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Monday, 2 August 2010

Empty Vessel



Toward the end of a life activity ceases and reflection takes over. This is what is meant by dwelling in the past. This sort of retrospective existence, however, might be more accurately described as dwelling in an illusion.

All memories are empty. Yes, a memory is an empty vessel. One wishes to believe it is filled up with something that once happened. But how is one to go about finding that thing, if it ever existed. Nothing is more elusive.

Mother's face is no longer mother's face.

A feeling, a tone, a gesture, lost upon uncorking.

Whatever may have been in the bottle disappears upon contact with the atmosphere of reality.

Imagine a glass collecting vial containing a lovely chloroformed specimen, kept in a drawer. It is a particularly treasured specimen. One takes pleasure in imagining the exquisite wing markings. It is a shock to open the drawer, remove the bottle and find nothing in it. The past is like that. Make up as many stories about it as you wish. Those narratives are mere concepts, populated with vanished ephemerae. One would like to think they were beautiful, but perhaps they never really had any substance, memory has merely invented them.

Everyone has a drawer full of these empty bottles. No one can look into anyone else's bottle. If you were to ask someone a question about their past experiences, about what the past was actually like, they might say, Well, if I had time to look into that, perhaps I might be able to tell you; but right at the moment I do not.

The house of the mind is built of memories. It is an empty house. Late at night one realizes this. Now all the memories have dissolved. It is an empty house. It offers no shelter. Mother will not stop at the door to say good night.

File:Image-Codd bottle.jpg

Spider Lily (Lycoris) and butterfly Papilio xuthus (Asian swallowtail): photo by Autumn Snake, 2007
Codd bottle: photo by Moriori, 2006


AJP Crown said...

I hate to say it, but that's spot on, Tom. Thank you.

TC said...


One interesting (?) speculation re. the mid-19th c. Codd bottles -- it has been speculated that the popularity of these as beer containers led to the expression "codswallop".

Sandra.if said...

Hi Tom...maybe writing keeps time for us ...and I agree that sometimes older words of us seems those of a stranger...

TC said...


Writing is an attempt at retrieval, from a distance, not always reliable -- like memory.

John B-R said...

I don't think memory evolved so we could "keep" the past (tho there is *something* to Benjamin's notion of our "weak messianic power" that sorta-kinda "redeems" said past. I think memory evolved to keep us alive and sane in the present. So what we have are a bunch of stories we carry with us to that end. How well does it work? Well, we're not very sane ... at least we don't seem very sane to me ... here I begin to think of psychoanalysis, and wonder if "what happened" and what we can recall has been strained thru some sort of version of the dream work ...

But that's all a bunch of interesting-or-not hot air speculation. You've hit on what's really important here: that badly-misjudged fly ball will NOT miraculously land in our mitt again; mother will NOT be stopping at the door ...

There's something really melancholy about it.

TC said...


The melancholy can come to feel like the whole deal, at three-thirty in the (actually, this) morning.

Francis Crick, the Cambridge man who identified the spiral helix, later went on to La Jolla and set himself to work on dreams. (A progression that makes a weird sort of sense, when you think of it.)

He dashed cold water on everybody's dream theories by concluding that dreams function as a kind psychic vacuum cleaner, stirring up the day's memories into a meaningless stew so as to whisk them off into the trash. The function of the dream in this theory would be to reduce brain overload by getting rid of redundant memories. A few babies being thrown out with the bathwater would be a necessary side effect of the mechanism.

Nabokov in his brilliant Speak, Memory hints at several points that the exquisitely detailed memories which he has developed with beautiful writerly elaboration probably include a certain amount of invention.

I think we probably make up a good share of what we "remember" of our dreams as well as a fairly large proportion of what we think are our memories.

Much of the poignancy of Benjamin's project of recovering the past so as to redeem it, I think, comes from the fact that the odds were/are so massively stacked against it/him/us, in this regard.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Are we not the sum of our experiences and are not memories, at best, those experiences recalled or revised, held in mind and body. I will be thinking of this essay for a while, unsure in this moment if I agree or not. A photograph is not the same as a mother's face but for now it is a form of preservation. Regardless of my opinion, I thank you for this. It is important that we take nothing for granted.

TC said...


I think we use photographs to remember loved ones because they give us the feeling of being able to "hold on to" something that we know in our hearts is irrevocably lost. And that something is also usually a feeling. It is not quite a person. Perhaps we understand this when we examine the memories; my own experience, when I do that, is that there's really nothing there. Maybe this is because I'm squeezing the memory too hard, desire affecting the act. And of course here I am talking about very old memories; I'm getting to be a very old person; and in the middle of the nights those crooked numbers of years have a way of skewing things a bit, in this department.

But I think we get the idea of a memory, and build a story around it; and we edit that, as we edit our writings; in fact I find both processes, memory and writing, to be constructive and reconstructive in pretty much equal parts.

"Once upon a time" and "long, long ago" make good entries to these narratives; and we seem to need them, or we would not go to so much trouble to -- I was almost going to say fabricate them...

But of course I ought to stop using the universal "we" here and speak for myself, an old coot whose mind is going and who turns around looking for the past and finds only a handful of air.

Perhaps the problem is that with age, the present tends to dwindle to not much, and that diminishing of the vividness of the present seems to increase the need to resort to what is gone for "content" in our thoughts. I guess the feeling I was trying to get across here was: there is no content, it's all just air.

Please excuse my windiness, but as you've been good enough to think about this with me, here we are.

Curtis Roberts said...

Spot on, indeed. I'll stay with this for quite a while. A long time ago, a few years after he died, my wife asked me a question about my father. (Caroline knew him also, but obviously not as long I.) I shocked her by replying "I didn't really know him that well." What I said was truthful and accurate and I didn't mean to upset her. I think this may fit in here.

My mother still stops by regularly in dreams (Caroline's mother does also), but I can't work out any of what, if anything, it all means.

I stopped seeing a psychiatrist (he was very intelligent man who was really, really helpful; imagine – he’d published significantly on Hamlet!) when we got to the part about walking past cemeteries and that I now needed to consider whether or not I wanted to go in. For a number of reasons (some which this prose poem crystallizes), I think I made the right choice.

Yesterday, I actually got a call from a revenant, a word that’s come up on BTP from time to time. Until today’s postings, the conversation (if you could call it that) just wrecked my mood. A musician/composer I admire, Kevin Ayers, has a song called Idiots that contains the refrain: “Dead people like to kill/It’s their one remaining thrill”. Kevin's a great humanist. I think I know what he was driving at.

TC said...

Curtis, we just posted in the same moment, and it may be that we were also having similar thoughts in the same moment.

Angelica and I have just now been talking about this phenomenon you mention. She points out that one's memory of one's parents, and of others who have been close, is always partial, especially if these are childhood memories.

Your answer to Caroline is the answer I would give, if I were being honest, if asked about my father. In the forty years since his death I have certainly thought a great deal more about him, and perhaps also understood and accepted a good deal more, than I did when he was alive. That's a common sort of regret I suppose. But again, now, the best way I have to bring him to life is an accidental way; that is, to recognize something of him in myself. But that is not quite a memory, rather some sort of mysterious genetic intuition I suppose.

The topic is a bit sad. But then life can seem a bit sad at times, so there it is.

I think Kevin Ayers almost but not quite has it right. Dead people don't "put us out of our misery": we do that ourselves, dozens of times in a day, every time we lose ourselves and our life in the present moment in order to go wandering down memory lane; and these trips are not planned, and will take us when and where they wish; and as I've been saying here, I fear that the place they take us, finally, is nowhere.

A. puts in, "No, at the time they can take you somewhere quite vividly... but, ultimately... [voice trails off] anyway who knows what lies beyond."

And that triggered a revenant Lamont Cranston, emerging out of a dimly recollected 1940s radio to say, in that charming ominous way of his that scared the pants off me as a child, "Only the Shadow Knows..."

aditya said...


We still have cod bottles being used in India for Banta, a soft drink very popular on the streets.

My mother used to have her mother stop by in her dreams almost every day. I do not know if it happens even today. So, 40 years from now, I might tell people things different for all that time, I too would have certainly thought a great deal more about her, and perhaps also understood and accepted a great deal more, than I did when she had been alive.

It is a heart wrecking piece to write, read and feel, somehow written in the tone a Jesus would write his revelations.

a lovely chloroformed specimen

is right on the spot. Nails it.

an old coot whose mind is going and who turns around looking for the past and finds only a handful of air.

I cannot even know what you mean by that Tom. 40 years to go before I know this feeling you tell.

TC said...

Thank you Aditya. Forty years from now you will be known as a great sage and world famous poet, and you will then, to assuage the qualms of your adoring legion of followers, have to pretend to be of sound mind and perfect memory. That may prove to be a bit of a burden. I can't really say, as I am neither a sage nor famous, so at least I don't have to pretend to be mentally competent. And if I did have to do so, I would probably not succeed anyway.

(Here is where I should put one of those punctuation happyfaces to show we are only having fun.)

Yes, this piece did indeed originate in a condition of heartwreck, one might say.

I got a new view of Jesus a few years ago when I watched a version of The Master and Margarita serialized for Russian tv. Jesus and Pontius Pilate are the principals. Both historical figures are "humanized" in an interesting way. Jesus is much more interesting as a human being with human problems than as a god who is just having a bad time on his break.

Should I ever have another drink, may the gods let it be a Banta out of a cod bottle, with Aditya.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


This is a wonderful if emotionally trying post, that has opened up some almost archetypal reactions. The comments, which are wonderful, feel like a natural extension of the post.

I thought immediately of the Buddhist maxim of "living in the moment," that concept that seems so impossible to attain. Next came the thought of how we edit these memories, which you addressed in the comments to some extent. That there might be some biological imperative is also touched on - a way we begin to shut down as we get older, the vision turning inward, if you will.

What really grabbed me, however, was the actual memory itself, mother at the door. Instantly, all of Proust rushed back - how he explores this concept, chases its shadow really for 3,000 plus lush and wonderful pages. And he captures it in the writing, art with the capitol A is how he stitches all of these mysteries together.

Is he right? Who knows, that's the mystery, but its a truly lovely idea, a reason to exist.

And with Proust, it all goes back to his mother at the door or, in the beginning, not at the door.

For all of us, it seems to go back to mother (or father or lover) at the door (or not).

Revery. Revenant. Deriving from the Middle French rêverie, meaning delirium. To wander. To return.

To return.

aditya said...


You are very popular with me and the like-minded people I know, one friend.

(Here is where I should put one of those punctuation happy faces to show we are only having fun.)

Somehow, for a reason even I am unaware of, I have always been glad that there have been none of those used by you at your place.

I shall come over to America and share a drink with you.
I had this fantastic forsaken proposition/dream hid safe in my mind until now.

My mother has been a Buddhist in oblivion during her childhood in Burma. Then she came to become a Hindu. Now she's converted to Christianity.

Buddha/Jesus/Ram/Krishna kept looking for their fix in the alleys, streets and forests. Walking. So does almost everybody.

Exactly, when you say Jesus is much more interesting as a human than as a God who is having a bad time on his break. And that is such a kick-ass way to put it.

Thank you for your ever so insightful , (i would like to add generous but some thing tells me to restrain) comments.

You are a much large hearted man.
Warms my heart to read you.

aditya said...


Ed Baker said...


just reading out of that City Lights 1965 edition of


( yes, this Old Dawg is finally
delving into ...and variously )

first thought producin this first draft po-em:

if it wasn't for my
I wouldn't get no sex!

and back to the Artaud book check out "Coleridge The Traitor" (page 128)

you know, as it did w Artaud ...'this/stuff/and/such' cld drive you knuts or worst: Crazy.

pee est we just bought (and are in process of making our first batch) a
beer-making kit..AND
two dozen liter bottles that are the modern version of these ones you pictured...

terrific 'stuff' re this post

makes me want to re-think my past and write down my OWN bones...
before I lose totally my Memory... such as it is I am



Yes, I see how "this piece did indeed originate in a condition of heartwreck," -- coming after as it does remembering the sound of wind blowing down steep steps to Lake Michigan. . . . All these comments must attest to the powerful stuff you've dragged to surface here. I'm looking across to a photograph of my father (John) and Johnny and me sitting on the steps down at his house on the cliffs south of Carmel -- the sounds of waves must have been there, one of the last photos I've got of him -- did it really happen ?


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed green of cypress branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

also co-ordinates on surface,
which have significance

that is, gravitational field
for other forms, system

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
line of pelicans flapping toward point

TC said...

Wonderful comments, many thanks. A sense of likemindedness takes the edge off the insomniac refrigerator noise, as one recalls that we're all in this one together. I mean the living, feeling, dreaming, remembering game; that infinite game in which there are no winners and which we can at best only hope to help keep going, so that when we exit, the last thing we can see is that the balls are still up in the air.

Ed, you're absolutely right, it would be a tragic (?) waste to under-sell any of our remaining faculties, even if we only think or imagine we have them.

Beautifully attested to by Don is the strange "reason to exist" impulse that seems to provoke our interest in all these things having to do with pasts. It seems a peculiarly human preoccupation, though even in saying that I am reminded of the touching evidence in elephants of a memorial mourning ceremony, wherein a group will linger lovingly for some time over the remains of a fallen one. But more immediately here, I watch our pack of cats; they've all once been abandoned and at least half-wild, yet though the traces of all that remain in their dispositions, they don't appear to be losing much sleep over it all currently.

But again I must qualify that; one large and powerful male Siamese shows strong signs of conceiving that I am his mother; he suckles at my earlobes ecstatically, whenever he is able to get within striking range. So it appears that perhaps even in animals, memory has a curious deranged power.

All mixed up with instinct and dream.

Confusion. Pastness and presence se mezclaran.

Don's introduction of Proust and the relation of Art and Memory of course goes back to our chapter and verse source on this theme.

Earlier I mentioned Nabokov's magisterial work
Speak, Memory.

In the last two passages included there, some of VN's sentences may weave into our thread.

Don, the "to wander/to return" cycle seems to describe the pulse of a life. A lot depends on which term you choose to put at the end of the cycle. "To wander/to return/to wander...": that (returning) third term might be decisive in some accounts of things, as disparate as the Roman and Buddhist views of the "next" world.

Personally I imagine there is only this one; and that, to large extent, but (unfortunately) probably not large enough, I imagine it.

And speaking of the wandering/returning cycle, Aditya, these sentences are arresting and moving and ring quite true:

"My mother has been a Buddhist in oblivion during her childhood in Burma. Then she came to become a Hindu. Now she's converted to Christianity.

"Buddha/Jesus/Ram/Krishna kept looking for their fix in the alleys, streets and forests. Walking. So does almost everybody..."

Steve, I think I had your father in mind a few nights ago when seeking an image of Carmel for the Jeffers Rock and Hawk post, discovering then that Arnold Genthe shot from c. a century back... in time...

But when it comes to Space,

also co-ordinates on surface,
which have significance

that is, gravitational field
for other forms, system

Upper Level Trough over the coast, another grey white morning here in the world.

TC said...

Elephant Cemetery



Thanks for thought about having my "father in mind a few nights ago," how beautiful (and moving to me) is that Arnold Genthe photo. . . . And "how is one to go about finding that thing. . . ." (?) --


light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed green black pine branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

form, the distressing social
period in which he lived

in the same direction, force
of tonal values, finding

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
wingspan of tern flapping toward ridge

TC said...

Always beautiful to find the world as you make it in the morning, Steve. Even and especially in the dark. Forty-six chilly degrees and not yet light.

Thinking of your Dad, Johnny coming to join you today, and the whole matter of a "social period", something we humans seem fated to bumble our way(s) through rather than ever actually get a handle on. At any rate, it was with Johnny in mind that I managed to overcome the current complication and degree of difficulty of humanness (old man blues) in order to do the new post that's now up above this. I thought the kissing prairie dogs, young spectacled langur (dusky leaf monkey) and alert Tasmanian Thornbill might find a friend in Johnny, our designated ambassador to a kinder future.


Very sweet -- the designated ambassador to the kinder future is about to view the prairie dogs and monkey. . . .

~otto~ said...

So the only things that are real are the cod bottles and the moment. I'm going to pay more attention to both.

TC said...

Time in a Codd Bottle. An oldie, more glassy than golden.

(The spherical object floating inside is either the stopper or an insubstantial clump of the past. Or possibly both.)