The Memory Police & Other Dangerous Works of Pandemic Art

Posted by on Mar 12, 2021 in Behind the Artwork, Essays | No Comments

Are we losing our memories because of the internet? I don’t know. I’m more worried about losing my ability to genuinely connect with the people, objects, animals and places I actually experience. Yoko Ogawa’s Memory Police is a fantastic allegory that skirts mild horror—a dangerous book to read during a pandemic. In 1994, the internet had yet to explode, but I don’t see it as an apocalyptic forecast of our future. Ogawa was heavily influenced by the Diary of Ann Frank. How can a human continue to grow, flourish and love if it is confined? That is the central question of the novel. We have had ways to imprison our spirits since Plato’s Cave, so regardless of whether our identities are now being virtually mined for profit, we’ve always had to worry.

Burn Piles in Winter, watercolor and ink on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2021.

I don’t love this book, but I do love that Ogawa champions artists and writers. Collectively we are the gatekeepers of something precious. With spare details she catalogs the profound loss of our ability to feel, remember, touch and essentially experience life. R, the narrator’s editor, and the narrator’s parents tether her to lived experience. These are the people who have shaped her heart, and that is what is slowly being attacked throughout the novel.

“A heart has no shape, no limits. That’s why you put almost any kind of thing in it, why it can hold so much. It’s much like your memory in that sense.”

“That’s why I am jealous of your heart, one that offers some resistance, that is tanlalizingly transparent, yet not, that seems to change as the light shines on it at different angles.”

Cow Slip Prisms, watercolor and gouache on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2021

When I completed reading The Memory Police I had an anxiety attack. Lived experience is gradually dismembered from the periphery to the very core of each inhabitant on the island. They do nothing to stop it. What truly terrified me, however, is the realization that one person, maybe two, on this earth have truly understood what is in my heart and how it works. When the people who love and shape our hearts are gone, who will keep track of us but the internet? I was only able to ease my mind when I placed Ogawa’s writing in the context of other writers, and my painting.

The Blue Feet of Light, watercolor on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2021

I have a habit of reading several things at once, so the following are a lovely and strange coincidence. In Persuasion by Jane Austen, Anne Elliot and her friend Captain Harville debate who forgets loved ones quicker, men or women. For Anne, forgetting her true love, Frederick Wentworth, was made more impossible by the general restrictions placed upon a 19th century woman. “We certainly do not forget you, as soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.” In the absence of freedom, feelings become echoes, reinforced and amplified by the laser focus of imprisonment. By Austen’s account it would seem that the disappearance of all that we love in nature, our created environments and our network of family and friends would intensify the hold on our hearts. This is not necessarily because of memory’s strength upon our emotions, but because with nothing else to reflect our inner being we necessarily hold onto the last, most intense experience.

Call and Response, watercolor, gouache & ink on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2021

In The Memory Police Ogawa’s female narrator is not imprisoned, and she is the one who brings the world to her protected lover in hiding. That world, however, is shrinking. R is heroic for his ability to weave connection from diminishing spare parts, and other paltry ingredients like the ones scraped together by the narrator for the old ferry-man’s birthday. R is a magician of sensory experience. With a music box he impresses his love and gratitude upon his caregivers. The narrator and the old man may no longer understand music, but by giving them the ritual of winding the key and performing the rite of making sounds, R is binding them to the joy of their shared feast. He is re-inscribing the significance of lived experience.

Trashed, by Mia Hopkins, is a 21-st century romance novel. Eddie Rosas, aka Trouble, has returned from five years in prison for grand theft auto and other crimes. His new love, Carmen, is from the same blighted neighborhood in East LA, but she has gone to culinary school as a way out of poverty. Carmen’s improvised meal brings two brothers and their future together. The food is delicious, but it is the remembered horror of the food in solitary confinement that exalts the simple dinner for Eddie. “When your world is tasteless, your mind tries to recreate flavors. Smells. It’s a way to stay alive… What you made tonight was the meal of my dreams… I know that you’ve spent years of your life in the kitchen. For you, it’s just work. But don’t forget that it’s special… It’s the ability to give happiness… To give pleasure.”

Cotton Candy Sky, watercolor on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2021

In Ogawa’s book, the narrator, R and the old ferry-man have been deprived of their loved ones. They are emotionally ship wrecked on the island with each other. With the mission of saving R from the memory police they forge new bonds within their improvised family. Their simple efforts to maintain a life in spite of the gradual deterioration of engineered cruelty saves them—at least for a little while. By giving each other simple pleasures, these three lonely humans make what happiness they can. The influence of Ann Frank is most distinct in these small gestures that resonate so profoundly—a cake the size of hand, a fresh fish poached in sake, an old music box, the discovery of ordinary objects hidden in sculptures, and the physical act of holding another human together. This does not, however, blunt the horror of the ending.

The narrator, and most people on the island, lose their battle with the memory police, but R remains intact. He’s hoping he can keep the narrator alive by enacting sensory experiences for her. They will eventually be separated.

“But I won’t let you go.”

“And I don’t want to go. I want to stay with you, but that won’t be possible. Your heart and mine are being pulled apart to such different, distant places. Yours is overflowing with warmth and life and sounds and smells, but mine is growing cold and hard at a terrifying pace. At some point it will break into a thousand pieces, shards of ice that will dissolve.”

Where Were We March 14, 2020? watercolor on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2021

As if she were thrown out of an airlock into nothingness, the narrator ceases to exist. This brutal ending brings to mind the multimedia experimental novel by Jon Bois’ entitled 17776. It’s a coded calendrical transcript of infinite empty days telescoped across the universe, if not time. Every so often the emptiness is punctuated by cryptic messages. The initial exchanges are merely proof that sentient entities are seeking confirmation of the other’s existence. Over what could be millennia or light years, the messages become declarations of a sort of love. Passion is not promised, only the certainty that they will keep tapping their code indefinitely. With the enthusiasm of a Nicholas Sparks fan, I kept reading “What football will look like in the future”. My only reward was confirmation that love does not outlast telomeres, no matter the odds. Humans in 17776 may have figured out how to live forever, but what about love?

I use to believe that I shed constellations that my true love would glean. I would gather theirs as well. Our eventual life together would project them on the screens of our daily existence. Our children would grow strong and lucky because of their origin and immersion in the compassionate intelligence of their parents’ love story. If we charted and expressed our course correctly, we would be proven eternally lovable—our social media accounts maintained long after our ashes settle.

But no one person indefinitely keeps track of any other one person. Humans don’t possess the biological or metaphysical bandwidth for that kind of astral gymnastics. We can’t even agree on how to read real constellations. The imaginative leap and stamina required to fully see another, let alone love them beyond both deaths is fantasy.

Star Spangled Bloodlines, watercolor and ink on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2020-21

What I do possess, however, are motley indelible details of love past and present. I traced the eyebrows of my first love with my fingertips over and over again on one of those early dark nights. We were young and stretched out on the carpeted basement floor. There are scraps I keep from other contenders. The touch of a hand on a tennis court. The sweep of two riding away on a bike for one. The smell of a freshly laundered white t-shirt. The tentative parting kiss held too long over the dining table. The quiet hi under a blue tent. The motorcycle and moonflower. The handshake introduction and smile at market. The cappuccino and graham cracker bears. The dance in the barn and the gym. The tuck of my hair behind my ear. The sprig of freesia bought upon request. The slender clavicle of strong shoulders. The teaching of how to spoon. If the memory police win, these would all disappear.

The Danger Within, watercolor on paper, by Nancy Polo, 2020.

The current keeper of my heart is my husband, and I am his. The quarantine has made a kind of game of our mutual enterprise. Our prize are the meals, the dirty dishes, the movies and shows, the chores, the playlists, the zoom book club, the arguments, the endless speculations on children, retirement and other terminal conditions. COVID 19 has given us a routine. I’ve been able to keep my job and my husband is able to telework. The lack of commute has allowed him to pursue cooking for our family. He appreciates that I’m tired of food and people when I get home, so he cleans the house on Sunday. We take long walks most days. We don’t do Valentines cards or any cards, and there’s no romantic getaways for now. If our incredible luck continues, there are forty or so more years left. He says I’ll be a widow for eighteen of them—a badge of honor, a medal of what I lost. It’s not poetry or dancing that keeps us together. Is it alchemy or algorithms? By 17776 I’m sure there’ll be an answer on the internet.

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