The Persistence of Memory

What’s the most beautiful of all the things given by God is this body of Hélène Lagonelle’s.

Hélène Lagonelle’s body is heavy, innocent still, her skin’s as soft as that of certain fruits, you almost can’t grasp her, she’s almost illusory, it’s too much. She makes you want to kill her, she conjures up a marvelous dream of putting her to death with your own hands. 

—Marguerite Duras, The Lover

Anatomies, Man Ray, 1929.

How is it that violence is also beauty?

What undergirds the aesthetics of violence: an aesthetic to be found and celebrated in photography, fashion, film (as well as everywhere else)?

To what do we ascribe the desire to mark, interrupt, violate those whose beauty we find, as Duras does above “too much?”

Is it that same mythologized impulse that caused jealous women to knife cut the faces of the women whom their lovers betrayed them with, or the Old Testament god himself turning Lots’s wife into a pillar of salt as she glanced back at her burning city?

And does the object of violence need beauty for violence to be bestowed upon it? Is violence a state of mind for the bearer of it, or is it just something that befalls one, comes with the territory; that is: the territory of being female?

I was twenty-four years old when real violence descended on me, the kind I had the thought during which: “I could die here. Right now.”

The details don’t matter much. Or: they do, but they are not your details. They belong to me. The person that snapped on me that day had been in the process of becoming undone for weeks, and I was too young or stupid or both to recognize the increasing dangerous pitch. It was late June in the south. An apartment with no air conditioning. I was in the process of folding laundry and then a moment later I was pinned on a couch, a man’s hands around my neck. Squeezing hard. I started to black out; he released his grip for a moment before I lost consciousness. Somehow I got out of the room I was trapped in, and then out of the house. Running down terraced, residential streets in the middle of the day, hoping to find a sane-looking neighbor that could let me in to use their phone.

It was just that one time, but the physical body has a memory, as does the emotional one.

I went to a healer the day after I had been attacked, and after a long reiki session she told me that I needed to come back in a week, no charge. My energy was better than before, she said, but still “very out-of-whack.” That sounded about right. I felt out of whack, whatever “whack” represents or is. There had been no visible marks on me when I visited her that afternoon, but later that evening I watched in quiet horror as a red wave encircled and crawled up and around my neck as well as across my collarbone. Unmistakable red shadows of everywhere I had been held and gripped by him. The markings stayed for a week. A week in ninety degree heat in the south where there was no chance of disguising or hiding such a fact. Then they faded. A year later to the day, the marks returned, exactly as before, and again remained a week. If it hadn’t happened to me and you told me that it had happened this way to you, I probably would not believe you. But it did and I learned something then. The body, I understood, definitely has a memory.

As does the mind, conscious or otherwise. I would dream of this event, or of him, or of every possible and horrible permutation or periphery of circumstance, nearly everyday in the month of June for ten years. Most years the dreams had a theme: friends didn’t believe me. Or worse, they did and told me to just get over it. Or: I did not leave after the attack and instead stayed with him. Other times he would just appear in the dream where ever I was, hovering menacingly on the outskirts of the main plot. Silly subconscious: whenever and where ever he appears, he IS the plot of the dream. A short villain with a goatee and a power complex. One I am grateful to be rid of. At least I am mostly rid of it.

Anatomies, Man Ray, 1929

June is a month of uncomfortable anniversaries. June is the month I married this beast of a person; June is also the month he tried to kill me. I had a dream about him last night. He took up too much space in it, too much of the plotline. I awoke thinking about necks. Photographs by Man Ray of his lover Lee Miller, a series where he’d excise her exquisite neck from the rest of her body, treat it in the Surrealist style, and then title the series “Anatomies.” Is an excision itself grounds for violent practices in art? Arguably not, but then again when Lee Miller left him a few years after the “Anatomies” series were taken, he did create the ready-made “Object to Be Destroyed,” with the following instructions:

Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.

Object to Be Destroyed, Man Ray, 1932

The eye pictured in the ready-made is Lee Miller’s. So you tell me.

I thought too, of the Duras quote above, from her famous quasi-fictional, quasi-autobiographical novel The Lover. I was reading a lot of Duras in my early twenties, and I’ve come back around to revisiting her as of late. The passage about Hélène Lagonelle has been scored into my mind since I first came across it more than twenty years ago.

Lastly, I thought about my own neck. About an image of it that did not exist yet.

The neck is the jugular. It is what the head hangs on, and also that on which one is hung by. The neck connects the lower and upper chakras of the body, literally the body to the mind. The neck is what we adorn with jewelry, that we protect in cold weather with turtlenecks and scarves. There are seven bones in the neck, all cervical vertebrae. The uppermost bone, the C1, is also known as the “Atlas” bone. Like the titan who held the world on its shoulders, the Atlas bone supports the skull, the spinal cord, arteries and is the attachment point for many muscles in the neck. Notably, it is also the thinnest and most delicate bone in the entirety of the neck. A last bone, the hyoid, sometimes classified as a neck bone and at other times as a bone related to the skull that happens to exist in the neck, is the Adam’s Apple, a U-shaped floating bone located just under the chin. It is the only bone not connected to another bone in the body. The hyoid is also the bone that is most often broken in strangulation victims. It is the piece of me that was not broken on that hot afternoon in late June.

Neck: Hyoid Intact, Stacy Platt, 2017

Unlike Man Ray’s excised necks of Lee Miller, my neck is still very much attached to the rest of me. It holds a head on it that carries memories like these within it, as well as much better memories since then, and a body that has moved past that place, that time, that person I was and that he forever remains, existing somewhere both beyond and between us both. Especially in the dreamtime during the month of June.