Friday, October 19, 2012

The "Trompe l’oeil" Mind

It sometimes seems I spend more time in these blogs dwelling in the past than in the present, but then the more past one has, the more there is to talk about.

Memory is a trompe l’oeil painting of the past, done by the mind. The result may seem totally lifelike, but in fact it is not. The mind's inner artist takes small liberties, lightening the background here, touching up an area there, sometimes using heavier or darker hues than the actuality warrants. We display these canvases proudly to ourselves, and are certain that they are reality recaptured, when in fact they are not.

My brief and checkered Navy experience, oddly, provided me with several of my most treasured and vivid trompes l’oeil paintings, many of which I have shared in earlier blogs. Perhaps they stand out because my military “career” was so totally different from any of my other life experiences, and because they are all backed up by “certificates of authenticity” in the form of letters written at the exact time (or within days) of the events portrayed. But my two of the most outstanding hang in honored places along the walls of my mind. The first while I was learning to fly as a Naval Aviation Cadet, which has something of a “certificate of authenticity” in the form of a letter to my parents.

The skies over and within 50 miles of the Pensacola Naval Air Station were normally aswarm with pilots-in-training, like fruit flies around a bowl of ripe bananas. But on one solo flight, I found myself totally alone in a huge “valley” surrounded by mountains of whipped-cream cumulus clouds. Just me, looping and spinning and soaring between the clouds, looking down at the green quilt of the earth below. I’ve seldom had such a sense of pure joy. But my vivid memory of that day does not match exactly with the way I described it in my letter, written immediately after the event. Subtle differences, but different enough so that I notice them and am troubled by them.

The second of these specific memories is of the week before the Ti (USS Ticonderoga) headed for home after eight months in the Mediterranean, anchored off Cannes, France. It, too, is detailed in my navy letters and adds verisimilitude to the memory: days and evenings spent diving and swimming off an old quay—which I actually re-found after 55 years—with two French and two German young men, dinners at a tiny restaurant found totally by accident high in the hills above the city, walking down the twisting streets late at night singing old WWII songs, seeing the lights of the ships (including the fabled ocean liner, Ile de France) in the harbor below. My chest aches, remembering and wanting to be there/then now. But again, the picture in my mind is subtly different than the truth in the letters.

But like the painting of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's novel, there are also trompes l'oiel best avoided, and we all have many of them, stacked against the wall in some dark, cobwebbed place.

My main problem with memory, other than its tendency to reposition the elements of whatever picture is being recalled, is that it tends to be too strongly tied in with emotion, though there is one vivid memory painting that oddly evokes absolutely no emotional response. And that is of my seven-week stay at Mayo Clinic during my treatment for tongue cancer in 2003. I can picture quite vividly the daily routine: my large, comfortable room at Hope Lodge, provided free by the American Cancer Society, the fact that it did not have a TV set (how ungrateful of me even to think that!)—a deliberate decision on their part, I think, to encourage residents to get out of their rooms and mingle with others—the five-times-a-week two block walk to Radiation Oncology for 25-minute radiation treatments (35 in all); the decision to request a stomach feeding tube when trying to swallow became simply too difficult. I look back on all of it with a very strange detachment and no recognizable emotion at all.

Even the most pleasant of memories are tainted by a tangible sense of loss and longing, and often the more precious the picture, the more acute those senses are. I can’t just enjoy memories of things and people past, I cannot acknowledge that they are not real, and I must reach out to them. And each time I try, the realization that, real as they are to me, I cannot touch them, cannot relive them, cannot be at that time and in that place, fills me with sadness. And my memory's trompe l'oeil (literally “deceive the eye”) for me becomes trompe l'coeur and deceives my heart.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (


Kage Alan said...

Lovingly poetic, D. Ironically, as you return to posts like these, I return to the idea of using something like this as a strength in your writing. You have such rich, vivid memories (even if they are varied versions of the real thing) that I still say they should be used in a book.

The place where you met the four men that you revisited... Wouldn't it be something if, in a story, the main character goes back on that journey just like you did and on that day all four of you were drawn to the same spot again. There are so many places to take a tale like that. So many of your memories of the military you could vividly paint and then create a tale with.

How beautiful a place in print those memories would find a home for so many to share. And that's one of the many gifts a memory offers; they should be shared in one way or another, the bigger the better.

Just a thought because you, as always, inspire me to think much bigger than I typically do.

Dorien/Roger said...

Thanks, Kage! My mind is a well from which I regularly draw material for my books, but your note sparked, for the first time in years, the idea for a short story. We shall see.

Thanks again,