Staring at the Ceiling With Michelangelo

click image for larger view

I was lying on the couch reading on my tablet on All Saints’ Day earlier this month and I read an almanac post saying that it was the day chosen by Pope Julius II back in 1512 to display Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. I thought “That’s a good topic for a post on Weekends in Paradelle.

I did a bit of checking on defining All Saints’ Day (AKA also known as All Hallows, Feast of All Saints, Hallowmas) which is celebrated on November first by the Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations in honor of all the saints, known and unknown.

I looked up Michelangelo Buonarroti because I recall hearing or reading somewhere that the story of him lying on his back to paint is largely a fictional creation. In this case, from the Hollywood version of history in the The Agony and the Ecstasy. I never read the the best-selling biographical novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone and it may have come from there before the film. I watched the film as a kid and was very impressed by the story of  those four years he spent completing the paintings that decorate the ceiling of the chapel.

But the other part of this post is that in starting to write this, WordPress reminded me when I created a link that I had already written about this last year! That’s disturbing to me.

These gaps in my memory are increasing lately. I wrote a poem on my daily poem site this past week and realized later that I had used the same title and a very similar experience for an earlier poem this year. Later, I discovered an even earlier version of the idea in a notebook from 6 years ago.

I did do some more research this time around on Michelangelo, and the memory of the film is new, so I can craft this post as being something different.

Michelangelo was 33 years old when he tried to point out to the pope that he was a sculptor, and not really a painter. Two of his best-known works, the Pietà and David, were sculpted before he turned thirty. The pope paid no attention and in the end art historians say that you can see his skills as a sculptor used to make the two-dimensional ceiling look like more a series of three-dimensional scenes. It was a technique that was relatively new at the time.

He worked on it from 1508 to 1512. He did work from a scaffold 60 feet above the floor, but spent much of that time standing. He covered about 10,000 square feet of surface. Every day, fresh plaster was laid over a part of the ceiling and Michelangelo had to finish painting before the plaster dried.

The German writer Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “We cannot know what a human being can achieve until we have seen [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel].”

A fuller view of the ceiling.
Click image for larger view because small views don’t do it justice.

The paintings are of scenes from the Old Testament, but many people only know the famous center section, “The Creation of Adam.” The chapel itself was built about 25 years earlier, and various Renaissance painters were commissioned to paint frescoes on the walls.

My aging memory and its lapses made me read more about the later years of Michelangelo’s life.  It was news to me that he turned to writing poetry.

His sexuality is somewhat in question but it seems that he would be described today as bi-sexual. His sexuality is apparent in his poetry.  He wrote over three hundred sonnets and madrigals. The longest sequence were written to Tommaso dei Cavalieri. He met Tommasso when he was 57 and Tommasso was 23 years old. Historians also point to his last sculptures as evidence of a focus during these later years on both the male figure and on the contrast of old age and youth.

The Tommasso sequence is the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another. It’s a bit surprising to me to realize that Shakespeare’s sonnets to the “fair youth” were written only 50 years after Michelangelo’s sonnets.

This led me to find a copy of  The Complete Poems of Michelangelo at the library.

In a poem to Cavalieri, he writes:

Nay, things that suffer death, quench not the fire
Of deathless spirits; nor eternity
Serves sordid Time, that withers all things rare.

And Cavalieri replied in a letter: “I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours.”

Cavalieri remained devoted to Michelangelo until his death.

His homoerotic poetry was something that later generations were uncomfortable with and it never really came into popular books and films about his life.  Michelangelo’s grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger, published the poems in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed to be feminine. The gender was restored to male in John Addington Symonds’ translation into English in 1893.  in 1547. Scholars still dispute whether this was a homosexual or paternal relationship with Tommasso.

Late in life, Michelangelo nurtured a great love for the poet and noble widow Vittoria Colonna, whom he met in Rome in 1536 or 1538 and who was in her late forties at the time. They wrote sonnets for each other and their friendship remained important to Michelangelo until her death.

Following a brief illness, Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564—just weeks before his 89th birthday—at his home in Rome. A nephew bore his body back to Florence, where he was revered by the public as the “father and master of all the arts,” and was laid to rest at the Basilica di Santa Croce—his chosen place of burial.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

The Statue of David, completed by Michelangelo in 1504, is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance.

Remember what happened when you were 3 years old?

Studies confirm that most adults can not remember anything that happened before the age of 3 and that it may be because infants don’t have the neural capabilities needed to retain an autobiographical memory. The new study shows we start forgetting our earliest memories around age 7, a phenomenon termed by Sigmund Freud “childhood amnesia.”

Scientists are pretty sure that our prefrontal cortex uses all our sensory input (eyes, ears, nose and mouth) to process experiences, sorts and tags the pieces and connects them by specific associations.  You see grandpa’s house, smell those grandpa smells, hear his voice and taste that cake that he always gives you.

Cue up that memory later – maybe when you see grandpa’s photo – and your brain searches related fragments and assembles them into the memory.

Of course, when you find that cake years later at a little bakery in Prague,  a new memory is connected to the old one. Bringing  up that old memory again refreshes those related bits and the connecting circuits become stronger.

I was reading today about some researchers in Canada that have demonstrated that some young children can remember events from even before age 2 — but those memories are fragile, with many vanishing by about age 10, according to a study in the journal Child Development this month.

I can’t remember anything clearly from before I attended school at age 5. My sons always maintained that after age 10, they couldn’t remember any early childhood memories except for ones that were triggered by looking at photos or videos. That was a revelation.

Their lives were so recorded by me – from the hospital birthing room on – that they had plenty of help with their memories. In fact, they maintain that they can’t really remember those moments and events. They remember the photo and the story that we have told them about it.  “Oh, this is you when you were three and we went to visit Grandpa in Florida.  Remember seeing the alligator in his backyard?”  He does remember. Well, maybe.

Baby me with my sister

The researchers asked children (ages 4-13) to describe their three earliest memories. Then they repeated the exercise two years later with the same children.

Generally, the youngest children (50 aged 4 to 6) were able to remember in the first interview events from when they were barely 2 years old. Their parents verified the events.

But 2 years later, only 5 kids recalled the same earliest memory. The older kids (1o – 13 at the first interview) mentioned the same earliest memory when they were interviewed two years later. Does that mean the older kids memories were better?

Probably not. The memories that remained of those early years when they were 10 were “crystallized” and so were retained.

There are several related theories.  Maybe storing and retrieving memories might require language skills that don’t develop until age 3 or 4.  Maybe children can recall fragments of their early life, but they can’t true autobiographical memories because they don’t have a firm concept of “self” until they are a few years older.

There definitely appears to be different kinds of memories, and they are stored in different place (neural circuits).

The generic memories (your childhood street, the backyard) are background the sets of a movie.  Then you have semantic memories for facts and other information.  Finally, you have episodic memory for the events that occurred.

So why are those earliest memories so weak or unreliable?  The fragments are there. But the neural traces are weak.

Lesson: The memories we revisit as we get older lay down stronger traces.

Caveat: The brain keeps reassembling the fragments and attaching them to new ones, so they do get distorted.

So, unfortunately, most of us will suffer from “infantile amnesia” – the inability to recall those earliest memories.

Read the article on that got me started on this.

illustration via WSJ
Click for larger illustration


Jeff looking for signs

Most people would not see any connection between the newly released film Hope Springs with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, and a film from earlier this year called Jeff, Who Lives at Home. I saw the former in the theater last week and watched the latter on DVD a few days ago. Very different films. I liked both of them a lot.

Hope Springs is about a couple that after 31 years together go to Great Hope Springs, Maine to work with a famous therapist to try to rediscover the reasons why they married so long ago.

In the other film, Jason Segel plays Jeff who is simply looking for meaning in his life. He is a stoner slacker who has been pretty much written off by his brother and mother, but he knows that signs are leading him towards meaning.

The connections are signs.

Jeff was powerfully influenced by the film Signs. That’s a film that focuses,in  B-movie thriller style, on an alien-invasion and was directed by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable).

The film tracks a series of signs and portents that come to a  family in Pennsylvania who wake up one morning to find a 500-foot crop circle in their backyard. The news tells them that crop circles are being found all over the world.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home was directed by the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, who have directed some rather eccentric and funny films like The Puffy Chair, Baghead and Cyrus.  Jeff, Who Lives at Home  is more of a major studio, major names film, but it is still an odd one in all the best ways.

Kay and Arnold have been married for 31 years. Jeff has been on the planet for 30 years. They are both searching for answers because they can see the signs.

The couple has a therapist as a guide. Jeff has only himself to interpret the signs. He reminds me of the father in the TV show Touch that I wrote about earlier who is trying to find the red thread that his son sees.

Everything is connected. Everything has a purpose.

Jeff is living in his mom’s Baton Rouge basement. He watches TV, smokes pot, eats junk food and does not go out into the world. One critic said that Jeff,  in his soul, is a “character out of Dostoevsky – a holy fool.” He believes that “random” events (a television infomercial, a wrong number, a stranger on a bus) are not random. There are no accidents in the universe.

More than ten years ago, I read the book There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives by Robert H. Hopcke, who is a Jungian marriage and family psychotherapist. (A therapist, like in Hope Springs. Coincidence? Of course not.)

The book explores the nature and role of synchronicity.  It was Carl Jung who coined the term “synchronicity” to describe those odd “coincidences” and events that seem to tell us something, teach us and sometimes turn our lives around. They make life a  grand, mysterious story.

From the book’s promtion: “A woman is set up on a blind date with the same man twice, years apart, on two different coasts. A singer’s career changes direction when she walks into the wrong audition. A husband gives his wife an unexpected gift—after she repeatedly dreams about that very same item.”

But how do you identify these coincidences as signs and uncover their significance so that they turn our lives towards greater meaning?

Some of the stories in the book – a woman is set up on a blind date with the same man twice, years apart, on two different coasts; a singer’s career changes direction when she walks into the wrong audition; a man gives his wife an unexpected gift, after she repeatedly dreams about that very same item – will trigger memories of your own synchronicities.

One of Jung’s favorite quotes on synchronicity was from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, in which the White Queen says to Alice:

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.’
‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.
‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’
‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first–‘
‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’
‘–but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’
‘I’m sure MINE only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’
‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

What We Leave Behind, What We Bring With Us

Me on my fifth birthday.
I share the day with Mickey Mantle.

I have been thinking this week about what we leave behind and what we try to bring with us. I scribbled notes on a number of things that have been running through my mind during the week, and I realized that although they are different kinds of things, there was a theme running through them

I picked up Homesickness: An American History by Susan Matt in the library because of the title. Did you ever think about homesickness having a history?  This is American history, so it goes back to those colonists in Jamestown who were homesick for England. All those immigrants who came to America – probably your ancestors as well as mine – were homesick for some things from their homeland. Soldiers away at war.  College students away from home.

Is it nostalgia? Is it a factor of time? Is it true that “you can’t go home again?”

Even if you took every “thing” with you, what is it that you leave behind that causes homesickness?

The term homesick is in origin a loan translation of nostalgia, a learned term coined in Baroque period medicine. The Oxford English Dictionary describes homesickness as a feeling one has when missing home. Feelings of longing are often accompanied by anxiety and depression.

I tried not to leave my mother’s flowers behind when she moved out of my childhood home. I dug up irises, peonies, mountain pinks, roses, mints and herbs, lilies of the valley, and others and took them to my own home. I still play the annuals she planted, especially pansies with their face and snapdragons that I would squeeze so they would open their “jaws.”

As the perennials come back and bloom each year they carry me briefly back home. They remind me of my mother. My mom died last September, so when her flowers came back this past spring, it was a nice reminder.

But sometimes I look at those plants and what I feel is more of a sadness.  Can I call the melancholy I felt “homesickness?”

Here’s a poem by Debra Wierenga that I read this past week that reminded me of those flowers.

Chiller Pansies

Your pansies died again today.
All June I’ve watched them scorch and fall
by noon, their faces folding down
to tissue-paper triangles.
I bring them back with water, words,
a pinch, but they are sick to death
of resurrection. You planted them
last fall, these “Chillers” guaranteed
to come again in spring. They returned
in April—you did not. You who said
pick all you want, it just makes more!
one day in 1963,
and I, a daughter raised on love
and miracles, believed it.

The title for this post makes me think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book that has become a modern classic. It is about war and also about memory. It is about the physical objects a group of American soldiers in Vietnam carried with them and also the memories that the soldiers carried during the war. Are they homesick? Yes. Was it what they left behind? Yes. Does what they took along with them help? Yes, but it doesn’t eliminate the longing. It might even make it more so.

Take the story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who tried to carry his love for Martha with him. That girl from his college in New Jersey isn’t really his girlfriend. They had one date and it went nowhere. Jimmy carries her letters in his pack and her good-luck pebble in his mouth. She is an English major who writes letters full of poetry quotes that are far away from the war. Like many of us, his memories are connected to photographs, which do bring something, but we leave more behind.

Photographs are the focus of another book that I read about this past week. The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen will be published in September. Paglen thinks that the communications satellites that circle Earth and carry TV signals, our phone calls and our credit card transactions experience are also going to drift around Earth carrying things from our time, and they will outlast anything humans have made.

Paglen put together a collection of 100 images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc that will be sent into orbit on the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future. It’s a case of leaving things behind for future generations.

The book is not just the images but also “questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.” Pretty ambitious.

And then we have our own photo albums, journals, diaries, and such. We have blogs. I put words down online in order to carry them forward. Most of my experiences, thoughts, and memories are left behind. Many of them will disappear. Some were not good memories, so I don’t mind losing them. Still, the picture is incomplete.

My sons, now in their late 20s, always tell me that their “memories” of most of their early childhood are strongly tied to photographs and especially to videos I took at the time. They maintain that they are not even sure they actually remember some events; they only remember the images and what we have told them about that event.

Nostalgia means a sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. It is a Greek compound word, consisting of nóstos, meaning “homecoming”, a Homeric word, and álgos, meaning “pain or ache”.

It was one seen as a medical condition, a form of melancholy, and figured importantly in Romanticism. In common usage, nostalgia seems to be the interest we have in past eras and their personalities and events.

Time has a way of turning the past into the “good old days” and it may take only an image, sound, or connection to our childhood to fire that part of our brain.

Editing Memories

This weekend, I watched the wonderfully odd film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind again.  In the film’s world, memories can be erased. A guy decides to have the memories of his ex-girlfriend erased after he discovers that she’s had him erased from her memory.

Sounds like sci-fi, but it’s a love story. He changes his mind halfway through the procedure and fights to hold on to their experiences together. The screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman) and the director (Michel Gondry) mix the love story and memory games very well. And it has a great cast. A restrained Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson.

But this isn’t a film review.

Neurons firing

Serendipity or synchronicity also had me stumble upon an article this weekend from 2009 in The New York Times about some real brain researchers who are working on editing memory.

Think about it. If science could erase certain memories and allow you to selectively forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, or even a bad habit, would you want it done?

How could we not be tempted to erase a severely painful memory.

But could there be any guarantee that the erased memory wouldn’t be needed for other memories that were somehow related?  What if you could erase an addiction from the mind and get a fresh start? Would that tempt us to experiment more freely?

Those researchers found good results with just a single dose of an experimental drug that blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. So far, the research has been done only on animals, but they expect that it is likely to work almost identically in people.

I think that the brain and its complex connections may never be understood. How I can hold  poems, emotional events, song lyrics from 30 years ago, pieces of conversations, names of people from childhood is a mystery.  Equally mysterious is how I can forget something from yesterday or why I went into the basement or the name of someone I see every day.

Back in 1904, the German scholar Richard Semon proposed the engram as an explanation. An engram is a hypothetical means by which memory traces are stored as biophysical or biochemical changes in the brain in response to external stimuli.

It’s a neural network, a fragment of memory. One analogy is to say it is like a hologram. Brain cells activated by an experience are joined in a network with some adding details, sights, sounds, smells. Our brain deepens the memory by making thicker and more efficient connections between these particular cells.

The science gets too much for me, and so I end up thinking about the artists and writers who play with memory. Editing is something writers know well. The editing of memories might be even closer to film editing where the final cut has truly forgotten what was removed. In digital editing, you can quite literally delete the data.

Certainly, memory editing raises some big ethical issues. We could easily imagine it being misused to erase or block memories of things like crimes committed or criminal acts observed. Don’t a lot of bad, traumatic memories actually help to create our moral conscience?

The researchers admit that there probably isn’t going to be just one memory molecule. Learning and the process of memory storage and retrieval is a lot more complicated.

Read More
Searching For Memory: The Brain, The Mind, And The Past

Sleep On It

Researchers have thought since te early 1800s that sleep plays an important role in learning and memory. In the last decade, neuroscientists have actually found evidence that memory requires sleep.

So much for the all night study session being helpful. But, the idea of “sleeping on it” as a way to process your thoughts might be correct.

The generally accepted theory these days is that during deep sleep your brain replays certain experiences from the day. That review makes the memory stronger.

Names, faces, numbers and other factual information goes through “memory consolidation” only during deep sleep. Deep sleep is when you are not dreaming.

During the dream or REM – rapid eye movement – sleep is the time when we consolidate emotional memories and motor skills, such as dancing or playing an instrument.

Recently, in the journal Science, there was a report on a study done by neuroscientists at Northwestern University. It was a small study to try to determine whether specific sounds played during sleep would boost the memory of information learned while awake.

Participants were told to memorize the correct location of 50 images on a computer monitor that were shown with a related sound. A picture of a cat and a meow, a bell and a ringing sound.

Then they were allowed to sleep. When an electroencephalogram (EEG) told the  investigators that the subjects had entered deep sleep, they started quietly playing 25 of the sounds.

They didn’t remember the sounds played while they were asleep, but they did  better at remembering the correct locations of the 25 objects whose related sounds had been played during sleep than the other 25.

Did the sounds get into their sleeping brains and help their memories?

Years ago, I tried listening to audio tapes while I was sleeping. Sleep learning was popular as a way to “subliminally” learn thing (like a new language) or change your behavior (quit smoking).  It didn’t work for me.

When I was an undergraduate, I did a few overnight sleep studies and back then they were trying to influence dreams using sounds and odors.

There are researchers who aren’t convinced about memory consolidation being the purpose of sleep. They see sleep as the time we rest the neurons that have been firing all day long.

One thing that they agree upon is that getting too little sleep is bad for memory.  Sleep before learning is equally important. It prepares your brain for new memory formation the next day.