Francisco Goya has a series of horrific and leering political portraits of Spain falling apart before his eyes. Called “The Disasters of War,” they were only published after his death. The court painter – going deaf – revealed himself as a sensitive observer of violence, able somehow to paint with it – to make it real. Famous for his rich colors and smooth lines, everything went black and sharp and stark. As if violence itself skittered through his fingers, spidery and knowing.
They are fascinating. They are brilliant. They are awful. It is possible to see them glaring in a chronological list of his works, right next to portraits of the Duke of Wellington. The contrast cuts as much as the paintings do.
I love them. I love their brokenness. The thick, horrible lines. They say something that I cannot.
They announce something about memories that I have, and for which I have very few words. Very few, even as the memories themselves, firing through my nervous system, return with strangely specific vengeance.
Memory is a complicated thing. Every time we surface a memory – actively recall one, that is – scientists say that we seem able to edit them before tucking them away again. In fact, we frequently modify our memories. The science seems to imply that memory is nothing if not unreliable.
Memory is alive. I don’t know if that means it’s unreliable.
“I don’t remember anything happening to you,” someone in my family once said. I cried. Memory against memory. It’s a bad fight from the start.
I don’t know what Goya did and didn’t see. I know that his paintings are real. I mean that they know something real. They know about it. He knew. It’s on the canvas. He knew something without words. It’s there, remembered, in the paintings.
It is as if the art testifies to the moment that God vanishes from everything all in one horrible, violent instant. There is something very real about atheism, at least this kind. It never sounds like the atheism argued in the academy, so I’m not sure they’re the same. The kind I mean is to have seen God nowhere.
I have experienced that nowhere, that awful blank page. It is its own kind of negation, whatever it is, and different than the logic that would claim there is no God. This other place is simply, violently, nowhere. Apart and alone. Every theology disappears, even the theology that there is no God.
This place, where God is nowhere, I felt it again just yesterday. As a needle carefully punctured my skin, and I felt the sharp burst of pain as it entered and the dull ache as it remained. I watched dark blood, my blood, fill vials. I feel sick and scared just writing the spare words. The vials were for a whole series of blood panels. For my doctor. So I can feel better. But in the moment, I couldn’t remember why I was there.
All was nothing but me and that needle. Nothing at all.
I cried, later, in my therapist’s office, curled into a tiny ball on the chair. “Jesus wasn’t even there,” I whimpered.
You and I could both argue to me that He was, but you and I both know that’s not what I meant.
I was absolutely unable to be anything but alone. (Hell is being alone in C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce.) Nothing was anywhere, is what I think I meant. Something like that. Because of my own memories, everything went away. Like it has hundreds of times before. That strange nowhere, where nothing is. Not even God.
I hate that nowhere.
And I wonder if Goya knew it. That place that cannot be thought. Where there is no thought.
Did Jesus know it?
And does God remember me, think of me, when I remember and I cannot think? He must, but that’s not what I mean.