Memory, Still Lifes, and “living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being.”
Aldus Huxley described everyday things as “living hieroglyphs” in The Doors of Perception. Likewise, Rembrandt’s tiny drawing of a shell, De Schelp frames the ubiquitous as profoundly significant, in part because of its use of chiaroscuro — the tradition of spotlighting something against a dark background for a more dramatic effect. Imagine a performer on a stage in the spotlight or a storyteller lit by firelight surrounded by darkness. Setting up the composition like this helps any image tell a story.
We talk a lot about how objects speak to us or trigger memories to help us feel things. Neuroscientists and philosophers argue that we actually think through things, that things help us out, a lot. Things support and lead our thoughts and ideas in various ways. Tiny mementos and souvenirs like shells and keychains can even help us situate ourselves in space and time. They help us remember who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
They in-form us. When my nephew was four, he fell and got a bad concussion and at the hospital he couldn’t remember anything. He didn’t recognize any of us. But he did know about his favorite stuffed animal, Shawn, calling for it by name. My sister raced home to get the toy, and as soon as he touched it, smelled it, and put it in his mouth, all his memories came flooding back. He returned to us! The little toy helped him.
Mementos and Lost Time
Toys help us remember, as does food. A famous example of this in western literature is la petite madeleine from Proust’s novel In Search Of Lost Time. Proust’s madeleine is also a good example of the way material things evoke memories of place (which is huge) and how things speak to us through synesthesia or cross-sensory perception. In the story, when the narrator, Marcel, encounters the strange shell-shaped cake, suddenly a whole ocean of lost memories floods his consciousness. Suddenly he remembers eating the same cake with his aunt, in her bedroom, and he remembers her old grey house, the gardens, and the streets in the small town. That tiny bit of cake brought it all back.
What this means is that humans use objects to store memory outside of our brains. We offload memory into special objects. Merlin Donald, In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), calls these magnificent objects “exograms” — exo/ outside, grams/writing.
They’re essentially memory aids or ‘messengers,’ delivering personal and cultural information through time — little Hermeses! Michel Serres, one of my favorite philosophers of science, goes as far as to call these message-bearers “angels” because he says they are “more complex and sophisticated than Hermes.”
Thanks to these little angels, or other-than-human people, or things (depending on your worldview), our thoughts and memories become more durable and more easily transmissible across time. Thanks to them we get what’s called an extended brain.
But it’s as Marshal McLuhan said: every extension requires an amputation. Our dependence on things to extend our memories is also a limitation. Remembering is also forgetting. “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
And talk about constricting our shape…What is a shell? And why did Rembrandt spend so much time drawing one?
Shells are ubiquitous. They were early money, and today we sometimes pick them up when we go to the beach. Do you do that, too? It’s really strange, what happens when we decide a shell or stone on the beach is “mine,” and we pocket it. What is that? Like a psychic lasso, we grab it and then start imbuing it with memory and meaning. It’s weird and possessive.
But picking up a stone or a keychain may also be a way we can actually touch the past (see “A stone that feels right in the hand: Tactile memory, the abduction of agency and the presence of the past” by John Harries (2016) for more info about this timetraveling aspect of hapticity).
Shells are also symbols for the sacred. In Japan, sacred shells are called horakai and are one of the eight holy offerings in Buddhism. People use them to make music, but the shell is also a symbol for sacred music, like how a saxophone is a symbol for jazz. The shell is usually pictured standing upright on a lotus throne decorated with scarves and fire like a Buddha or a dancer. Rembrandt rendered his reclining shell like an odalisque or a nude model.
A shell is a home, a host, a helmet. Shells call to mind the ocean, which is huge, and the female body, the womb, The Birth of Venus… But they are also often empty and are therefore memento mori.
They are also like gemstones that can grow, or crystals, or bone. Are they a kind of bone?
Why else are shells so spectacular? Maybe it’s because they are a rock hard form in nature that manifests symmetrical arrangements: they make visible an ordering principle in the universe. They make visible a cosmic intelligence — another kind of angel.
Shells are spirals, and spirals are sacred geometry. They exhibit the Fibonacci sequence, that mathematical sequence found in the branching of trees, pinecones, flower seeds, galaxies. It’s in the curve of a wave and in the expanding population of rabbits.
How are shells used in your own traditions, and what do shells mean to you?