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On the aesthetics of memory.

Life into story

Robert Lowell's book, Life Studies (1959), is, in the poet's own words, "a conscious attempt at a breakthrough back into life" (1968a: 19), through the infusion of personal detail, and the elevation of authenticity, and sincerity, to the status of aesthetic criteria. The process of self-examination, which is at the center of his "lyrical autobiography," inextricably binds history, memory, and poetry:

There's a good deal of tinkering with fact. You leave out a lot, and emphasize this and not that. Your actual experience is a complete flux. I've invented facts and changed things, and the whole balance of the poem was something invented. So there's a lot of artistry, I hope, in the poems. Yet there's this thing, if a poem is autobiographical--and this is true of any kind of autobiographical writing and of historical writing-you want the reader to say, this is true. (LLS: 21, emphasis added)

Lowell's remark seems to reinforce the traditional view of autobiographical writing as based on the verifiable facts of a life history, according to which memory is regarded as a storehouse, from where specific materials can be retrieved, in the process of remembering, a process described by Saint Augustine in his Confessions, in these words:

And I enter the fields and spacious halls of memory, where are stored as treasures the countless images that have been brought into them from all manner of things by the senses. There, in the memory, is likewise stored what we cogitate, either by enlarging or reducing our perceptions, or by altering one way or another those things which the senses have made contact with; and everything else that has been entrusted to it and stored up in it, which oblivion has not yet swallowed up and buried.

When I go into this storehouse, I ask that what I want should be brought forth. Some things appear immediately, but others require to be searched for longer, and then dragged out, as it were, from some hidden recess. (ACE: 208, emphasis added)

Augustine's concept of memory as "a present of things past" (ACE: 259), a repository in which everything can be preserved, altered, and enriched by the process of remembering, serves to clarify the quality of autobiography. 'The Doctor of Grace' saw his own narrative as a search for his genuine self, and conceived of autobiography as a quest for memory, the form that was truest to the Providential plan, and therefore a valid mirror of the real world.

Lowell's portrait of Mordecai Myers, which opens the prose memoir "91 Revere Street" that makes up the second section of Life Studies, apparently reiterates this Augustinian notion in its emphasis of the "rocklike" solidity of memory:

Major Mordecai Myers' portrait has been mislaid past finding, but out of my memories 1 often come on it in the setting of our Revere Street house, a setting now fixed in the mind, where it survives all the distortions of fantasy, all the blank befogging of forgetfulness. There, the vast number of remembered things remains rocklike, each is in its place, each has its function, its history, its drama. There, all is preserved by that motherly care that one either ignored or resented in his youth. The things and their owners come back urgent with life and meaning--because finished, they are endurable and perfect. (LLS: 12-13)

Critics have observed, however, that "these memories are not merely facts of a childhood now long past; they are present realities, that part of the past that weighs on the present, having lost none of its emotional significance" (Axelrod 1978: 106). Contemporary autobiographers no longer accept the concept of autobiographical truth as an unmediated reconstruction of a verifiable past:

It is through the operation of memory, which draws all the significant past into the focus of the present that the autobiographer and the poet succeed in universalizing their experience and their meaning. Each of them discovers, in fact, by looking through the glass of memory, a meaning in his experience which is not there before and which exists only as a present creation. (Olney 1972: 263)

Research in human cognition (Fivush 2003) suggests that it is through the construction of a life story that self and memory are intertwined. Although events in the world may be organized in space and time, yet they take on human shape and human meaning through narrative. Self and memory are constructed through specific forms of social interactions and/or cultural frameworks. Autobiographical memory functions uniquely to establish a sense of personal history in a social world in which others have their own unique personal histories, and thus to establish the "conservation of self' as existing independently through time" (Nelson 2003: 18). Moreover, "the self is many things, but identity is a life story" (McAdams 2003: 188, emphasis added). As an integrative configuration of the self-in-the-adultworld, both in a synchronic and diachronic sense, identity is a permanently-renewed project, an imaginative construction.

Self and others

No complete story can however be salvaged from Lowell's ''91 Revere Street," the prose memoir that makes up the second section of Life Studies. His 'journey home' through memory produces fragments only. The loosely chronological account starts in medias res, evokes various childhood remembrances, spots of time to be revisited and revalued; it soon makes room, however, for personae, places, themes, and images. No break marks the various sections; the story reads continuously, although the impression of fragmentariness, of events simply juxtaposed remains strong. So, while the story progresses along the history of his life, another inquiry, which searches for "truth," seems to parallel it.

Robert Lowell gives the thematic order the main role, and subordinates narration to the work on language that literature presupposes. As far as veracity is concerned, it is something missing, a gap that the experience of language reveals, that the narrative attempts to surmount, a sort of black hole, whose irresistible attraction seems to guide, and organize writing. The selected memories are carefully framed. They are chosen, not for their anteriority, but for their generality, as they replicate, in the writer's view, significant existential problems. Not all material fits easily into the overall thematic pattern, yet the autobiographer seems capable of creating internal consistency: "Lowell frequently forces transitions across the flimsiest associations." (Bell 1983: 52)

Through the shadowy filter of memory, the poet strains to discover stable configurations, invariants, some fundamental existential meanings, not only in the events narrated, but also in the actual processes of remembering and articulating his personal experience. In a "Letter to Harriet Winslow, of 8 March 1956," Lowell writes:

I have been thinking a lot about people and moments in the past. A lot is lost, and a lot was never seen or understood. Still it's fascinating what one can fish up, clear up, and write down--it s like cleaning my study, like going perhaps to some chiropractor, who leaves me with all my original bone jumbled back in a new and sound structure. (apud Wallingford 1988: 17, emphasis added)

The "new and sound structure," in which the image is pinned down in a static form, so that it can be studied, and perhaps understood, if only for a moment, becomes for Lowell the alternative to continuous narrative.

The rich, ironic, refined prose of "91 Revere Street" presents Lowell as choking in the unbearable acquiescence of aristocratic Boston: a world of faded gentility and unfulfilled dreams, in which past magnificence turns to present destruction, just as the furniture the Lowells inherit from the Myers has lost its original luster and splendor, and looks uncomfortable and disharmonious:

Here, table, highboy, chairs, and screen-mahogany, cherry, teak--looked nervous and disproportioned. They seemed to wince, touch elbows, shift from foot to foot. High above the highboy, our gold National Eagle stooped forward, plaster and doddering. The Sheffield silver-plate urns, more precious than solid sterling, peeled; the bodies of the heraldic mermaids on the Mason-Myers crest blushed a metallic copper tan. In the harsh New England light, the bronze sphinxes supporting our sideboard looked as though manufactured in Grand Rapids. All too clearly no one had worried about synchronizing the grandfather clock's minutes, days, and months with its mellow old Dutch seascape-painted discs for showing the phases of the moon. (LLS: 43-44)

Victim of the oedipal project, Mother tirelessly encourages a premature sense of adult responsibility in her son, whom she forces to share her fantasies of ideally masculine figures. "She ran into the bedroom. She hugged me. She said, 'Oh Bobby, it's such a comfort to have a man in the house.' "I am not a man," I said, 'I am a boy" (LLS 1964: 24). When Commander Lowell is away on sea duty, his wife ritualistically destroys him:

She baked in their refreshing stimulation of dreams in which she imagined Father suitably sublimed. She sued to describe such a sublime man to me over tea and English muffins. He was Siegfried carried lifeless thorough the shining air by Brunnhilde to Valhalla, or Mother's hero dove through the grottoes of the Rhine and slaughtered the homicidal and vulgar dragon coiled about the golden hoard. (LLS: 18)

Father is a sort of absurdist tragic hero, drawn unawares into the abyss of his own dream of life. Affecting military authority, manly automobiles, which he has turned into a fetish, Commander Lowell steadily grows ever uncertain of himself, an inarticulate, ineffectual and shadowy figure:

Like a chauffeur, he watched this car, a Hudson, with an informed vigilance' always giving its engine hair-trigger little tinkering of adjustment or friendship, always fearful lest the black body, unbeautiful as his boiled shirts, should lose its outline and gloss. He drove with flawless, almost instrumental, monotony. (LLS: 23)

With a career marked by repeated failures, he is a man imprisoned within himself. The writer's description of his father's den, filled with trivial objects, with its "bare and white" walls and bookshelves, except for a useless radio-set, illustrates the lethargic personality of Commander Lowell:

The walls of Father's minute Revere Street denparlor were bare and white. His bookshelves were bare and white. The den's one adornment was a ten-tube home-assembled battery radio set, whose loudspeaker had the shape and color of a Mexican sombrero. The radio's specialty was getting programs from Australia and New Zealand in the early hours of the morning. My father's favorite piece of den furniture was his oak and "rhinoceros hide" armchair. It was ostentatiously a masculine, or rather a bachelor's, chair. It had a notched, adjustable back; it was black, cracked, hacked, scratched, splintered, gouged, initialed, gunpowder-charred and tumbler-ringed. It looked like pale tobacco leaves laid on dark tobacco leaves. I doubt if Father, a considerate man, was responsible for any of the marring. The chair dated from his plebe days at the Naval Academy, and had been bought from a shady, shadowy, roaring character, midshipman "Beauty" Burford. Father loved each disfigured inch. (LLS: 17)

Father loves the "rhinoceros hide" armchair because it is "ostentatiously a masculine, or rather a bachelor's chair." It was purchased from "a shady, shadowy, roaring character, midshipman "Beauty' Burford", nevertheless, it has nothing to do with any heroic career.

Oneself as another

Lowell uses memory to probe the past, and to recover his lost self; by giving it an aesthetic form, by constructing out of memories a personal narrative that makes sense of the past and its relation to the present, he may hope to free himself from its burden. To the child's point of view, the author adds his adult perspective, "a method" "that is particularly hard on Mr. Lowell" (Hamilton 1982: 227) for the narrator shows neither compassion nor deference for himself. As a child he is moody, needlessly deceitful, and cruel towards his friends, egotistically oedipal towards his father, violent, and self-despising:

I was a churlish, disloyal, romantic boy, and quite without hero worship for my father, whose actuality seemed so inferior to the photographs in uniform he once mailed to us from the Golden Gate. (LLS: 13)

The self that the memoirist discovers is strictly conditioned, and free to the extent he can perceive his own bondage. The image of a nine-year old boy on a coerced "afternoon stroll" evokes the whole pattern of torment exacted in the name of social routine:

Brimmer School was thrown open on sunny March and April afternoons and our teachers took us for strolls on the polite, landscaped walks of the Public Garden. There I'd loiter by the old iron fence 30 and gape longingly across Charles Street at the historic Boston Common, a now largely wrong-side-of-thetracks park. On the Common there were mossy bronze reliefs of Union soldiers, and a captured German tank filled with smelly wads of newspaper. Everywhere there were grit, litter, gangs of Irish, Negroes, Latins. On Sunday afternoons orators harangued about Sacco and Vanzetti, while others stood about heckling and blocking the side-walks. Keen young policemen, looking for trouble, lolled on the benches. (LLS: 30-31)

Eventually, in predictable reaction, 'Bobby' on his way to becoming 'Cal' (for Caligula) manages to have himself expelled from this elderly Eden, the Public Garden, by his resident angel, Officer Lever, for bloodying "Bulldog Binney's nose against the pedestal of George Washington's statue" and for pelting "a little enemy ring of third graders with wet fertilizer" (LLS: 31). Images of ash, blood, sunlight, bodily functions, waste and flesh constantly recur in Lowell's remembrances, as forbidden symbols of life.

The narrative reveals how the young Lowell shares his parents' distorted cultural values. Their preoccupation with social standing anticipates his similar anxiety at school: "I was in the third grade and for the first time becoming a little more popular at school. I was afraid Father's leaving the Navy would destroy my standing" (LLS: 13). Lowell mentions his "restless dreams of being admired" (LLS: 20), and suggests his desire for popularity: "I had attracted some of the most popular Brimmer School boys. For the first time I had gotten favorable attention from several little girls" (LLS: 22). Much of 'Bobby's' unaccountable and inconsistent behavior, his pettiness and cruelty toward friends, may be attributable to his yearning for a more direct contact with life.

As a child, Lowell cherishes his remote connection with his great-great-grandfather, Mordecai Myers, a Mediterranean Jew, and listens enthralled to the coarse tirades of his father's friend, Commander Billy, "Battleship Bilgewater" Harkness. Major Myers, as the memoirist reconstructs his character from the family portrait, is both voluptuous and patrician, a knowledgeable witness, on behalf of compliance and happy surrender:

On the joint Mason-Myers bookplate, there are two merry and naked mermaids lovely marshmallowy, boneless, Rubensesque butterballs, all burlesque show bosoms and Flemish smiles. Their motto, malo frangere quam flectere, reads "I prefer to bend than to break." (LLS: 49-50)

Significantly, at the end of the memoir, Major Mordecai's image returns as if to rebuke gently the misunderstanding of purpose, and the displaced fear of life that has thwarted the emotional growth of Lowell's parents:

Great-great-Grandfather Myers had never frowned down in judgment on a Salem witch. There was no allegory in his eyes, no Mayflower. Instead he looked peacefully at his sideboard, his cut-glass decanters, his cellaret--the worldly bosom of the Mason-Myers mermaid engraved on a silver-plated urn. If he could have spoken, Mordecai would have said, 'My children, my blood, accept graciously the loot of your inheritance. We are all dealers in used furniture. (LLS: 45)

Commander Billy Harkness's vivid presence dominates the last third of the memoir. His weekly visits to the Lowell household disrupt the tense equilibrium that seems to exist in the family. An unruly drinker of Bourbon, he commonsensically and passionately denounces all forms of despotism, both familial (Mrs. Lowell) and military (Admiral De Stahl) that have denied Commander Lowell a sense of private life:

Then Commander Harkness would throw up his hands in despair and make a long buffoonish speech. "Would you believe it?" he'd say. "De Stahl!, the anile slob, would make Bob Lowell sleep seven nights a week and twice on Sundays in that venerable twenty-room pile provided for his third in command at the yard. 'Bobby me boy,' the Man says, 'henceforth I will that you sleep wifeless. You're to push your beauteous mug into me boudoir each night at ten-thirty and each morn at six. And don't mind me lying too alongside the Missus De Stahl,' the old boy squeaks; 'we're just two oldsters as weak as babies. But Robbie Boy,' he says, 'don't let me hear of you hanging on your telephone wire and bending off the ear of that forsaken frau of yours sojourning on Revere Street. I might have to phone you in a hurry, if I should happen to have me stroke.'" Taking hold of the table with both hands, the Commander tilted his chair backwards and gaped down at me with sorrowing Gargantuan wonder: "I know why Young Bob is an only child." (LLS: 46, emphasis added)

These are the last words of the autobiographical account: the withheld resolution, the suspension and lack of formal finality paradoxically results in augmenting "the unity of his prose memoir, while at the same time demeaning it" (Bell 1983: 51-53). Having established the permanence of memory early in his prose essay, its endurance and perfection, as the memoir progresses, Lowell ironically undermines the idea of a perfect memory, because the adjustments of time seem to radically affect his recollections. Truly, the writer traces the origin of his young self in order to understand his present one, by situating it in the context of family, society, and culture. Whether "91 Revere Street" is, or not, factually true may not prove decisive for its meanings. Ultimately, it may have more the character of imaginative or fictional reconstruction of one's self. Nor does Lowell's choice of prose seem to be insignificant in relation to self-examination. In his essay "On Skunk Hour," he acknowledges the effect of a prose account in carrying the immediacy of past memories: "I felt that the best style for poetry was none of the many poetic styles in English, but something like the prose of Chekhov or Flaubert" (1968b: 227, emphasis added). "91 Revere Street" seems to direct our attention to the fact that, for Lowell, art has a direct bearing on life. Yet, within the memoir, no clear resolution is reached. It is therefore difficult to clearly distinguish the features of self-scrutiny from those of art. In Lowell's own words: "one life, one writing" .

Remus Bejan

Ovidius University

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to


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Lowell R (1968a) Robert Lowell, interviewed by Frederick Seidel. Robert Lowell. A Collection of Critical Essays, pp 16-35. Parkinson T, ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Lowell R (1968b) On Skunk Hour. Robert Lowell. A Collection of Critical Essays, pp 131--134. Parkinson T, ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

McAdams DP (2003) Identity and the life story. Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, pp 187-207. Fivush H, Haden CA, eds. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nelson K (2003) Narrative and self, myth and memory: Emergence of the cultural self. Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, pp 3-28. Fivush H, Haden CA, eds. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Olney J (1972) Metaphors of the Self: The Meaning of Autobiography. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Author:Bejan, Remus
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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