Beneath the dark flutter of the griffon’s wings we dream––between gripping and being gripped––the concept of consciousness.
––Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Notebook, 1928[i]
Mnemosyne was the Titan goddess of memory and the mother of the nine muses. She was said to watch over the spring of remembrance, the waters opposite Lethe, the river of forgetting we cross into the Underworld so as not to long too much for our earthly lives after death. Mnemosyne was a daughter of Heaven, and she told her daughters all that had had happened under their grandfather’s skies. The muses then “turned her stories into song and poetry and history so they would never be forgotten.”[ii] In this way, our pasts survive our deaths.
My father & I are in the den of my childhood (vinyl flooring, blond-wood paneling, Herculon couch, with its extraordinary power to resist stains). The TV is on & though it is a color one, the picture on the screen is black & white. We are midair, parallel a bomb released by a plane. Ruin & smoke. Urgent voices, but no discernable story. Why did they? Because war is a game men like to play.
Some time after the Great War of the twentieth century, Aby Warburg began assembling the vast collection of images that would come to be called Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg first covered 79 large wooden panels with black cloth. On each panel, he arranged a selection of “black-and-white photographs of classical and Renaissance art objects, as well as of astrological and astronomical images ranging from ancient Babylon to Weimar Germany. Here and there, he also included maps, manuscript pages, and contemporary images taken from newspapers.”[iii] He then photographed the assemblages. What Warburg was trying to capture through such an endeavor might be viewed as the afterlife of images, whereby a collective history is stored and transmitted.[iv] Unfinished at the time of his death in 1929, those images “now dispersed in the archives” of the Warburg Institute in London, Mnemosyne Atlas has been described as “the program of illustrating the process by which the memory of the past affects a culture.”[v]
Veteran’s Day. Our grandmother calls it Armistice, Remembrance. Six cousins propped on pillows for the annual screening of The Wizard of Oz. Technicolor Poppies over Flanders Fields. Blood-soaked opium. What one country did to another, what the Old World did to the New: massacre. Poppies are the California state flower. Los Angeles is the place moving pictures are produced. To say one is in the industry is to work in movies or TV. We fall asleep, forgetting.
Born on the cusp of summer 1866, Aby Warburg was the son of a prominent Hamburg banker and the eldest of seven children. Three brothers––Max, Paul, and Felix––all followed their father to establish lives of finance, while Aby famously forfeited his right to take over the family firm in return for Max to provide him with all the books he’d ever need. Over two hundred years after it was established, the private investment bank M.M. Warburg & Co. maintains an office in Hamburg. Another descendent of the Warburg family, Siegmund, founded what became one of the most powerful investment banks in London after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1946. Of Mnemosyne Atlas, Warburg is said to have imagined it as “a savings bank of classical and Renaissance imagery, a treasure chest of woe, needing all the hermeneut’s tools to be unlocked.”[vi]
Rare clear nights outside our Los Angeles tract house, my father teaches me how to locate the constellations. He shows me how to use the Big Dipper to find the Little Dipper, & where Polaris shines constant, last star of the little one’s handle. Sailors used it to navigate their way home. He shows me the belt of Orion, hunter from whom the daughters of Atlas fled.
In 1970, distinguished art historian and former director of the Warburg Institute, E.H. Gombrich, published the first primary account in English of Aby Warburg’s ideas and access to his writings. A fragment from Warburg’s 1927 notebooks reads, The ambivalence of astral symbols; and in commenting on Warburg’s use of astrological motifs to illustrate the “biopolarity of the image” Grombich notes, “We always think in images and these images have their own power to enlighten us or to mislead us.”[vii] In relaying our collective past visually and through juxtaposition rather than textually and through linear narrative, Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas creates the possibility that we might apprehend our history in a different way, one that might allow us to circumvent war (and by “war” I mean in a broad manner of speaking––anything to do with the violence humans inflict), the past intervening into the future through memory’s daughters, the muses. Maybe this is what art can do. Maybe it is the hermeneut’s role as interpreter that helps reveal this power. For the artist and the friend of art meet in the community of the heliotropic, the seekers of light.[viii]
My older brother and I watch TV with our dad, and I try to make sense of their favorite programs: Star Trek and Kung Fu. Impossibility of light-years. Why does the old man have white eyeballs? Why does he call the young one Grasshopper? Shhhhh! hisses my brother, exasperated by questions. I’ll explain it to you later, says my father. He might have. Memory fails.
In 1923, Warburg delivered a lecture on the serpent rituals of the Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico. He had journeyed to the American West some thirty years before and spent time in Hopi and Zuni communities, capturing much of what he observed in photographs that he now shared “before an audience of inmates, doctors and guests at the Bellevue sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, where he had been confined since 1921.”[ix] Warburg spoke about the damage of the modern human psyche wrought by technology’s usurpation of the serpent’s power. “Telegram and telephone destroy the cosmos,” he said in the talk that was not published in its entirety until 1988, nor completely translated into English until 1995, the age of the Internet. “Mythical and symbolic thinking battle to form spiritual bonds between humanity and the surrounding world, shaping distance into the space required for devotion and reflection: the distance killed by the instantaneous electric connection.“[x]
Evenings after work, my father enters the den, all the kids my mother watched for $25.00 a week piled together like lion cubs, and we see him not. Reruns of Speed Racer, Fred Flintstone, Batman & Robin. Yabadabadoo! Pow! Bam! A war was ending, but we didn’t know it. I am Catwoman, no cartoon, but a live action hero/villain with superpowers. Your eyes are going to turn square, my father teases. Catatonic stares.
Warburg spoke at Kreuzlingen to prove to his doctors that he was sane. He spoke about Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing, his staff twined by a snake, creature that inflicts both health and illness. He spoke about the snake’s ability to renew its skin and its power to produce rain––living weather-saints in the shape of animals. About how snakes can glide into the earth and reappear, their slippage between the living and the dead. The snake [is] the most natural symbol of immortality, of revival from sickness and the agonies of death.[xi] Perhaps Warburg was trying to heal the split in himself; perhaps he was trying to heal his view of a machine-age-diminished sense of distance. In any case, it would be another year before Warburg returned to Hamburg to begin assembling Mnemosyne Atlas, the last project of his life.
Seventh grade English class. We cannot stop talking. Bah, bah, bah. Look at the sheep, says our teacher. See all the ticky-tacky people. He gazes over our herd, green pasture beyond. Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1984. Corruption of language. Man’s inhumanity to man. Did he not like us? Or maybe the opposite. The history teacher was once a soldier in Vietnam. I was a girl. A million miles from where I was.
How an image brings the past in which it was created into the present was a central question for Warburg, and in trying to answer it, he was influenced by a book he bought in 1908, Richard Semo’s Mneme: “[M]emory is . . . the one quality that distinguishes living from dead matter. It is the capacity to react to an event over a period of time; that is, a form of preserving and transmitting energy. . . .”[xii] Semos believed that “any event affecting living matter leaves a trace,” and he referred to such traces as engrams. Contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that for Warburg, “symbol and image” played the same role as Semon’s engram: “[T]hey are the crystallization of an energetic charge and an emotional experience that survive as an inheritance transmitted by social memory and . . . like electricity condensed in a Leydan jar, [they] become effective only through contact with the selective will of a particular period.”[xiii]
My father in his casket, eyeglasses on. What will he watch, under the ground? TV, site of memory, body of our remembering, body politic. The box, the tube. One day, an acupuncturist will locate the grief channel, not on TV but on my body, tracing the right arm. Take up the remote control. Switch the channel or fill it with tears, until they run out into the Pacific, all the way to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, past Arizona at the bottom of the sea.
In the lecture he presented before his Kreuzlingen doctors and fellow patients, Warburg spoke of the markers we use to orient ourselves in the world: time, place, direction. Steps and ladders are an ancient and universal device for representing the growth, the upward and downward motion of nature. They are the symbol of achievement in the rise and descent through space, just as the circle, the coiled serpent, is the symbol for the rhythm of time.[xiv] Thus do Warburg’s images travel in more than one direction, provide compass points of simultaneous directions, mapping not merely an expansion but a capacity of action beyond the line from Point A to Point B. It is an imagining of light-years.
A screen other than TV in room filled with books. Keyboard of Wikapedic triangulation––my father & Orion, the imaginary real. In the Star Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever, Capt. Kirk prophesies that a hundred years from now, a novelist will write a classic on the theme, Let me help. The writer will come from a planet circling a star just left of Orion’s belt. In that episode, Kirk & Dr. Spock travel backwards so the United States can enter World War II in time to defeat the Axis powers.
Atlas was a powerful Titan who fought in the ancient war between Cronus and Zeus. When the Titans were defeated, Zeus condemned Atlas to hold the sky on his shoulders, preventing the earth and the sky from ever again embracing, as they had done in the time before the creation of all beings, including the gods. Such was the first division into borders: up and down, north and south. Such was the start, perhaps, of the linear narrative Warburg wanted to disrupt, The struggle with the monster as the germ of logical construction.[xv]
Age of Aquarius, city of uprising. August heat. Across the Pacific, Operation Starlight. My father drives my mother to a Hollywood hospital past towers built from shards. In utero. The doctor does not arrive. Another daughter enters the world the same day in the same room & her mother names her after mine. Strangers before & since. Did we meet on the hill this morning, poppies open, narrow path? It was my turn to let another pass. Thank you, sister, you said.
A disjunction of time is rendered both by variety and juxtaposition of images. I can no longer stand the sound of my old expressions, stencilled from high-quality tinfoil, writes Warburg, and so does Eckener’s 1927 Zeppelin keep company with a fish in the sky, Mussolini’s signature placed next to Raphael’s painting of the Mass.[xvi] On the black-wrapped boards of Mnemosyne‘s field, Warburg and his collaborators, Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing, used metal clips to temporarily affix a staggering range of images into arrays of ever-changing constellations. “In the three versions of the Bilderatlas for which we have evidence,” Johnson notes, “Warburg drew on some two thousand images,” selecting and reselecting choices based on an intuitive system of thematic sequences or elective affinities rather than a straightforward (or even backward) chronological progression.[xvii] Beyond disjunction and juxtaposition lay interconnection, then, accompanied by the possibility of that place of continuous presence modern Buddhism might name resting in awareness. Agamben refers to Warburg’s notion of the iconology of the interval,[xviii] and this is what his Mnemosyne Atlas proposes: a restoration of that space separated from devotion and reflection. Along with offering an ever-renewing space for the present, the very temporariness of Mnemosyne’s selections disrupts the temporality of history, such that the Atlas becomes more mandala than map, the kind made of sand, created and deconstructed as a reminder of our impermanence, an offering not to the individual but to the collective.
First graders gather around a radio I have placed in the center of our classroom. I try to explain why we are listening. A man spent 27 years of his life in prison because of hate. Now he is free. They are 6, I am not yet 25, & we watch the radio as if it were a TV. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Will they remember their teacher, eyes filmed with water?
An atlas supposes travel, and in the images he chose to arrange and photograph, Warburg was concerned most with those that depicted movement, the gesture of human making: I see man as an animal that handles and manipulates and whose activity consists in putting together and taking apart.[xix] For Warburg, humankind’s capacity for cause and effect signified a power both for redemption and downfall, the tension inherent in the ever fugitive interval between impulse and action.[xx] From this vantage point, Mnemosyne Atlas might be seen as a cartography encompassing all potentialities. And if it is the case that such a map helps to restore the place of interstice, of the in-between, then perhaps it might also provide a map that helps us reconcile division: beyond north/south, east/west, right/wrong, heart/head, a wider field of vision and response. Between the ascent with Helios and the ascent with Proserpina . . . it is left to us how long we an extend this breathing-space with the help of Mnemosyne.[xxi] Between the spring that remembers and the river that forgets, there resides that pool of infinite present, where, gazing at the past, we affect the future.
My mother remarries a man who watches basketball on TV. Magic on the screen. Orange globe into the rim. Born in San Francisco, stationed at Fort Ord, the only soldier in his unit to live because he knew how to type and was left behind while the rest went to Korea and were killed. Crazy in love with my mother. Married her and became a second father to a daughter whose own father couldn’t bear to live. Kept Zen in the Art of Archery on his bedside table. Marci, my love, you don’t know how people suffer, and he was right. I had no idea.
The year my stepfather was born, Warburg died from sudden heart failure, leaving the Mnemosyne Atlas in freeze-frame, as Brian Dillon points out “just before the [European] continent was plunged into the terrible mass-mobilization that sent his colleagues into exile in 1933.” With regard to its transitory nature, Johnson also remarks that “The actual panels . . . are no longer extant. Only black and white photographs . . . . remain. . . . Thus, the Atlas as we have it is frozen in a provisional state: panels appear without titles; individual images are unidentified; and while some of the photo reproductions are matted most are not.”[xxii]
We cannot see our incendiary city, but others watch for us in the school office. Looted justice, broken-glass reconciliation. Mad rush to contact parents before cell phones. The remaining children gathered in the kindergarten classroom to watch cartoons. Smoke across the playground. One child notices. I do not tell the truth. Far away, I say, Just the wind, blowing. Near & far are relative distances. I pick up the receiver attached to the wall. We need to leave. Now.
Warburg has called Mnemosyne Atlas a ghost story for adults, and what he tried to do was not to explain images themselves, but the world around him through what the world’s images carry––as haunting, as afterlife, as engram, as electrical charge.[xxiii] When Warburg delivered his lecture at the Kreuzlingen clinic, he shared a photograph depicting an astrological manuscript of the Middle Ages, [where] Asclepius appears in the sky as a fixed star over Scorpio. He is encircled by serpents and is henceforth regarded as a constellation under whose influence prophets and physicians are born.[xxiv] The muse that tells the story relays how jealousy impelled Apollo to send a scorpion to fatally attack Orion and that is why, in the Northern Hemisphere sky where Scorpio rises, one can see Orion begin “to sway and stagger, and then he, in his turn, flees and disappears into the ocean.”[xxv]
September morning, early. I have no TV & do not listen to the radio on the short ride to school. Ms. Vogel, people are leaping from buildings. Later, during recess, crumpling into a colleague’s arms as we watch what the children have already seen. Dream of an underground train, lines of us passing though turnstiles. Some remain. Awakened by our wet faces.
The man who taught me with great love and patience how to locate constellations was born during the time Warburg was constructing the Mnemosyne Atlas. He suffered, as did Warburg, from what mythology calls demons. A split in my father’s psyche will cause him to inflict violence on his body. He will undergo a break, as did Warburg, and be admitted to the Veteran’s Administration hospital. There he will, as does Dante’s suicide, split heart from head through hanging. His brain will refuse to live (technology will show) while his heart continues to beat. As a Merchant Marine, my father never saw battle, but he did commit a violence to himself, and he did it in a military site constructed to heal. Against his capacity to do harm, even the state could not protect my father from his own hand. My brother keeps our father’s triangled flag.
The next-door neighbors have left an old TV on the parkway green outside their house. Three young boys live there, brothers. Five years, & I have never heard them fight. Only the sound of basketball on pavement. Bikes down the sidewalk, play in the backyard. Sometimes the practice of a simple flute. Hands and breath making music.
My father is buried in a cemetery overlooking the 405 Freeway in a section called Jeremiah, after the Hebrew prophet who lamented the destruction of the ancient holy city of Jerusalem. “As a literary term, a jeremiad is applied to any work which . . . accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils, but usually holds open the possibility for changes that will bring a happier future.”[xxvi] My father loved my brother and I deeply, and the truth is: only the river of forgetting allowed him to leave. Warburg might say that my father left me with both the brokenness of the world and the capacity for repair. This I attempt with the help of Mnemosyne and her daughters. The ashes of my gentle step-father, I scatter to the sea.
[i] Quoted in Grombrich, E.H. Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (With a Memoir on the History of the Library by F. Saxl), (London: Warburg Institue, 1970), 303. Hereafter referred to as Gombrich. Also, hereafter: all direct quotations of Warburg’s distinguished by italics.
[ii] D’aulaire, Ingri and Edgar. D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (New York: Delacorte Press, 1962), 100. D’aulaire’s remains one of the most popular introductions to Greek mythology for children in the U.S. References in this essay to Greek mythology are based on D’aulaire’s tellings as an enactment of collective narrative. As a note of interest, Ingri and Edgar first moved from Europe to the U.S. in 1929, the year of Warburg’s death.
[iii] Johnson, Christopher D. Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), back cover. Hereafter referred to as Johnson.
[iv] Warburg refers to the undertaking as the afterlife not of images, but of antiquity or Nachleben des Heidentums. Agamben, 93 and Gombrich, 305.
[v] Quotations from the following Internet resources, respectively: Brian Dillon “Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas.” Frieze Magazine (published 01/01/04, accessed 04/28/13); “About the Institute/History” The Warburg Institute (University of London, School of Advanced Study. Copyright, 2013; accessed 4/28/13).
[vi] Johnson, x.
[vii] Gombrich, 251, 199.
[viii] Gombrich, 318.
[ix] Warburg, Aby and Michael P. Steinberg. Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995), quoted from back cover commentary of Joseph Leo Koerner of The New Republic.
[x] Warburg, Aby. “Lecture on the Serpent Ritual” quoted in Johnson, 35.
[xi] Warburg, Aby. Trans. W.F. Mainland. “Lecture on the Serpent Ritual” (Journal of the Warburg Institute, Vol. 2. No 4. 1939), p. 287-289. Accessed online April 29. 2013.
[xii] Gombrich, 242.
[xiii] Agamben, 94. In his explanation, Agamben uses language from Warburg’s 1929 journal, published in Gombrich, 249.
[xiv] Warburg, “Lecture on the Serpent Ritual,” 281.
[xv] Gombrich 251.
[xvi] Gombrich, 301, 302.
[xvii] Johnson, 10. Warburg’s use of the term elective affinities can be found in his Note 4 on “The Lecture on the Serpent Ritual” in Gombrich, 220.
[xviii] Agamben, 98. Grombach 253.
[xix] Warburg, Aby. “Memories of a Journey through the Pueblo Region” published in Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion. Michaud, Philippe-Alain. Trans. Sophie Hawkes. (New York: Zone, 2004), 312.
[xx] Gombrich, 238.
[xxii] Johnson, 10.
[xxiii] Agamben quotes Warburg in Potentialties, 95.
[xxiv] Warburg, “Lecture on the Serpent Ritual,” 289.
[xxv] D’aulaire, 49.
[xxvi] Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 138.