Sunday, March 28, 2010

Memory and imagination

I found these two quotes once side by side and I kept them because they bear directly on themes from Before Night Falls:

"Although with regard to the past, when this is reported correctly, what is brought out from memory is not the events themselves (these are already past) but words conceived from the images of those events, which, in passing through the senses, have left as it were their footprints stamped upon the mind. My boyhood, for instance, which no longer exists, exists in time past, which no longer exists. But when I recollect the image of my boyhood and tell others about it, I am looking at this image in time present, because it still exists in time present." — St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 398

"Memory is the same as imagination." — Giambattista Vico, New Science, 1725

Memory and imagination are central themes of the opera. Arenas, the poet and memoirist, is writing to preserve the memory of what happened to him and others in Cuba, but by his own admission, he is writing his memoir as a form of vengeance against his tormentors — by recording “the truth,” or what Augustine calls “the past, when this is reported correctly.” And yet, as both Augustine and Vico remind us, memory is a form of imagination. The way we report the past is the way we imagine it, individually and collectively. That is not to say we may falsify it, but we must remain aware that there is a telling involved.

This dedication to the truth is not the only constraint the past places on an artist. The artist is also powerfully aware of his predecessors, the past of his own art forms, the history of the culture, all that’s been done before. Artists build on that past and also take a sledgehammer to it, if not a chisel. But whatever his stance toward it, the past must be reckoned with.

Yet the future is also an act of the imagination: of possibilities that are yet to be realized, stemming from the individual, and collective, imagination. We “write” our future: we imagine it into being. So both the past and the future are acts of the imagination, although different in kind. The past really has happened: the future not so.

Memory makes the artist the most unfree of men; imagination the freest.

Imagination, therefore, can be a tool against repression and tyranny: we can imagine a better world, which we can work toward and build. The artist perpetually reminds us of this; hence the frequent antagonism between artsists and governments. We are always free to use our imagination, and imagination can make us free — and lead to action. Reinaldo was always seeking freedom, from his tiny childhood village, from Cuba’s repressions, and he acted to liberate himself from these “prisons,” but in the end an untimely death, from AIDS in 1990, at age 47, threatened to be his ultimate unfreedom. Even then, he sought to free himself from the horrible debilitations and humiliations of the the ravages of AIDS by taking action: by taking his life at a time of his own choosing, “freeing” himself from the prison of a hopeless situation, facing the truth head on.

Hope, and beauty, are two more themes important to the opera that tie in to memory and imagination, and I will take them up next time. Also, the two Muses, the Sea and the Moon....

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