The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, words meet pictures in a captivating and indeed, an astonishing way." /> The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, words meet pictures in a captivating and indeed, an astonishing way." />

Jessica Helfand | Essays

A Mosaic of Vision and Memory

I have always tried, and urged my students to try, to think of writing as more than a mere accompaniment to graphic design. Rather, it is perhaps its most deeply resonant evocation: the degree to which language can imply, conjure, suggest, describe, imagine, tease, amplify or otherwise evoke a design idea is, to a great extent, one of the more compelling ways of making design accessible to the public.

Language, in the service of the visual, is a conceptual catalyst: and in Umberto Eco's latest book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, words meet pictures in a captivating and indeed, an astonishing way.

Readers familiar with Eco's prolific body of work (118 books and counting) may not be surprised. After all, many of his earlier works have gravitated to symbolic, romantic and literary associations that challenge existing notions of reality, chronology and memory. Of these, it is the question of memory that dominates this particular book: the protagonist, a rare book dealer in Milan, has lost his long-term memory and retreats to his family's house in the country, whereupon he engages in a kind of archaeological dig of the mind. Surrounded by books, magazines, records and photographs, he attempts to reconstruct his own lapsed self-history. Visual stimuli become, in the course of this story, landmines for memory retrieval.

Yet in spite of their glorious presence in the book, the inclusion of early-Twentieth century ephemera reads as a kind of separate narrative, a loosely-gathered timeline of Italian graphic propaganda. Conversely, it is in the impassioned language of the book that the images resonate most fully. Eco's versatility as a semiotician is perhaps most remarkably demonstrated in an early scene in which the protagonist's memory loss is challenged by a photograph of his own late parents. "You tell me these two were my parents, so now I know but it's a memory that you've given me," he confesses to his wife. "I'll remember the photo from now on, but not them."

How does visual evidence sanction our memories, and when does collective memory overtake our individual, and arguably more meaningful references? More than 12,000 oral histories documenting the events of September 11, 2001 will be made public today, according to a story in this morning's New York Times. Will new information be revealed? Will old wounds be re-opened? Will the verbal prove more evocative than the visual evidence — now so saturated into our public consciousness — of that tragic day? In a climate so overwhelmingly dominated by visual codes, there is something deeply persuasive about the simplicity of pure language. And for those of us who spend our lives thinking visually, it is a reminder that how we express ideas is, at best, a gesture of blind faith: memory, reality, modernity, humanity — all have existed for centuries and will continue to do so, documented in the various vernaculars that time, space, budget and appropriateness will permit. At the end of the day, our memories tell us where we were, what we believed, who we are and why. As we bear witness to the inevitable permutations that characterize human frailty writ large, the recording and preservation of memory is a cultural imperative. In this view, we would do well to remember that pictures do not always speak louder than words.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [9]

Nobody seems to have made this argument yet (that I've seen), but isn't Eco almost certainly addressing the issues raised at the end of Plato's Phaedrus? where Socrates argues that the invention of reading will naturally lead to forgetting? Thamus argues that Theuth's invention of writing will ". . . create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves." Everyone's not still worn out from Derrida's run through of this?
Dan Visel

"If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle in every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out."

--Jane Austen (1775 - 1817), Mansfield Park
debbie millman

Interesting observation Dan Visel,

Perhaps this is why people not longer remember cell phone numbers (stored in the phone), or site URL's (bookmarked, perhaps in, or a quick google search away).

Could the answer be: "We remember what we need to remember in order to function efficiently". Therefore when we have an outlet to quickly find something, we are able to forget where exactly it was. I know I remember what I searched for on google to get where I needed to be, but not a URL :)


Spectacular quote from Jane Austen, Debbie: thanks for adding this. And to Dan: I thought, too, of mnemonic devices in memory palaces — but it is the power of language, with all its mysterious associations, that I was advocating. The excerpt from Jane Austen's classic novel offers a perfect model.
jessica Helfand

Having watched my mother succumb to Alzheimer's disease over the last 10 years, "recording and preservation of memory" has been a topic much on my mind. The only memories she's got are ones that we give her, briefly. She no longer recognizes people or photos.

Oddly enough, this has made me less nostalgic.

If, as Dan says, the invention of reading leads to forgetting, what is required for remembering in the first place? One theory suggests that our earliest memories are concurrent with our first words. (via Kottke, a few months back, if I remember correctly.)

This argument has been going on for some time, to my knowledge, with the advent of television and how the children are being brought up (truthfully this applies to anyone). Instead of the children playing outside they would site on the living room floor and watch television shows who in turn re-enact the shows 'mimicking' the characters and singing the songs of the journey the television takes them, thus creating a false sense of memory with images and sound. There are the gamers out there that like to live in an artificial world created by a group of designers and programme engineers living out the lives of someone else, an extension of escapism through another medium.
Memories are also determined through the sensory perception of that individual changing the way that individual would remember the event or series of moments, this can be held in regard to liking and disliking television programmes, food, books and so on. There was a psychological test ages back (I forget the doctorate name) were a group of individuals would perceive an event and after a week or so the accounts of that event would be different from each other. Personally I don't know if that is a false memory or not but it is a memory I can remember.
With computers also, is not memory either long term or short term just as a human? Thus the 'deletion' of a human memory can be had and recreated to any fashion that individual or outside influence decides.
Memories may be 'fake' from images, words, and sounds, but they make us as we are in this technologically advancing civilisation.
Laurence Green

In my early twenties a car accident separated me from a big chunk of memories. A few years worth, give or take, and some that probably would have been defining moments considering my age and that I was still in college. For years I mourned the loss of those memories, all the while friends and family tried to fill in the blanks with their own reference points. After a time I came to terms with the missing, eventually almost forgetting the gaps in my personal mental timeline. Last year something strange happened though. I ran into an old boyfriend. I remembered him, in a vague sort of way: knew his name, but couldn't recall the details of our relationship. He'd broken my heart not too long before the accident, that much I knew from old letters and friends. We said our hellos and did all those things that people do when they haven't seen each other in years, traded email addresses and brief synopsis's on our lives in between, and then said goodbye again. A few weeks later I received an email that was a staccato collection of memories of our relationship. Nearly all were poetically visual, images in a car on the day he broke up with me: 'Hair blowing out the window as the Florida landscape floated by behind you". The first time we went swimming: "stepping out of the water after swimming in the ocean at night, phosphorescence swirling round ankles'. I know his memories are not mine (in some ways they are better! I feel no distant pain from the breakup, no lingering heartache, and also no attachment, it may as well have been an anonymous gesture) but as they went on and on I found that his written visuals helped me find something that I didn't know I was missing. A running image of where I've been. In the internal movie of my life there are forced intermissions, places where the film burned. Those visuals of his were like a splice in that film, allowing the movie to keep on going up to its current point, filling in the blanks of my early 20's with translated and edited images by a thirty-something.


Dan, Neil Postman makes reference to Plato's Phaedrus in his article Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,1993.
jennifer williams

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