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Butterflies II

January 13, 2015

By way of contrast with his mother, Max Ferber’s encounter with his own butterfly man elucidates the particularities of this negative dynamic, all the while complicating the model of memory being advanced. Looking down at the Swiss countryside from a peak Ferber once visited with his father, Ferber notes that what lies below seems “at once near and unattainably far” (174), exerting “so powerful an attraction on him that he was afraid he might leap down into it” (174). At this moment, a man with a butterfly net appears beside him. After a few exchanged words about the hour, the butterfly man (here, Henry Selwyn) and Ferber then begin their descent, of which Ferber later has no recollection. In fact, no matter his mental exertions, he can not locate within himself any memory of the descent or the events leading to his return to Manchester.

In thinking on this time, Ferber finds nothing but a “lagoon of oblivion” (174). Accordingly, through art, Ferber desperately tries to engage the subject central to those missing memories: the butterfly man. Ferber elaborates for the narrator:

If he tried to think back to the time in question, he could not see himself again till he was back in the studio, working at a painting which took him almost a full year…– the faceless portrait “Man with a Butterfly Net”. This he considered one of his most unsatisfactory works…Work on the picture of the butterfly man had taken more out of him than any previous painting, for when he started on it, after countless preliminary studies, he not only overlaid it time and again but also, whenever the canvas could no longer withstand the continual scratching-off and re-application of paint, he destroyed it and burnt it several times. (174)

Ferber’s attempt to reconstitute the figure and, through it, those missing days exhibits elements of the same tension that mark his mother’s memory of the Russian boy. Yet this tension manifests itself in a different manner. In grappling with this mysterious, “faceless” period, his artistic process oscillates between creation and destruction. He applies his paints to the canvas only to remove them; he feels compelled, however, to start anew. The new attempt proves no more successful, and, after “continual scratching-off and re-application,” he must burn “several times” the very medium through which he sought to recreate the figure forgotten. This seemingly final destruction does not, however, signal the end of the process of reconstitution. In a culmination of the negative tendency underlying his interaction with memory and the butterfly man as figure of memory, Ferber destroys the canvas not for the purpose of ending the recovery of his lost memories but, instead, for the sake of continuing it. The “scratching-off” and “re-application” correspond to the foundational forces at work in Ferber’s confrontation with the butterfly man’s image; they are the very same positive and negative dynamics as seen in his mother’s recollection. Despite the parallels, Ferber’s case seems to take a step that his mother’s lacks. Rather than let the state of forgetfulness be, he instead attempts to descry what lies behind the veil of oblivion.

Unsurprisingly, his work proves “most unsatisfactory.” So long as there remains interaction and oscillation between the creative and destructive processes inherent in his efforts to reconstruct his lost memories, the result will never find satisfaction. No resolution can arise of the forces at work. In the end, “the despair at his lack of ability” (174) leads to “increasingly sleepless nights” (175) and “exhaustion” (175). Ferber eventually finds his only recourse to be potent sedatives. The appearance of the butterfly man saves him from the powerful vertigo that the view and memory of days with his father exerted over him; in this way, the butterfly man can be described as a positive agent or force in relation to the faculty and exercise of memory. The figure both contributes to and preserves the psychic health of the individual through rousing Ferber from immersion in mental life, verging on unconsciousness. At the same time, his psyche pairs that arousal with a reflex or reaction against the threat that the past poses to his psychic health. The butterfly man saves him, insofar as his rousing of Ferber eliminates the possibility of immediate contemplation of both his vertigo and his vertigo’s settings, i.e. the descent and the days leading to his return to England.

And yet this elimination poses a certain risk to Ferber. Specifically, it engenders an inherent unhealth within the individual’s mental life; simply, the lack of memory threatens Ferber’s psychic integrity. His efforts to engage that “lagoon” within his psyche have, by the end, “taken more out of him than any previous painting” (174). This painting represents an attempt to bridge that gap, to reveal what the butterfly man, as mental function, has sought to conceal. After a year’s time, Ferber still finds his work “unsatisfactory.” While Ferber offers the narrator no conclusive evidence concerning the result of his efforts, one can surmise that it is the attempt to engage that gap in memory, rather than its satisfaction, that determines the relative success of an effort for which one can never achieve any definitive resolution.

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