A Scotsman’s Tartan and the Power of Memory

Scottish TartanI happen to work in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district, and I’ve been delighted to find that there’s a farmers’ market in the plaza area next door every Thursday. Appropriate enough, considering my last entry on urban life and how it meshes with pagan spirituality, I’m treated every Thursday to the site of fresh vegetables and fruit. They fill up the aisles of the small, multi-level plaza like some kind of invasive, earthy bacteria, still covered in the dirt they came from, reminding me that not all that makes us human (and perhaps much that is) isn’t made of glass on concrete.

That aside, occasionally the folks who run the farmers’ market sell handmade wares too. This time I happened to notice a redheaded man at a table covered in scarves, many with tartan patterns.

I idled, and so he struck up a conversation. They were cashmere scarves made in Scotland, he explained in a light Scottish accent. If his accent was a beer, it would have been a hop-filled ale. With all the department and brand stores that surround my office, the air of legitimacy and closeness to origin was a welcome change. I had been looking for a scarf recently since it was getting colder, and happened to look through of the patterns he had. Then he explained that the particular pattern I was holding was the same pattern the Scots had worn on their kilts when they fought the English.

I have a soft spot for the Celts and their heritage anyway, but this made me stop. This was a pattern that had soaked up blood, and carried a people to eventual victory. Suddenly I felt that the simple scarf, because of its pattern, could carry potent energy and power. The man continued to explain in the slightest of a wry and ironic grin that another pattern, one that had already been bought by a number of the business folk walking past, belonged to the Stewart family and was “what they wore when they went to have their heads cut off.”

I would like to say at this point that I have a deep fascination with memory. To me, memory is not a phenomenon simply in our brains, but is something that we project into the world and that we carry with us. Memory affects us as much as we affect it, and my readings in many a rogue scientist’s book suggest that memory may have subtle affects in the physical world too. Whether it does or not, it is nonetheless a powerful and human concept, and one that should be familiar to anyone who practices “magic”.

I would go so far to say that magic and the manipulation of memory could be the same thing. With intention we imbue a kind of memory onto an object for ourselves and for others. Like a symbol or a word, that object can radiate that meaning back at us then, as if it was a container or the meaning had stuck to it like a dusty residue. Practitioners would call this “charging,” but objects can become charged by themselves through proximity (think of a soldier’s pack or a sailor’s compass). Depending on the power and depth of that meaning the effect can be solitary and personal, or, if it is commonly shared, it can halt a whole group of people midstep. It’s not the kind of power we usually associate with the word “power,” as if it need be an active physical force, but it is power nonetheless. I would say this is universal among humans, from the tribal to the urban. We all rally around flags, heirlooms, and symbols. Even physical places, artificial or not, can radiate this kind of mnemonic power (the Celts had a concept for those naturally mnemonic places, too).

This particular tartan stopped me still when I realized the meaning it must’ve held for a people, and one that carries history close to their hearts. I have also been interested lately in the spiritual nature of the male gender, and on realizing that this pattern’s origins was probably in the hands and spinning wheels of women, who then gave it to their men to wear while they fought off not-so-distant oppressors… well, that’s a lot of memory woven into a single bit of cloth.

I am not scottish by major ancestry, but I am largely Scandinavian, and these are two branches from the same trunk. While I did not think by any stretch I could lay a claim to what the cloth means for the Scottish people, I did hope that I could adopt its colors and see that meaning play out in me—a sort of mnemonic proxy. I carefully watched as the scarf passed through the hands of an indecisive asian lady who seemed to be looking for the appropriate color of navy blue for her taste, probably realizing that the tartan’s true nature was much more sanguine than its color. As soon as she put it back on the table I grabbed it, paid the Scotsman, and briskly walked away.

I hope one day I can flesh out my thoughts on memory more deeply, and the tartan was only one example. It is such a human and natural concept that we often miss it, or mistake the object that retains the memory for the memory itself. This is an important distinction because the signifier and the signified are not one and the same. I would say there is something such as the poetic signifier, or a signifier that does not différ the signified such as in normal language, but is in use by artists, poets, and any kind of spiritual practitioner, and it electrifies the relatedness of meaning into a kind of overdrive. One thing refers to another, which refers to another, along an infinite chain of meaning. It is as if it swings the other way than in the case of deconstruction, and instead of delaying meaning, pushes it forward and through the chain. This is why I think poems have the power they do, or painting, or any kind of similar “poetic,” artistic, or mystical activity. For me, I would define them as things that generate meaning or memory, as if these things were in fact a physical “stuff”.

Yet it is not so much the poetic signifier itself, but the intention with which it is used. Maybe also, perhaps, in the way that intention is reiterated or repeated. Like a tartan pattern finding its way from the grassy plains of Scotland to the shoulder of a boy somewhere in San Francisco, wondering aloud about the power of memory.

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