surrealist and abstract boonies. Footsore, and in my case, eyesore.
There are never any restrooms in the wings with the more avant-garde art, have you ever noticed? And when there are, I always worry that the fixtures are just some sort of ironic statement, and not meant to be used. I don’t want to get arrested for relieving myself on the priceless “Empty Black Suicidal Despair & Soulessness of Modern Life,” thinking it was a toilet.
Anyways…it was closing time, and we were being flushed out by the security guards, and didn’t have time to read the little sign. So a quick photo with my phone, and two days later, saw the the picture, it instantly popped into my head, where I’d run into this lady, years ago – – walking in the park.
She’d looked bigger then, a bit more weather-worn, but it was definitely her.
We’d met at the southeast entrance to New York’s Central Park, near the Plaza Hotel.
On that busy corner, called the “Grand Army Plaza,” which holds memories for many people of chestnut vendors and horse-drawn carriage rides through the park, she has a companion. Two, actually, if you count the horse. She’s walking in front of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general from the Civil War.
She symbolizes “Victory” or “Peace” depending on what tour guide you read.
The turn-of-the-century monument was created by Saint-Gaudens, and was his last major work — a middle-aged William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback, almost sixteen feet high. It’s an excellent statue, like everything the artist did. He’d met with Sherman, and liked him. But by the time the monument was dedicated, on Memorial Day 1903, Sherman had been dead ten years, and Saint-Gaudens had only a few years left himself.
You would think, after all these years, the horse wouldn’t freak out, every time a bird landed on him.
Sherman is famous for pointing out the obvious “War is hell.” Well, the climate in New York ain’t such a picnic, either. Winters can be rough, even if you’re tough and brassy. At the time I took the photo, years ago, both figures looked like hell. Or I should say, like they’d been through the wars — peeling, patchy, leprous, badly in need of re-gilding. The ugly blotched look seems like a distraction from this post, which is about memory, but just as statues are a form of memorial, I suppose loss of memory is a type of corrosion.
My first impression when I saw this scabby-looking statue of a woman, was that she was Moira, Goddess from the Department of Health, warning of the oncoming Pestilence on Horseback.
The artist incorporated pine branches under the horse’s feet, to symbolize Sherman’s March through Georgia. Richard Brautigan wrote (with irony, I think) that the Civil War was “the last good time this country every had…” but perhaps the gold-leaf keeps flaking off, as a sign that the war was not all that shiny and happy an experience for some folks.
Periodically, the bronze statues are restored to golden radiance, waxed and buffed, in celebration of civil warfare and burning stuff.
In its distressed state, where the gold leaf had come off, the bronze underneath had oxidized to a very dark color, closer to black, than verdigris.
Turns out, under the Greco-Roman robes and gold paint, Victory was a black woman. The primary model for the statue was a southerner, named Harriette Eugenia Anderson. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, although she lived most of her life in Harlem.
Anderson also posed for the figure of “Liberty” on the beautiful $20 double eagle, created by Saint-Gaudens at Teddy Roosevelt’s request, and minted the year the artist died, 1907. I saw on a coin collector website, that it is often reckoned to be the most beautiful coin this country has ever created, but almost all of them were melted down, when we left the gold standard.
Another artist relied on her for the 1916 “Walking Liberty” half dollar, and again for the “Victory” in Baltimore’s “Soldiers and Sailor Monument”.
Anderson was almost forgotten for many years. Hard to understand now, but apparently her identity as the model for these beautiful golden works of art was kept hushed up for many years, because she was a person of color.
an elusive memory
When I saw the statuette in the museum, and got that strange sense of something akin to “déjà vu,” it got me thinking about what exactly happens, when we rack our memory.
We say, “if memory serves…” but sometimes, it just doesn’t.
Like a bad waiter, you can snap your fingers, slap your forehead, wave your hands in the air, but it continues to ignore you.
And yet, somehow, even when Memory has knocked off early and gone around the corner to have a drink, there remains a nagging sense of recognition and familiarity.
1870’s glass negative. LOC
People used to use the term “familiar” for witches’ little supernatural helpers, often disguised as cats. And there is a sense, when that nagging feeling comes over you, of something hovering near you, but unable to be grasped.
Like a ghost of a memory, invisible but nagging at you.
Nerve fibers in a healthy human brain, MRI. Credit: Zeynep M. Saygin, McGovern Institute, MIT. Wellcome Images
Studies of the brain find a real difference between our sense of “familiarity,” and our “memory”. They actually are completely different parts of the brain. So what I was feeling when I saw the statuette in Pittsburgh, was technically not déjà vu, because we’re talking about a delay in recovering a little-used memory, rather than a separate brain function altogether.
Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and psychiatrist, described a man who had lost the memory of his wife, but who somehow still retained a strong sense of familiarity in her presence. (Sacks himself suffered from “prosopagnosia” or “face blindness,” the inability to recognize the faces of familiar people, even those he saw frequently.)
Sacks wrote: “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
Proust’s version: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
Random Factoid: In reading about this sensation of déjà vu , one site indicates that the people who experience it the most frequently, are age 15-25.
Healthy human brain viewed from behind, Credit: Henrietta Howells, NatBrainLab. Wellcome Images
I’m fascinated by the scientific exploration of memory, but don’t know enough about it, to discuss it intelligently. All I want to suggest in this post, is that the next time you feel a sense of familiarity, or déjà vu, take a moment. Pause, look around, breath in the air and its scents, identify the sounds you’re hearing, do a 360, treat yourself to a break from business & busyness for just a few seconds, to see if a memory floats to the surface.
Or “percolates” might be a better term. Like spring water that’s picked up minerals as it passes through the soil and rock layers, our thoughts flow through that mysterious, porous gray matter, and sometimes little particles of memory enter the stream.
For me, the little glinting crystals of memory in the flow, are generally images.
Déjà vu literally means, “already seen,” and based on my limited understanding, it is generally a visual phenomenon.
Music, on the other hand, is preserved in our central brain, right down at the core, and long after all our phone numbers are disconnected and our passwords have passed away. An old tune may bring back memories of a specific time and place, like the theme song from your high school prom, or that high whistling call a red-tail hawk gives, that evokes walking across the farm fields of Seneca County.
My father always talks about a particular train whistle, he’s never known which type of locomotive, that has a cast-iron association with childhood visits to a grandmother in Pennsylvania. Not so much the usual whistle blast, more of a deep hooting horn, echoing along the Lehigh Valley late at night, when he was in an attic bedroom. The vibration from the long trains, or from a thunderstorm, was always joined by a faint chiming sounds, a very musical reverberation from old metal coat hangers, hanging on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. That train horn summons up a dormant memory, but not a mysterious one, since he knows the time and place.
Why do I always feel like I’ve forgotten something?
Our sense of smell is supposedly the most powerful prompter of memory, like Proust and his famous madeleines. Personally, I love sponge cake, but the baking smell mostly brings on a mind-clearing “YUM!” and instant salivation, more than a seven-volume remembrance. But every time I open a jar of thyme in the kitchen, the scent instantly carries me back to my grandmother’s house, where it grew in the cracks of her brick walkways.
Other sights may create a more diffused, vague sensation, not tied to a specific incident — the times when we never do recall or recollect a memory, leaving us with that puzzled or even spooky familiarity.
One article suggested it may be your brain discerning a visual pattern it’s seen before, even if you haven’t consciously identified the pattern, and aren’t conscious of the similarity. Another article discussed our brains experiencing something like a computer’s processing delay, so that by the time the thought is complete, it registers as a memory, rather than happening in the present moment.
Well, that’s all I can remember that I wanted to say.
I’d be interested and appreciative, if anyone has a déjà vu experience to share. If you happen to remember one, I mean.