Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture, Spring 2006
Memory is not, I fear, what it used to be. Not mine, not yours, and not the culture's at large. I've found myself musing lately over whether memory even has a future. You might be relieved or merely amused to hear that I've concluded that it does, albeit with a catch. It seems to me that the future of memory is more and more bound up with the future of poetry, another form of human endeavor that has perhaps seen better days. Indulge me for a few moments while I enlarge on this theme just a bit.
The ancient Greeks reserved a lofty place in the classical pantheon for memory, whom they personified as a female Titan by the name of Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne was the mother of the muses, and thus the progenitor of the whole teeming family of the arts and everything the imagination holds dear. In a sense, you might say, she was the mother of us all.
The classical glossaries tell us that Mnemosyne was herself the cosmic daughter of Heaven and Earth, and that sounds about right. The birth of memory we're in the realm of myth and metaphor here, yet I suspect that even the most hard-headed linguists and anthropologists would agree that something unfathomably momentous in the course of human events transpired with the emergence of memory as a force to be reckoned with. And when we consider that the root of the word for memory in Greek mnemonikos) is tantalizingly close to that of mindful (mnemon), it becomes all that much harder to downplay the supreme role of that grand dame Mnemosyne in making us who and what we are.
But you don't have to take my word for it. It was none other than Socrates, remember, who gave us the touchstone precept that all knowledge is recollection. That's quite an endorsement, coming from the fellow who's generally thought of as the father of reason. But it does, if I may say so, stand to reason. Without Mnemosyne, it's hard to conceive how we'd begin to know what to make of ourselves and our world. No Mnemosyne, no language. No Mnemosyne, no sense of time. No Mnemosyne, no life of the mind. Call her the mother of the muses, or call her the godmother of all mental faculties, there is no getting around her: all roads into the shadowy cultural past or the deep interior of the psyche lead straight to her, still smiling inscrutably with all the ineffable majesty of a Sphinx.
No wonder, then, that for most of recorded history, memory has been regarded as a high art, and even a sacred one, closely akin to the arts of divination and inspiration. And before history could be recorded, back before the advent of alphabets and hieroglyphics and such handy innovations as papyrus and styluses and quills and vellum well, those were surely the glory days of memory, for memory was all we poor forked creatures had to keep things in mind. These were the days before history, at least as we now think of history. But poetry is another story. Poetry was already ancient before there was history, and that's because poetry was memory's darling. In ways we now can scarcely imagine, memory breathed life into poetry and poetry in turn made memory something truly memorable.
The first poet we can assign a name to in the Western tradition is Homer, though we really haven't the faintest idea who Homer was or whether there was only one of him. But we do know what Homer's medium was it was the air he breathed, and the acts of memory he called into being when he delivered up his lines. Memory for a Homer was nothing so mechanical as what we now call "memorization"; the function of memory in Homeric oral expression was, in the truest sense of the word, the power of "re-membering," that is, to bring things back or put things back together, to recover experience and emotion and turn them into forms of fluent energy and intensity.
Oral bards like Homer, all the scholars agree, did not sing or recite or narrate according to some kind of rote script. They improvised, they created language as they went along, they drew on a mother lode of images and figures of speech that were cherished precisely for that purpose. They were, to borrow the translator Michael Alexander's description of the Old English oral poets, "the voice and memory of the tribe." That sense of body and mind fusing in the present tense of a poem recited orally in a world where pages either didn't exist or where there were no readers, only listeners, survives in that lovely metaphor that we still use to this day: to learn or know something "by heart." What does it mean, after all, to have something by heart? It means we have words under our skins and in our nervous systems; "heart" in this sense is implicitly understood as both the visceral thump and pulse of blood coursing through our veins and the verbal energy of thoughts and feelings flowing within us and between us.
Seen in this light, it is not so terribly surprising that even well into the age of sophisticated writing systems, memory continued to occupy an esteemed position as one of the essential disciplines of civilized culture. Memory was a serious business, and trying to get to the bottom of how memory works taxed some of the great minds of Western Civilization. St. Augustine, to cite but one illustrious example, devotes several intensely searching passages in his Confessions to the mysteries of memory, confessing tellingly at one point, "Yet I do not understand the power of memory that is in myself, although without it I could not even speak about myself."
The Roman orator Cicero tells us that the first great codifier of the formal art of memory was the Greek poet Simonides of Keos, who flourished in 5th century BC, the era of the Peloponnesian Wars when the city states of Athens and Sparta were at each other's throats. Simonides was among other things a recognizably professional poet, commissioned to write elegiac inscriptions for epitaphs and to recite ceremonial odes, and it is to him that we can trace the technique of devising a mental "memory palace" to order and structure vital allusions and associations that were then part of any accomplished poet's standard operating equipment.
If the history of memory is a subject that sparks your curiosity, there are two wonderfully illuminating books I can recommend to you. First there is Frances Yates's definitive study, The Art of Memory, which explores in absorbing depth and detail how the memory arts were still going strong in the European middle ages and the Renaissance, first by gaining new adherents amid the revival of classical learning and later evolving into something more closely resembling an occult science. Then there is a book written by the Chinese scholar Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, which covers some of the same ground though with a much tighter focus on how one particular master of memory pursued his calling. Ricci was an Italian Jesuit educated in Rome, a contemporary of Shakespeare who sailed off to China on a missionary journey in 1582 and spent the rest of his life there. Today he is best remembered for a treatise on the art of memory he wrote for a Chinese provincial governor, which according to Spence was a blow-by-blow manual on how to go about constructing and maintaining one's own memory palace.
A memory palace. I love the phrase, and I love the concept. But it has to be said that nowadays, a master of the memory arts like Matteo Ricci would be hard-pressed to command much mystique. After all, don't we all have ready access to memory palaces now? Thanks to our new wizards of software, there are memory palaces everywhere. From sea to shining sea, that glow you see burning in homes and offices and dorm rooms reminds us that memory palaces are now within easy reach, anyone of them a veritable Versailles for systematically storing and retrieving and filing everything under the sun. They even fit into the palms of our hands. And yes, they are marvels capable of performing feats of brute processing power with their silicon chips and their integrated micro circuitry that would stop a savant of the old memory arts like Matteo Ricci or Simonides of Keos dead in their tracks. If we were to pit Brother Ricci's powers of memory against the electronic prowess of even the average off-the-shelf desktop or laptop, never mind a computational colossus like IBM's Deep Thought, he would fare no better in a head-to-head duel than that railroad steel driving man John Henry did in the old folk ballad when he went up against the steam drill.
So where does that leave us, we modern offspring of Mnemosyne? Memory is still a serious business, but now it comes manufactured for us, almost infinitely "expandable" as the high tech ads like to crow and configured in mind-boggling quantities of megabytes and gigabytes. Back in the dark ages, when I first trotted off to college armed with a Royal typewriter (which despite the suggestive brand name was no memory palace, I can assure you), memory could still be thought of as one of the intellect's prime assets, much as it was for the ancient orators and epic poets. Today, however, memory has become an industry, a commodity; and we have more memory at our disposal than we know what to do with. Memory is one of the triumphs of technology, but where does that leave the art of memory, I ask you? Is it inevitable that human memory is doomed to atrophy now that we have memory machines to do our remembering for us? Are we on the verge of disowning the mother of the muses, and in her place giving over our affections and devotions to the motherboard of the muses?
Don't bet on it. On the contrary, we may be entering a most auspicious age for the memory arts to make a comeback, and this time in a more purely artful form. Now that we are all essentially subjects of a virtual empire of computational memory, there is no longer much practical reason to slave away on the upkeep of memory's structural integrity. That's in the hands of the systems gurus and the webmasters now. A mixed blessing, perhaps, but might it not have the positive effect of granting us greater liberty to do what we will with our own private estates of memory? The way I see it, the revolution in information technology that has made such astonishing gains in taking over what might be called the grunt work of memory has potentially freed up all kinds of room in our minds for newly reclaimed fields of memory to take root and flower. And yes, you guessed it, I happen to see this as a golden opportunity to put poetry and memory back on good speaking terms again to orchestrate a family reunion, if you will, between the muses and their dear old mom.
None of these notions are remotely original with me. A couple of years ago, while serving his three-year term as U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky published a nifty little handbook on poetics and prosody called The Sounds of Poetry. In it he advanced a simple but compelling proposition: "Poetry," he wrote, "is among other things a technology for remembering. Like the written alphabet and the printing press and the digital computer, it is an invention to help and extend memory." And in another passage: "Most writers who consider the subject of poetry's origins associate the art of verse with memory; the griots of Alex Haley's Roots preserve detailed information, reaching back many generations, without written records, by using a technology of recurrent sounds. Rhymes and emphatic rhythms help us to memorize. Verse in this way is a technology for memory, using the sounds of language, created by a human body, as writing uses marks."
Truisms these may be, but they are timely ones, in no small measure because they remind us to be wary of the often overstated opposition between art on the one hand and technology on the other. The very word "poet" comes from a Greek root for "maker"; and the technical aim as well as the transcendent dream of any serious poet is to make something designed to endure. Let us by all means give the wonders of information technology their due; but let us also not forget that it can't and shouldn't supplant our fundamental need for poetry's "intuition technology."
In closing, it seems only fitting that I offer a little demonstration, and recite a poem for you that I have in my head, or if you prefer, by heart. It's a sliver of verse composed centuries ago by no one knows who or exactly when, usually anthologized under the title "Western Wind." Here's how it goes:
Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
That's all. That's it. Four lines, a single quatrain, and no sweat at all to commit to memory. So why do it? Well, the short answer is, I couldn't help it. These lines touched a nerve, as the saying goes. They spoke to me and demanded to be spoken through me. That's one of the things that poetry thanks to its technology of memory, its intuition technology is engineered so well to do. When we commit a poem to memory and say it aloud, our breath quite literally embodies the poet's words. In this instance, the poet's name is Anonymous, that fabulous bard who also wrote so many great prayers and hymns and ballads and drinking songs. We will never know the identity of this poet, but in a certain sense we know the poet intimately, because the poem, and all the emotion and experience it contains, has been concentrated into something we can carry with us, inside us. And in so doing, we come to know ourselves more intimately as well, for the lines help remind us of who we are: creatures who are full of longing, who look for signs in the sky, who ask the things of the world, the very winds and stars, for large and small favors; creatures who chant and lament and rock rhythmically and turn those rhythms into memorable songs and stories and lullabies and charms; creatures who want winter to end and spring rains to turn things green again and to return to the ones we hold dear.
I have purposely selected a poem of exceeding brevity in order to emphasize that the art of memory I'm agitating for here is not be confused with showstopping circus feats of memory power such as rattling off a couple dozen of Shakespeare's sonnets on cue or spouting whole pages out of Paradise Lost. That kind of industriousness can be intellectually stimulating, I suppose, but to me it's an approach to memory that smacks more of sport than art. Another thing that makes this little poem "Western Wind" such a talisman for me is the small miracle that it has come down to us at all and how we can be pretty darn sure that it was preserved in warm blooded memory long before it was set down in cold type.
If you trawl the Web's vast deeps of memory, you can haul up an array of analyses about what this anonymous verse signifies and how we might take its meaning. You'll learn that the poem comes down to us from Middle English, which is to say, the idiom of Chaucer, and that it first appeared in written form in a sixteenth century anthology, along with a musical setting. You'll be reminded that the "western wind" the poem evokes refers to the prevailing winds coming from the west that in England are the harbingers of spring. You'll find commentaries conjecturing that the lines were composed by a soldier out on a campaign on the edges of the known world, far from home and shivering in the bitter wintry chill. But none of this tells us anywhere near as much as the lines themselves do, all by their lonesome, particularly when we call on the mother of the muses and allow the lines to speak through us again.
So here's to Mnemosyne long may she continue to work in her strange and mysterious ways. When it comes to bringing language back to life, this mother truly knows best.
About the Author
David Barber received the Terrence Des Pres Prize for his first book of poems, The Spirit Level (Northwestern University Press). His new collection, Wonder Cabinet is just out from Northwestern. He is the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly and teaches at MIT.
Journal of Contemporary Culture
Georgia College & State University
Editor: Martin Lammon
Poetry Editor: Alice Friman
Fiction Editor: Allen Ghee
Creative Nonfiction Editor: Karen Salyer McElmurray
Drama Editor: David Muschell