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On Memory and Memorizing

Memory, Where Art Thou?

There’s a book I fondly remember–or fondly have forgotten, since its actual contents form but a haze in my psyche. It’s the autobiography of one fine Russian writer, whose title as we know it reads: Speak, Memory!

Though the contents of the book I’ve mostly forgotten, an anecdote in the introduction of my edition, by the author of the book himself, glows in my mind as if it must have some cumbersome significance, at least to me: the title of the book should have been Speak, Mnemosyne!, had it not been altered at the behest of those practical souls forgotten by history, the editors. Nabokov had been told that his readership–whom he jocularly claimed to be elderly and female–would not recognize the name by which we invoke the “Mother of the Muses.”

This personification/deification of memory held no connotation of the mother as some outdated creature to be replaced and outdone by the next generation of sons and daughters. Rather, the idea is that she is greater because she could pass on and actualize, through reproduction, the diversity of the various arts from the small source of a single body. Descendance in families contains the same negativity with which language and culture regard downwardness and backwardness in general. None of the daughters alone could live up to Memory. In the old way of seeing things, the ages shift from gold to bronze to iron, the races from gods, to heroes, to mortals, and–within the theogony–power becomes gradually sparser: Zeus is more than his son Apollo ever could be, the sky containing the sun.

This narrative of descent contrasts–shockingly–our current narratives of ascent, retold by the Steven Pinkers among us, reminding us that we are now rich, though our ancestors were poor. So much much must be true. But still, how can we explain the weird oppositeness of such overarching narratives of world development? The fact that technology improves lives must have been just as true then as now. Maybe, though, we lose something by creating aids to achieve what had formally been achieved by the unaided individual. What has, for example, the development of combustion and then electric engines done to the worth of human muscular strength; we tend to take more pride in our cars than in our biceps. As we externalize the powers once seated in the human individual, we actually lose some of our heroism.

Nietzsche famously told us that “God Is Dead,” a phrase which arrives naked and thriving into our intellectual world, without its author ever explicitly mentioning–as far as I know–that it contains all of the ludic, energetic quality of the oxymoron. If immortals–the deathless–can die, then anything can happen. It’s something which formal logic expresses precisely: If 1 is equal to 2, then elephants can fly. That statement is true, because false implies false is always true! This little digression is just to show how much is at stake in such a change.

Nietzsche’s claim might be interpreted as the idea that God no longer reigns in man’s psyche as he once did. If God is dead, then has his daughter, Memory, followed him now, into the grave? Technically no, I guess, she’s still around–but boy her Alzheimer’s is a burden to her caretakers!

Memorizing Macheath

Recently, I memorized a monologue–a celebrated moment in German Literature, in which Mack the Knife (Mackie Messer), notorious star criminal, has the noose around his neck. The speech is political, anti-capitalist in a way that partially makes fun of anti-capitalism (perhaps the only way to do so without devolving into propaganda and kitsch). Macheath’s ability to reason so eloquently, the flourishes of wit, the ease of self-control, is the epitome of grace under pressure, “What is a lockpick against a stock? What is a back robbery against the founding of a new bank? What is murdering a man against employing a man?” My translation sounds awkward, but in German the speech is brilliant, and one which made me fall in love with theater many years ago.

In order to memorize the text, I read the speech a few times, then bought some flashcards and wrote individual sentences on one side, with only numbers on the others. Then I went through the cards and made a grid on a sheet of paper, noting which sentences I was having trouble with. After doing this a number of times, I was able to recite the whole text–albeit not entirely fluently–and felt enormously relieved. And beyond this relief, a kind of gentle pleasure arrived–that I had been able to revive an atrophied ability, and now had achieved a more intimate relationship to an excellent piece of literature.

Though I had memorized several poems as an undergraduate–that was a long time ago, and much has changed since…

Barbarians at The Gate

The name “google” comes from the a mathematical term “googol,” a one with one-hundred zeros behind it. The idea is that this is very big number–though, of course, there are always bigger numbers–a googol plus one, for example, or a “googol plex”–a one with one googol zeros behind it.

So in 1998, Google was baptized with a name suggesting grand plans. These seem to have worked out. If we are lucky enough to have purchased stock back in 1998, we might now enjoy having a very large number of dollars, though not even close to a googol dollars.

The relative obscurity of this name, as well as the actual services the company offers, don’t quite match what it actually became. This was corrected in 2015, when a conglomerate was formed under the name “Alphabet Inc.” For the search machine–in its current best incarnation as Google–has changed human life just as profoundly as did the invention of writing.

The thing about having Google–and many other software products–is that we are much less likely to memorize. We don’t need to memorize phone numbers, because they are stored in our phones. We don’t need to memorize birthdays, because we receive notifications on Facebook when those days come around. And memorizing facts seems a little silly, when we can just look them up on Wikipedia. On the other hand, there are specific tools used in specific lines of work, such as the teleprompter, which allows politicians and other media professionals to forget what to say. Karaoke systems tell the singer exactly what to sing–along with lush animated vizualizations to help him keep his rhythm. In the future, maybe our smart glasses will provide glowing name tags for everyone at the premiere, business meeting, or birthday party, invisible to the person whose name we’re no longer concerned about forgetting.

As we learn to rely on this technology, our memory atrophies.

This is the continuation of a story which began a long time ago–with the invention of writing, and later, the printing press–which lead to the mass availability of written texts. We know what we now call literature begins before this point, in “oral traditions,” in which long texts are performed live, and passed down, without the aide of writing. The scholars among us claim to hear this dying art in Homer. Now-a-days, some of our best bards rely on teleprompters when performing.

Will technology’s continual threat to memory, spanning all of history with no sign of relenting, culminate in the complete destruction of human memory? If so, will we have any vestige of a sense of self?

Meanwhile, we have also damaged our memories through the usage of mind-altering substances, such as alcohol and marijuana. Do we take such substances in order to forget? Or is forgetting just a side effect, contingent to the pleasures, or feelings of liberation, or mind-expansion, they might provide? Both, I guess, but if we overindulge in such pleasures, we may feel quite dismayed when we forget where we put our keys, or to turn off the oven, or that we have to work tomorrow. In the worst case, we forget our kids’ names: the long-term addict suffers from dementia and a significant loss of the sense of self, a sad fate.

Old Techniques for Memorization

In the past, performers and politicians had to memorize long texts–at one point even without the aide of the written word–though memorization may have been admixed with improvisation. As this need become continuously less common, our arsenal for memorization has dulled over time. With this in mind, a person inspiring to improve his/her memory may research antiquated mnemonic techniques. Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory explores just this area of intellectual history.

The ancient examples, if I recall correctly, all present variations on The Method of Loci, in which the phrases to be recalled are mapped to memorable spaces, such as a series of rooms in a palace. We visualize moving through these rooms as the sentences follow one another. Sometimes the rooms are marked by the presence of memorable objects, and sometimes these objects replace the spaces completely. This family of techniques, according to the wikipedia article linked above, seems to make sense in the context of our current materialist views on mind, and is still used, in some form or another, by our modern mnemonists.

In the Renaissance–a period of history just as trippy as our more actual reference, the 1960s–theories on the art of memory refer to the zodiac, to “hermetic magic,” and the occult. There’s a sense in, for example, Giordano Bruno’s De Umbris Idearum, that everything which exists is already present in the mind, in some form. The title–“On the shadows of ideas” evokes the platonic view of an objective, heavenly world of perfect concepts, which corresponds to our own debased world of their instantiations. Why shouldn’t this world be marked on us, as latent knowledge, forgotten, for whatever reason, but whose memory can be awoken through the correct technique?

For better or worse, Yates seems to take for granted the common, modern view that Renaissance “magic” must be nonsense, that Bruno’s and related systems could never have any truth to them. The book would have been better, if it had taken a more neutral stance. It may be impossible to write without the support of axioms which must give a kind of spin to the argument; and yet, isn’t the axiom that magic is bogus a terrible choice on a book with many chapters dedicated to magic? She was writing in her time, and could not make a better choice.

For a later scholar who goes perhaps a little too far in the other direction, check out Ioan Petru Culianu, especially his work titled Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. If I recall correctly (wink), it doesn’t treat memory at all. It suggests that we leave the question of the existence of “magic” open–or even–that there’s likely some truth in it. Everybody seems to have believed in magic during the Renaissance, and doesn’t the ubiquity of this belief suggest that it may be (partially) sound?

But I digress: it’s time to get back to the world in which I can command my cellphone to locate itself, in which my passwords are all stored in digital vaults, my calendars remind me of all my appointments, and in which a great deal of human knowledge can be asking our phones to look X up on wikipedia.

Our technology thus provides us with an environment perhaps as magical as any theories of the occult. But we should always be wary that, as we increase our power through technology, we externalize what used to be part of ourselves. At worst, such an important element of selfhood faces total atrophy; at best, our intimacy with our own memories may fade.

Practice may be the only cure to our impending memory loss. There’s no need for advanced or obscure mnemonic techniques, though; and certainly no need for “magic.” After all, our technology is magic enough and its side effect is what we’re trying to prevent!

I suggest, therefore, the acquisition of some flashcards. Then, steal away for some quiet hours memorizing something wholesome with them. While you’re working on your monologue, poem, foreign language, or periodic table, open all of your senses: how do you feel, while engaged in this activity? Do you feel a little more like you than you usually do?

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