“The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.”
Critic and novelist John Berger wrote those words more than three decades ago for a groundbreaking BBC series on art. I have quoted them ever since, never surfacing them in my awareness without the sensation of having learned something anew.
Yesterday it was my turn to choose the discussion topic in my wonderful women artists’ group, so in keeping with the season, I chose remembrance. “Would you like to be remembered as an artist?” I asked myself and my companions. “And if so, how?”
I discovered that I want very much to be remembered. It may be trite to say so, but since I don’t have children, I am aware that my genetic inheritance stops right here at the boundary of my own skin. Writing is my legacy, my message to the future. I’m not sure the why of this feeling is important. Its truth simply stands: it gives me pleasure to imagine being read after I am dead and gone.
But read for what? I have my favorite authors, the ones whose books I reread. I may know something of their lives; I may have a sense of their oeuvre in its wholeness, a specific shape and texture uniquely each artist’s. But my favorites don’t necessarily come to mind when I search my own memory for landmarks and milestones. Instead, I find a certain type of expression: dense with meaning, brief, pithy, economical as a snapshot, like the quote from John Berger that begins this essay.
Certain writings fitting this description have become part of my personal life-operating system. I quote them again and again—often the very same snippets by the same writers and thinkers—as sturdy foundation stones for observations and arguments their authors are unlikely to have anticipated (or even, perhaps, to embrace). Exploring the landscape of my memory during yesterday’s discussion, I identified a dozen of these building blocks to inspect. I discovered something surprising. In no case has it been beauty of expression that has cemented my attachment to a particular arrangement of words and phrases, even though many are beautifully expressed. Inevitably, what has hooked me is the thought itself: the arrowlike precision of an insight, the mind-rattling energy of an observation. They echo in my head with the persistent ring of truth.
Consider the following quotation from Francis Jeanson, a radical French philosopher, ally of Sartre, advocate of the Algerian struggle for independence from France (he was jailed for his activities in support of the FLN), participant in European cultural policy debates. I have quoted it many times. Each time, it blows me away as the strongest and finest possible expression of cultural democracy, the aims of which Jeanson defines as follows:
…to arrange things in such a way that culture becomes today for everybody what culture was for a small number of privileged people at every stage of history where it succeeded in reinventing for the benefit of the living the legacy inherited from the dead; that is to say, each time it was able to assist in bringing about a deeper sense of reality and closer bonds of communication.
In all that I have read and written about cultural politics, I have never found anything as elegantly satisfying as this idea, that the highest expression of democracy in culture is the absolute leveling of barriers to knowledge and agency, so that privilege no longer pertains.
It delights me to imagine that some years from now (may they be many), when the atoms that struck up a temporary alliance in the form of my body have returned to the earth like a puff of dandelion seed, when they are part of each in-breath for countless as-yet unborn strangers in every part of the world, someone will give a home in her head or his heart to a paragraph of mine. I like to imagine it will lodge there like a tiny beacon, broadcasting all the favorite programs of the Arlene channel: you can bring all you are to everything you see, everything you do; you can lift up even the most mundane acts with your intentions; you can see further, connect more deeply, heal more fully than you know; and these things are true despite all the voices telling you to shrink and be silent.
That is how I want to be remembered.