Tag Archives: memory

“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 04

I recently had a discussion with my wife regarding the founding of the United States. We came to the conclusion that, although many Americans like to think the country was founded upon the principles of freedom, it was actually commerce and enslavement that were the driving forces that led to the founding of America. With that still fresh in my mind, I came upon an interesting passage while reading this installment of Gaiman’s “American Gods” series.

The important thing to remember about American history is that it is fictional. It is a fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking the freedom to believe as they wished. In truth, the American colonies were as much as dumping ground as an escape. In the days when you could be hanged in London for the theft of twelve pennies, the Americas became a symbol of clemency, of a second chance. Transportation, it was called: for five years, for ten years, for life. You were sold to a captain and shipped to the colonies to be sold into indentured servitude–but at least you were free to make the most of your new world.

Another part of this comic really interested me was the three sisters. Gaiman based his three characters on the Slavic myth of the two sisters who watched the stars for a sign that the universe was about to end.

In Slavic mythology, the Zorja (alternately, Zora, Zarja, Zory, Zore = “dawn”; Zorza in Polish, Zara-Zaranica (Belarusian: Зара-Зараніца), Zvezda, Zwezda, Danica = “star”) are the two guardian goddesses, known as the Auroras. They guard and watch over the winged doomsday hound, Simargl, who is chained to the star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor, the “little bear”. If the chain ever breaks, the hound will devour the constellation and the universe will end. The Zorja represent the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

The Zorja serve the sun god Dažbog, who in some myths is described as their father. Zorja Utrennjaja, the Morning Star, opens the gates to his palace every morning for the sun-chariot’s departure. At dusk, Zorja Vechernjaja—the Evening Star—closes the palace gates once more after his return.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Gaiman’s retelling of the myth, he adds a third sister. It seems that Gaiman did this to also tie in the mythologies of the triple goddess, the three fates (Moirai), and possibly the three witches from Macbeth.

You wanted to know what I was looking at. The Big Dipper. Odin’s Wain, they call it. The Great Bear. Where we come from, we believe that it is a thing, not a god, but a bad thing, chained up in those stars. If it escapes, it will eat the whole of everything. And there are three sisters who must watch the sky, all the day, all the night. If he escapes, the thing in the stars, the world is over.

So far, I really love this series. Even though the artwork is a little weak, the quality of the writing makes up for it, and then some. I think I will have to reread the original text of American Gods at some point when this graphic series is finished.

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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 03

As I finished reading this third installment in the arc, I concluded that while the artwork is kind of flat, the quality of Gaiman’s writing certainly compensates for that shortcoming. He is able to create wonderfully evocative text that conjures rich imagery in tight, neat snippets. A great example is the description of what it is like to arrive in Chicago by car.

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine. First, they were driving through countryside, then, imperceptibly, the occasional town became a low suburban sprawl, and the sprawl became a city.

The focus of this issue is the exploration of forgotten gods, gods who were once important and then faded from memory. When we forget our gods and do not feed them through our consciousness, they die and disappear from existence.

These are the gods who have been forgotten, and now might as well be dead. They are gone. All gone.

These are the gods who have passed out of memory. Even their names have been forgotten. Gods die and when they die, they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed in the end.

Since America is a country founded on immigrants, the people who came to America brought with them their old gods. These gods remained for a while, but eventually they were replaced by a new set of gods, or ideas, that arose along with the new country.

No, we are all relatives. We come over here together. Long time ago. First, we come to New York. All our countrymen go to New York. Then, we come out here, to Chicago. Everything got very bad. In the old country, they had nearly forgotten me. Here, I am a bad memory no one wants to remember.

As I observe what is happening in the world around us, I cannot help but sense that these recent gods we created in our modern world are about to collapse. There appears to be a paradigm shift beginning, one that will reshape our dominant ideas. I think this is why there is such a heightened sense of fear and urgency in our global society. I do not know how it will all play out, but it is definitely a fascinating time to be alive.

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“Sonnet to Sleep” by John Keats

Portrait of John Keats by Joseph Severn

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

This poem is about the longing to escape physical and emotional suffering. Keats expresses deep anguish which appears to be a combination of bodily pain accompanied by thoughts and memories which torment him. As he lies awake in bed, he longs for the forgetfulness of sleep, but sleep eludes him.

Sleep is a common metaphor for death, and Keats uses certain words associated with death to convey the sense that he is weary of living and longs to pass from mortal existence. The words “embalmer” in the opening line and “casket” in the closing line actually serve as a way of entombing the entire poem. Also, the fact that the poem is set at midnight implies that he is at a symbolic threshold, ready to move on to the next plane of existence.

There is one last thing I feel is worth noting. In lines 7 and 8, there is a reference to the use of poppy, which in Keats’ time would be opium. It appears that Keats has turned to narcotics as a way to ease his physical and spiritual pain. But in spite of his self-anesthetizing, he is still unable to numb the darkness, “burrowing like the mole” into the deepest regions of his psyche.

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“Ulalume” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

(excerpt from poem)

This is a fairly long poem, and I debated whether to include the entire text here. I decided to include some excerpts and a link to the entire text. Click here to read the poem on the Edgar Allan Poe Society website.

This is a poem about being haunted by the loss of a loved one, not unlike “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven.” It is set in October and incorporates seasonal metaphors symbolizing death, such as withering leaves, ashen skies, and cypress trees. But for me, the most intriguing aspect of this dark poem is the exploration of the subconscious mind.

The protagonist describes travelling with his Psyche, or Soul, through the boreal regions of the north.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

As I read this, I envision the frozen northlands, the Aurora Borealis, and vast expanses of wilderness coated with ice and frost. These represent the speaker’s subconscious mind, where memories and dreams lie frozen in an area that is difficult to reach. He enters this realm with his Psyche, the part of his consciousness connected with the realm of dreams, imagination, and memory. There is also an active volcano, which symbolizes fiery and painful passion and emotion surging up to the surface from deep within. It’s an incredibly powerful image and captures the deep sorrow that the protagonist feels.

While in the deepest recesses of the subconscious, Poe describes the appearance of the goddess Astarte.

At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Astarte is a goddess of fertility and sexuality, often associated with Venus. I interpret this as the protagonist envisioning the soul of his departed love having merged and become a part of the divine feminine. It’s an interesting idea, that male souls emanate and return to the masculine aspect of the godhead, while the female souls emanate and return to the feminine aspect of the divine. It is almost like a dualistic version of Plotinus’s theory of divine emanation. I suspect this is something I will be meditating on for a while.

Overall, this is a beautifully crafted and evocative poem that works on many levels for me. While I don’t think it’s as popular as some of Poe’s other poems, I feel it is as good if not better.

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“Haunted” by Siegfried Sassoon

Gustave Doré

Gustave Doré

Evening was in the wood, louring with storm.
A time of drought had sucked the weedy pool
And baked the channels; birds had done with song.
Thirst was a dream of fountains in the moon,
Or willow-music blown across the water
Leisurely sliding on by weir and mill.

Uneasy was the man who wandered, brooding,
His face a little whiter than the dusk.
A drone of sultry wings flicker’d in his head.
The end of sunset burning thro’ the boughs
Died in a smear of red; exhausted hours
Cumber’d, and ugly sorrows hemmed him in.

He thought: ‘Somewhere there’s thunder,’ as he strove
To shake off dread; he dared not look behind him,
But stood, the sweat of horror on his face.

He blunder’d down a path, trampling on thistles,
In sudden race to leave the ghostly trees.
And: ‘Soon I’ll be in open fields,’ he thought,
And half remembered starlight on the meadows,
Scent of mown grass and voices of tired men,
Fading along the field-paths; home and sleep
And cool-swept upland spaces, whispering leaves,
And far off the long churring night-jar’s note.

But something in the wood, trying to daunt him,
Led him confused in circles through the thicket.
He was forgetting his old wretched folly,
And freedom was his need; his throat was choking.
Barbed brambles gripped and clawed him round his legs,
And he floundered over snags and hidden stumps.
Mumbling: ‘I will get out! I must get out!’
Butting and thrusting up the baffling gloom,
Pausing to listen in a space ’twixt thorns,
He peers around with peering, frantic eyes.

An evil creature in the twilight looping,
Flapped blindly in his face. Beating it off,
He screeched in terror, and straightway something clambered
Heavily from an oak, and dropped, bent double,
To shamble at him zigzag, squat and bestial.

Headlong he charges down the wood, and falls
With roaring brain—agony—the snap’t spark—
And blots of green and purple in his eyes.
Then the slow fingers groping on his neck,
And at his heart the strangling clasp of death.

I wanted to find a good “horror” poem that was not written by Edgar Allan Poe, so I did a web search and found this one. I was totally unfamiliar with Sassoon, so I did not have any expectations. I have to say, I really found this poem powerful, haunting, and well-written.

I see this as symbolic of someone who is haunted by memories of his past, most likely something deeply traumatic. He has kept his pain locked inside, and this pain is represented by the forest in which he wanders. He keeps thinking that he will eventually find a clearing, a place of reprieve from his inner torment, which is symbolized by the “open fields” and “meadows.” But it never happens. The vines and brambles of his memory snag him and hold him in the past. Demons that haunt his psyche swoop down on him. Eventually, he dies, carrying with him the burden of his suffering.

While this is certainly a grim poem, it should be looked at as a warning. We all carry guilt, pain, and suffering. But what is important is that we do not keep that pain hidden inside us. When we do, it grows and morphs into nightmares which haunt us psychologically, and the longer we keep those secrets hidden inside us, the sicker we become, until they ultimately consume us.

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“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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Memory and Consciousness in “Neuromancer” by William Gibson

Neuromancer

I had high expectations for this book because I had heard so much about it, and I suppose as is often the case when you have expectations about something, the book did not quite live up to them. Not that it was bad; on the contrary, it’s a very good book. It’s just that the cyberpunk genre has become kind of cliché at this point and even though this was the book that launched the genre, it ended up feeling old. I suspect that had I read it 30 years ago, I would have had a completely different experience.

The book is about a hacker and a samurai attempting to “jack in” to an artificial intelligence (AI) program. Much of the book takes place in cyberspace, or the matrix. Yeah, if you didn’t know already, the book influenced the films, which made it hard for me not to picture Keanu Reeves jumping around and overacting.

“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space was faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . .”

(p. 51)

For me, the most interesting aspects of the book deal with consciousness and memory. Human memory is described using the holographic model, which is a concept that I accept. I do not think of consciousness and memory as linear, but instead as existing everywhere at all times. The challenge is access.

“I don’t have this good a memory,” Case said, looking around. He looked down at his hands, turning them over. He tried to remember what the lines on his palm were like, but couldn’t.

“Everybody does,” the Finn said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out under his heel, “ but not many of you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they’re any good. If you could lay this construct over the reality, the Finn’s place in lower Manhattan, you’d see a difference, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Memory’s holographic, for you.” The Finn tugged at one of his small ears. “I’m different.”

“How do you mean, holographic?” The word made him think of Riviera.

“The holographic paradigm is the closest thing you’ve worked out to a representation of human memory, is all. But you’ve never done anything about it. People, I mean.” The Finn stepped forward and canted his streamlined skull to peer up at Case. “Maybe if you had, I wouldn’t be happening.”

(p. 170)

One of the questions that challenges us in the cyber age is whether consciousness can exist in a machine, or an AI. In the book, Gibson hints that probably, true human consciousness requires flesh in order to exist, that it is somehow encoded into our cellular and genetic makeup.

It belonged, he knew—he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.

(p. 239)

Is it possible that eventually an AI will develop consciousness? What will a conscious machine look like? How will that affect humanity? These are questions that have terrified and fascinated people for a long time. I suppose it is possible. And questions like these, which percolate to the surface as you read this book, are what make this book worth reading. If you are like me, you will have to overlook the parts that now feel cliché and hackneyed, but if you can do that, you will find some interesting and challenging concepts to explore.

Cheers, and thanks for stopping by.

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