91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universe

By Mari Popova

“The universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.”

Of91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher, and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universetentimes during meditation, I am visited by flash-memories dislodged from some dusty recess of my unconscious — vignettes and glimpses of people, places, and events from long ago and far away, belonging to what feels like another lifetime. They are entirely banal — the curb of a childhood sidewalk, mid-afternoon light falling on a familiar building in a familiar way, the smell of a leather armchair on a hot summer day — but in their banality they intimate the existence of the former self who inhabited those moments, a self that seems so foreign and so remote, yet one to which I am forever fettered by this half-conscious memory.

Memory, indeed, is the centerpiece of our selfhood and moors our bodies to our minds, as those flashes of the embodied mind unclenched by meditation reveal. Memory endows us with creativity and animates some of our most paradoxical impulses.

A century after Virginia Woolf painted memory as the capricious seamstress that stitches our lives together, Paris-based Lebanese-American poet, essayist, philosopher, and visual artist Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) picks up Woolf’s thread throughout Night (public library) — her slender, powerful collection of prose meditations and poems that, from the fortunate vantage point of Adnan’s ninety-first year on Earth, concretize in luminous language and incisive thought life’s most elusive perplexities: time, memory, love, selfhood, mortality.

Etel Adnan: “The Weight of the World” (Serpentine Galleries)

Adnan, whom the polymathic curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has celebrated as one of the most influential artists of the past century, was born in Beirut to a Greek mother and a Syrian father. She began writing poetry in French at twenty and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne a generation after Simone de Beauvoir, then crossed the Atlantic for graduate studies at Harvard and Berkeley. In the 1960s, Adnan took a teaching position at a small Catholic school in California, where she began painting and transcribing the work of Arab poets. She moved back to Beirut and in the midst of the Lebanese civil war composed politically wakeful poetry and prose that arrested the popular imagination with an uncommon precision of insight. Adnan now lives in Paris with her partner, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal, where she continues to paint and write.

Drawing on the rich span of her life across time and space, Adnan reflects on the role of memory in the continuity of our personal identity:

Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it seems, but is that true? Time seems also buried deep in us, but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit, abandon the head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a sanctuary of infinite patience.

Is memory produced by us, or is it us? Our identity is very likely whatever our memory decides to retain. But let’s not presume that memory is a storage room. It’s not a tool for being able to think, it’s thinking, before thinking. It also makes an (apparently) simple thing like crossing the room, possible. It’s impossible to separate it from what it remembers.

In stretching between the poles of existence and nonexistence, memory, Adnan suggests, might be the native consciousness of the universe:

We can admit that memory resurrects the dead, but these remain within their world, not ours. The universe covers the whole, a warm blanket.

But this memory is the glue that keeps the universe as one: although immaterial, it makes being possible, it is being. If an idea didn’t remember to think, it wouldn’t be. If a chair wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. If I didn’t remember that I am, I won’t be. We can also say that the universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.

Art by Etel Adnan (Sfeir-Semler Gallery)

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s unforgettable assertion that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Adnan considers how memory binds us to each other and to our own former selves:

Memory is intelligent. It’s a knowledge seated neither in the senses, nor in the spirit, but in collective memory. It is communal, though deeply personal. Involved with the self, though autonomous. At war with death.

It helps us rampage through the old self, hang on the certitude that it has to be.

[…]

Reason and memory move together.

And night and memory mediate each other. We move in them disoriented, for they often reuse to secure our vision. Avaricious, whimsical, they release things bit by bit.

Building upon Woolf’s metaphor, Adnan adds:

Memory sews together events that hadn’t previously met. It reshuffles the past and makes us aware that it is doing so.

[…]

Memory is within us and reaches out, sometimes missing the connection with reality, its neighbor, its substance.

Complement this particular fragment of Adnan’s wholly enchanting Night with Sally Mann on the treacheries of memory and Cecilia Ruiz’s poetic illustrated meditation on memory’s imperfections inspired by Borges, then revisit Kahlil Gibran, another Lebanese-American poet and philosopher of uncommon insight, on why artists make art.

Thanks, Jen

Central picture: Etel Adnan (Photograph by Simone Fattal)

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