The Performance of Memory

Is memory an impediment or is it a catalyst for authentic creativity?




As summer reaches its zenith and begins its long deliquescence into autumn, I often associate that unstable seasonal transition with memory. As the season ripens into the fullness of Shakta energy with Navaratri and random never repeated Halloween toys that begin to appear on the shelves immediately after the “back to school” supplies are put up, the reflexive power or vimarsha seems to me to mature and begin to predominate, and the unique personal ghosts of memory that perform in the inner theatre of the mind and senses, tend to be triggered by the random external fetishes of objects.


While memory is a key factor for the development and success of most intellectual, critical, analytical and technical work and productivity, I find it a particularly fascinating subject in and of itself, but also of its role in creative work. Triggered in part by the necessity to return to live in the house and the neighborhood where I grew up to help take care of my father who is ironically gradually losing his faculty of memory due to Alzheimer’s, it is also the environment of my creative and spiritual development where I had most of my original significant creative and spiritual experiences and interests that have continued to serve as background inspiration for my adult life and it has provided a unique opportunity to reexamine the possible causes of those experiences.

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The text and the teachings of the Spanda Karikas, and important early school of Trika Shaivism, indirectly involve memory in its focus on the role of mental and psychological fluctuations and the role that language plays in the escalation of those fluctuations into binding or liberating states for the Spanda yogi. Ksemaraja, a student of Abhinavagupta and a key commentator of the Karikas, claims that all the practices in the Spanda Karikas belong to the “Shaktopaya”  or the “empowered means” of practice where consciousness is focused inwards and reflexively to intensely observe the power inherent in all mental, emotional and perceptual processes and it utilizes the very intense disruptive states of desire and strong emotions as primary points of practice embodying the tantric strategy of “rising by that which makes you fall” in an inversion of traditional yogic practice and focus in a non-dualistic context.


Memory is implied in these practices in that it is frequently involved as the cause of the experience of intense emotional states and desire that invade the unwary subject and that replay perceptual and linguistic data in ways much like certain types of ghosts that are said to reenact the performance of certain actions and scenarios. Dr. Mark Dyczkowski points out in his groundbreaking works on the Spanda tradition, that these intense emotional state that include memory, initially appear in the mind of the subject without much if any corresponding conceptual accompaniment and it is key for the yogi to use these experiences for yogic purposes before conceptual interaction, overlay or identification happens. He also emphasizes that the Shatopaya means emphasized in the Spanda tradition ultimately seek to “purify and burn through the bondage and limiting and powerless sense of isolation that is caused by the force and functions of language and conceptualization and to recognize these very forces as the fullness and play of the shakti of the Divine of as Spanda itself”.  Memory in the Spanda tradition is thus seen as a potential impediment to the yogi’s intuitive insight (pratibha) into his own unlimited original Spanda nature and if not skillfully utilized in practice, it can veil and further bind the yogi in the implicit self-limiting dualistic concepts inherent in the nature of language and limited identities.

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While memory plays an essential role in the archetypal devices of narrative in the development of world literature, no writer in my mind has ever specifically focused their full attention and artistic concerns on the effects of remembering and identity while creating or writing except the enigmatic sibylline self-made theologian of her own non-religious religion of creativity and modernism, Gertrude Stein.


In her late essay What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them, she writes

“the thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation. That is what makes school”.


 Gertrude Stein


While this self-imposed mystical ascetic praxis of creativity (similar to the self-imposed mystic forgetfulness outlined in the Mystical Theology of the Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite) may appear arbitrary, it is interesting to compare it to the assertions of the 12th & 13th verses of the first section of the Spanda Karikas that state that the universal Spanda principle that creates and sustains the universe and that fuels the inner energies and mental powers of the individual cannot be known as an object of memory, but only in the moment as a recognition of the Rememberer itself.


Identity itself is keenly involved in memory and is an impediment to creativity as it happens in the moment and what happens when memory is engaged or resorted to in the creative process is that the resulting work, according to Stein becomes “school” full of the artificial self-consciousness of identity and the gamut of reconstructive, imitative intrusions into the creative process replete with strategic machinations of self interest and manipulation of conceptual thought that ultimately produces very little innovation, originality or work that is challenging or even interesting in attempting to pander or second guess what the audience wants or what is considered “popular”. You could also compare this to the current- day market strategy approach to creativity.  Stein’s distrust of memory and identity in the creative process while echoed in the unique mental yoga of the Spanda school of Trika Shaivism is also echoed in nearly all traditions of religious monastic life where the worldly life replete with its accumulations of personal memories is stripped of the neophyte both symbolically by dress and in practice by their separation from the contingencies and associations of their past life and is reformed along with a new identity and a new name.


This religious reformation of the person is also reflected in the mental and spiritual practices of meditation and contemplation which in Indic-based spiritual traditions has primarily been the refocusing of the mind and awareness to an intense open quiescent reflexivity onto the actual contents and movements of consciousness in the present, away from its usual distracted restless movements to exteriority or to the continuously replayed memories and reactions to past experiences.


It is underemphasized that complex meditative traditions also developed in the West through Catholic monastic traditions and through medieval reform movements that spread even to the laity through such popular devotional tracts such as The Cloud of Unknowing. It is interesting to note that the rather Zen-like devotional practices of “mental prayer”, which have now all but disappeared from the Catholic Church, which emphasize transcending “created things” and suspending discursive thought and imagery in prayerful contemplative practice can all trace their roots to writings that were adopted through a case of a series of mistaken identities that was only later uncovered in the 15th & 16th centuries, thus the “Pseudo” in Pseudo Dionysius whose texts that may have had Gnostic influence and certainly Neo-Platonic, were given historical and doctrinal authority due to the unknown author’s misrepresentation of himself as a convert of St. Paul, and of the further confusion of the mysterious author with the St. Denys the namesake saint of the monastery near Paris to which a translation of his works had been given by a Byzantine emperor.


Nevertheless, the negative theology of the Mystical Theology of the Pseudo Dionysius profoundly affected both the theological definitions and also the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer and experience through the writings of many of the well known medieval Scholastic figures of the Catholic Church. His influence is also adopted by many reform minded individuals by the late Middle Ages such as Jean Gerson and many authors of devotional tracts who ultimately sought to reform the church from within through the wide adoption of simple and affective contemplative practices. By the 15 & 16th centuries in Spain in particular, these Pseudo Dionysian practices reached a particularly fertile environment which ultimately led to both the Council of Trent to “distinguish between false and genuine mysticism” as well as to the flowering of the Golden Age of Spanish Mystics such as Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.


The reform-minded Franciscans of Spain in this period, influenced by the writings of St. Bonaventure and his own commentary on Pseudo Dionysius,  became the laboratory for these rather yogic contemplative practices and that reached fruition in Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet that may have been structured qabalistically, which resound in many ways with the spiritual practices of both the Siva Sutras and the Spanda Karikas that promote a simple yet interiorized approach that developed into an entire school or style of spirituality that was frequently self-described as a “shortcut” to spiritual perfection much like many Indian tantric developments including the Spanda school, and that dealt primarily with a prayerful suspension of memory, images and discursive thought in order to “re-collect” all of one’s mental energies within the heart in a simple open naked awareness which would be completely consistent with the shaktopaya method of the Spanda tradition. This was done arguably as part of a greater reaction against superfluous ceremony, ritual and religious formula that was devoid of devotion or spiritual signifigance.  This practice was called “recogimiento” and translates as recollection which connotes a literal meaning of the English word to “re-collect” rather than the actual meaning of the word, to remember. The Spanish language today still preserves this concept in the common usage of the word recogimiento, which retains the original connotations of its namesake contemplative practice – to detach oneself from outer things, to meditatively calm oneself and also to abstract oneself from the particular.


  St. Bonaventure


Gertrude Stein believed that aside from America, Spain was destined to be the authentic discoverer of artistic abstraction through its artists, whether or not they were expatriates, because of their unique national character of being “abstract and cruel” and because of their abstract relation to their land demonstrated by their characteristically abstract tendency to build villages in complete disregard for the natural terrain by simply cutting into the land.


Although many writers have made comparisons, such as Honore de Balzac, and have drawn inspiration from the ascetic rigors of the religious monastic life to the disciplined introspection of the writer’s life and to the contemplative aspects of the composition process, Gertrude Stein is the one writer of any period who literally self-styled her daily practice of her chosen occupation almost exclusively on religious contemplative and mystical practice and experience calling her nightly writing till dawn on her Making of Americans her “daily miracle” as well as her honoring of the experience while writing instead of elaborate control or preparation, to leave opportunity for the astonishment of recognizing that the perfect words have come to you almost by themselves which she terms almost is terms of religious experience as “The Moment of Recognition”.


Stein created her own vocabulary for describing her aims and practices as an experimental writer that were modeled on Catholic religious and mystical terminologies yet stripped of any religious doctrinal content or reference. She became interested in saints as subject matter and as a synonym for genius in her own non-religious theology of creativity and as a symbol for the individual who made their lives their “masterpiece” of inspired creativity who transcended their own ego and identity and limiting contingencies and have united with the infinite in their state of “being doing nothing”. This reached a height in her “opera” Four Saints in Three Acts whose musical production and staging by Virgil Thompson is considered the first American opera and whose non-narrative non-doctrinal spiritual creativity of playful dynamic stasis of “being doing nothing” captured Stein’s ontological ideal of the saint.


 Gertrude Stein


Earlier in Stein’s experimental literary career and related to the topic of memory, she had switched from the elaborate psychological descriptive methods of her Making of Americans to focus on abstract linguistic descriptive experiments about objects using the inspiration of the Cubist painter’s approach to still life, but after attending a live drama, she became “bothered by the necessity of having to remember the characters and the action of the drama as an audience member and she became interested in writing plays that did not require her readers to remember and to simply enjoy the moment by moment display of textual activity”. This led to many works such as Four Saints that would later inspire many experimental performance artists such as Robert Wilson, who have expanded the performance and visual potential of her non-linear dramatic linguistic “plays” that seem to emphasize the literal meaning of the word.


Abhinavagupta, aside from writing one of the few significant commentaries on the Natya Shatastra, was known to have encouraged his disciples to attend the theatre as a compliment to their yogic practice.  The Stava Cintamani, a devotional work of Trika Shaivism, likens the three key dramatic stages of the revelation of the drama’s plot elements, their continuation and resolution and the final conclusion of the drama coincide with Siva’s triune powers of creation, maintenance and destruction. Theatre and drama play a large part in Hindu culture and plays a significant role in the preservation of mythic memory and religious instruction.  Yet drama and dance achieve a homologized nature and a certain hyperaesthetic status that stands apart yet that encompasses all of the arts in texts such as the Natyashastra that advocates at the end of the text the literal worship of the theatre as a god in itself.  Dance also achieves a special metaphoric status with the Shaivite concept of Nataraja.


There is more than a coincidental similarity of the ancient Greek god Dionysius and Siva, mythologically and in relation to dance and drama. Dionysius, the god of intoxication and ecstasy, a god of mysterious otherness who was always breaking down barriers and uniting opposites is mirrored on many levels with Siva’s mythically unrestrained seemingly antinomian and irreconcilably contradictory natures. Scholars believe that the annual festivals honoring Dionysius with song and bawdy dancing imitating the shameless behavior of his satyrs (indeed the Greek origin of the verb to satirize) that led to the development of classical Greek theatre.  The loosening of the bounds of everyday life in ecstasy becomes mirrored in the illusions of the creation and assumption of fictional identity in theatre.  Stein’s goals of drama without the obligation of memory is also realized in Indian dance whether performed with a choreographed troupe of performers or more commonly with a single performer who single-handedly assumes all the roles of the narrative aspect, as the audience can appreciate the experience on multiple levels without having to rely solely on following the narrative plot.


Nataraja_Natyashashtra Image from Wikipedia

  Shiva as the Lord of Dance


My own initiation into Indian dance that remains indelible in my own memory is attending a solo performance by local Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi international award- winning dance performer and is the Artistic & Founding Director of Texas’ first school of Indian dance the Anjali Center for the Performing Arts in its 36th year of operation, Dr. Ratna Kumar, who before performing a dance that was an invocation of Siva came up to the microphone and explained the meaning of several of its key postures and mudras and said in startling intimacy how that every time she performed this dance, she felt changed in some key way, and indeed I felt the same witnessing her effortless yet fully evocative performance.  I later had the opportunity to study the intricacies of Bharata Natyam with her in college which led to a greater appreciation and awe at its almost humanly impossible memory requirements in its string of complex patterns and rhythms.


I was already an avid student of modern dance but was keenly dissatisfied by its athletic yet unevocative bodily abstractions. This led to a lifetime of seeking out performance experiences that did nothing less than what Ratna Kumar shared with her audience at the preface to her dance invocation and a stock of performance experience memories as an audience and as a student and performer of a vast variety from the work of Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch, the primordial theatre of darkness of Japanese post-modern dance, Butoh, the sinuous dynamically languorous staged dance of the devadassi in Odissi dance, to the profound work of Deborah Hay.  She is the one living person, spiritually or artistically that I would call a guru even though I have never taken one of her famous months long workshops and have only studied in informal workshops and local performances in Houston since the early 80’s. A founding member of the historically important Judson Dance Theatre in NYC, with many of its early members going on to become influential founders of post-modern dance in their own ways.  To me Deborah Hay is much like Gertrude Stein in her fearless questioning and deconstruction of structures defining dance and reconstructing it with almost laser-like focus on its relation to consciousness in its relation to the body as it is in the moment.


I have always sought out the unmediated experience that is able to deliver moments that have the ability to stop time in experiences of wonder and astonishingly strange and inexplicable beauty.  I have also had an unrepentant history of indiscriminant searching for this outside of the confines of “high art” or dance venues and delight in finding this in unexpected places. One particularly treasured memory was in being asked to help with the choreography for a “Cosmic Rave Mass” in Houston for the radical defrocked priest, Matthew Fox, who was travelling around the country and organizing raves around his theology of “creation spirituality” as the perfect venue for public spiritual experience. I remember dancing for hours with a live DJ and gorgeous light shows and image projections that reflected the different pathways of his creation spirituality. Church populations were invited along with families and I remember handing out wine while dancing while some looked horrified but the children in attendance absolutely loved it. There is something about the fact of live human presence that is indispensible to this experience though.  Robert Wilson has said that video is only able to capture about 40% of this experience, but I do admit to love having YouTube to be able to reaccess at least the scraps of this experience. Nevertheless what I have learned in my career as a connoisseur of the arcane and transcendent in performance is that technical prowess and a good memory only makes a good performer while a great performer who is able to experience and transmit those peak and transcendent experiences that remain indelible in the minds of their audience,  have to be able to go beyond the sequentiality (akrama) of the technique and performance and to expand their attention, presence and emotive states in the midst of its sequentiality where the sense of time seems to stop functioning in the sense of the fullness of the timeless present.


I relate Gertrude Stein’s quote mentioned at the opening of the essay concerning memory and its relation to creativity to a quote that I vaguely remember being from Buckminster Fuller (and if it is not, then I will gladly take credit for it!), “If you know what you are doing, then it is probably not worth doing”.  Abhinavagupta revealed his Kaula associations in his Tantraloka in his recognition that performance can cause the audience to expand their consciousness through the magnification in resonance with each other in experience of the same experience, which is why outsiders to group tantric ritual who are distracted or unable to be attentive or absorbed in the performance are to be excluded, and that group ritual with a meditatively responsive group will cause them to effortlessly achieve heightened spiritual states together without having to strive individually.


One of my most recent indelible performance experiences of creative astonishment and recognition was in the work of the Suzanne Bocanegra performed in auditorium of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) in 2011 that particularly concerned autobiography and memory in a unique context. Titled When A Priest Marries A Witch, admittedly I was drawn by the performance flier that featured a film still of Mary Tyler Moore as a nun in traditional habit along with its blurb that described the “performance” featuring Paul Lazar, a founding member of New York’s Big Dance Theatre, about how a Catholic priest and an artist in Pasadena Texas inspired a young girl to become an artist. Certainly that particular mixture of elements drew me to attend no less since I grew up close to Pasadena TX which remains rich in associations to me of Mickey Gilley’s famous largest “honky tonk” nightclub in the world that drew Andy Warhol, Halston and Diane von Furstenberg to attend one year and was also the setting for the film Urban Cowboy with John Travolta.  Paul Lazar came on stage which was prepared for multiple slide projections.  The minute he began to speak in the first person, his voice was echoed by the accompanying recording of the voice of Suzanne Bocanegra speaking about growing up in Pasadena TX in the 1960’s. He spoke the same material simultaneously with a bit of a delay along with her recorded voice.

 Museum_of_Fine_Arts_Houston Weiss Bldg Wiki

  Museum of Fine Arts Houston


Such simultaneous oration initially created such a confusing effect of gender and identity, yet its ventriloquism deflected and generalized the limitations of memory and the specificities of identity in the performance in much the same way that Gertrude Stein’s one best-selling book used the ruse of telling her own life story through the voice and autobiography of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas. Gradually I became used to this unusual feature of the “performance” which took on the features of an hallucinogenic Art History lecture, as I began to be drawn into the autobiographical narration that began to take on comic elements especially for an audience unfamiliar with the more ridiculous elements of Houston history and Vatican II and nuns in popular culture in the 1960’s.


Bocanegra’s work set the scene in general terms describing the phenomenon of the Astrodome, the first covered climate-controlled indoor large sports stadium which now lies vacant and abandoned and the awe with which the astronauts were held and many of whom lived and trained near Houston.  The simultaneous narration of the actor “playing” Bocanegra along with her recorded delayed voice was accompanied by a well orchestrated visual slide show which over all made the performance take the form of a lecture/ presentation. On her web site she claims that her inspiration was initiated by “an invitation to give an artist’s talk at the MOMA in New York about her work, and since most of her work consists in translating two-dimensional artifacts into three-dimensional scores for visual and sound performances and installation, she wanted to apply her same methods to the medium of the artist’s talk about her own life”.  While the topics covered the many positive images of nuns in popular culture that included the film with Elvis and Mary Tyler Moore as a nun, the dual narrator described her experience of growing up as a devout Catholic and of the charismatic and radical priest of her church who had hired a contemporary artist who lived nearby, Bob Fowler, to create a modern and challenging mural to decorate the inside of the chapel that expressed the church’s engagement with the modern world.  She showed slides of the interior of the original chapel with its traditional devotional statues and liturgical décor and then showed rare images of Fowler’s radical artwork that showed Christ depicted in many different racial manifestations and that actually had incorporated birth control pills into the fresco.



Suzanne Bocanegra 


By this time, I had experienced probably the greatest shock of recognition of any performance in memory that literally bought home the issues of memory and creativity, as I realized this was the church on the block that I had grown up on and where my parents still lived.  I had friends as a child who went to that church and had taken me into see the interior of the new chapel. But then the tone of the “talk” took a turn away from humor and innocence as she told of the sad ending of the best-selling folk-nun singer who had committed suicide, and then she told of the discovery of the priest of her church who had been secretly married for years and who was immediately defrocked and the controversial artwork he had commissioned was destroyed. The title of the performance comes from the rather disturbing admission of the priest’s wife who was from Mexico and whose first name was that of the Aztec goddess of love and who was reported to have said that she was a witch and that she was training her son to be a sorcerer. She apparently had divorced the priest some time after his defrocking and the narrator claimed that she was no Wiccan witch, but that she used the Host in her rituals and she ended by the quote of her father who said “that is what you get when a priest marries a witch”.  I grew up hearing of this story but I had never known anything about the priest’s wife.  I can’t help but feeling that the “performance’s” use of absurdist humor about Houston’s history and the Catholic Church seemed more like a David Sedaris reading than a “performance” piece and that the ending had the effect of a medieval witch trial framed in sensationalist occult conspiracy tones reminiscent of current popular paranormal TV shows. Overall the performance had an unsettling feeling and demonstrated how truth is stranger than any invented fictional narrative, and it is even more unsettling that art audiences across the country know more about the hidden history of my childhood neighborhood than its current residents do now. But I noticed it did not really accomplish the aims of an artist’s talk and instead it seemed to be a veiled ploy to entertainment that had an unavoidable facile quality, yet it still captured me in the uncanny odds of such a confrontation with the stories of my childhood. Bocanegra was the recipient of the prestigious Rome prize and numerous high-profile grants whose installation and visual work has been internationally exhibited and is an emerging name in today’s fickle contemporary art world although she has been working for over twenty years. She comes to performance through contemporary art, which has a long history from the first decades of the last century from the absurdist work of Dada at the Café Voltaire to the artists of the 1970’s critiquing the commodification of the “art object”, rather than from dance or theatre and much of her performance and installation work exhibits a childlike wonder and curiosity that frequently involves memories of her childhood and that has the unique fascination with synesthetically translating works and experiences of one medium to another , but which admittedly can also seem to have a cold, minute, dissecting arbitrariness. One of her large scale performances was actually titled Rerememberer but it involved a large group of violin players who had never played the violin before, and growing up as the son of a violin teacher, I vowed that that was the one sound that I never wanted to hear again that of beginning violin students.


Is creativity hampered by anamnesis? I admit to finding performance work based on identity politics or that exploit confessional material tiresome, and I find personal reminiscence is an easy topic to get an audience response with, but is a difficult one to go deep into or to be genuinely creative with.  Abhinavagupta believed that aesthetic experience was the perfect medium to experience spiritual ecstasy, but it was dependent as much on the yogic abilities of the spectator as it was on the technical skill and intuitive powers of the artist. Abhinavagupta wrote in his Isvarapratyabhijnavivrtivimarsini that “aesthetic pleasure differs from the pleasure caused by contact with sense objects but is contingent on the viewer’s ability to remove obstacles such as the anticipation of personal gain, and that the viewer’s  aesthetic sensitivity comes about as a result of his ability to detach from the actual objective aspects of the art object that also include any latent traces of contact with sense objects”.  From the Pseudo to the mythic Dionysius paths to ecstasy through the forgetting and loosening of the bonds of ordinary identity through the transformative potential inherent in attention and absorption in the awe, astonishment and enrapturement of the present moment in performance, aside from spawning literary masterpieces such as Proust’ Search for Lost Time, the inner theatre of memory can also have a strange aesthetic of its own that brings a tinge of haunting melancholy to any topic that is held under its power.



© Paul Smith, 2014



 Image References

  • Nature Images by Brett Davidson
  • Fall:
  • Gertrude Stein:
  • St. Bonaventure:,_Claude_(dit_Fr%C3%A8re_Luc)_-_Saint_Bonaventure.jpg
  • Nataraja:
  • Musuem of Fine Arts, Houston:
  • Suzanne Bocanegra  -
  • In search of lost time:

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