Memory and Writing

Memory, Cell Phones, and the Invention of Writing

There’s an old story about memory that’s valid in today’s age of cell phones and other devices that make the memory superfluous. At least superfluous until the device breaks down. I remember the story, but not where it’s from. Maybe Plato? That would suit him since memory plays a large role in his philosophy, which he claims is hard wired into the brain: one simply has to remember how it works. It would be easy enough to look up where it’s from, but that would be cheating! It goes something like this: in the old day before there was writing, people simply remembered things. It was an oral tradition. Travelling rhapsodes could remember the whole of the Iliad and recite from memory. In case you’re wondering how impressive that is, well, it’s LONG as the Iliad itself is long. Hence the popular expressions ‘an Iliad of trouble’ means a LOT of trouble. Maybe its one of those popular expressions that no one knows… At any rate, people in general had very good memories. Even dates involved remembering who won the Olympiad, since they didn’t say ‘in 450 BC’ but rather ‘in the second year after so and so won the Olympiad’.

But anyway, one day Thoth invented writing. He was showing off his new invention to Ptah or one of the other gods claiming that writing is the best thing since they invented sliced bread. ‘Look, you can write it all down now!’, he would say. Ptah replies, ‘What will happen to people’s memory?’, and walks away, unimpressed. I could just imagine his reaction to the iPhone.

Memory and Writing

It occurred to me while working on Paying Melpomene’s Price today how crucial memory is. I’m currently working on the section juxtaposing tragedy with history. One of the tasks is to note how tragedy downplays the importance of history and vice-versa. Well, in one of Goethe’s tragedies one character attacks another by telling him ‘he should be a historian’. But I was having a hard time finding a history writer who belittled tragedy or tragedians. The best was Tacitus’ A Dialogue on Oratory where the orator Maternus gives up the bar to to become a tragedian. His fellow orators question the use of tragedy, glorifying the importance of the lawyer life in the public eye. The example wasn’t a good fit to my thesis. But since I couldn’t remember anything else, I stretched it into the Procrustean bed of the argument. It wasn’t pretty. First of all, although Tacitus is a historian, he’s really talking about tragedy versus oratory, not tragedy versus history. And it’s almost as though he takes Maternus’ side in the debate. Aper, the fellow he argues against, is a bit of an unlikable hothead. Anyway, I argued that although it was oratory versus tragedy, orator stood in for history since it was active in a sense. After all, a lot of histories are just one speech after another speech, or, in other words, oratory. It wasn’t a pretty argument.

But hey, in another post I argued that when a writer gets stuck, the best thing to do is to keep going: you’ll find a solution down the road. It turns out this time the advice works. So today I was reviewing Polybius’ The Rise of the Roman Empire and what do you know: there’s a passage that begins, ‘the task of the historian is the exact opposite as that of a tragedian’. Bingo! So I excised the paragraph on A Dialogue on Oratory from the text and inserted Polybius. But the funny thing is that in my edition of Polybius, many years ago I had marked up that section! Not only had I marked in up, I had written little notes in the margins. Well, I had completely forgot! If I had remembered, it would have saved a considerable amount of time. And that’s what got me thinking on how important memory is to writers. I mean I could make a rolodex or some kind of spreadsheet of where everything is, but it’s hard to know ten years in advance what sort of information you’ll need in the future! Can you plan ten years in advance? So memory remains important: you can carry it around until its required.

Writers Who are Masterminds at Memory

Boethius is the first name that comes to mind. In the 6th century, the Emperor Theodoric threw the philosopher in jail on possibly trumped up charges of treason. Without his books, Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy to comfort himself. In the book, Lady Philosophy visits Boethius in jail, and helps him find consolation by recalling the philosophical precepts which he had forgotten (since he had been gallivanting around town with the poetical Muses, of course).

In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius quotes Plato (he’s a neo-Platonist), Homer, Herodotus, Cicero, etc., And not just little quotes: there’s some substantial block quotes thrown in there. That’s just the sort of memory a writer needs.

I used to think writing was an art. Something based on inspiration. Still do. But it sure helps to have a good memory. If you can’t remember, you can’t be inspired. But if you happen to remember at the right time, the world’s your oyster. That’s probably why so many writers recommend walks. Walks stimulate the memory into remembering old patterns. Nietzsche said that ‘any thought not originating from a healthy walk is not worth a dime’ (or something like that). Nietzsche liked the ‘superman’ type of walk: there was a certain mountain he would go up and down each day. That’s sort of surprising given his poor health. Goethe was also a big walker. So was Beethoven, who loved his woodland hikes. Think of the famous bird call played on a flute in the Pastoral Symphony. Showers work in the same way. Elon Musk of Tesla Motor and Space X fame has spoken of the virtues of the tub.

Memory Techniques (or Mnemonic Techniques)

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Poetry used to be a good way to work out the memory. The mind must be sort of like a muscle (though it’s not). But like a muscle in that if you work it out it pumps it up. And, considering the mind is the most complicated thing in the universe, it seems a shame not to use it to the maximum. I’ve been thinking of committing parts of the Iliad to memory. Once, on an exchange trip to Germany, there were all of us young kids and one retired doctor. I can’t even remember his name but I can see his face. When I told him I studied Classics, he started reciting the beginning of the Iliad. In Greek. When he was a lad in grade school, they still taught Greek and encouraged students to memorize large portions of the texts. Memory might have even been its own subject back then. But much more than it is now. He could still remember the lines. And he spoke it with such feeling that it was amazing to hear.

Another mnemonic technique is ‘the house’. I learned this one from Professor Charles Fornara. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to encounter genius. In my life there’s maybe two people whom I have met that might have fit that word. He was the first one. Anyway, in class one day he told us the ancient technique. If you have something to remember, make a house in your head. It helps if you’re familiar with the house. Start somewhere: a hallway or a room. Say you start with a hallway. Next time you have something to remember, stick it somewhere in the room: on the wall, behind the painting, under the matt. You pick. And each time you have something else to remember, put it somewhere else. Do it until the room is full. Then move on to the next room. Keep going.

The technique is interesting since it seems to be in accord with how the mind works. It’s almost like a computer files, which are set up along the same lines. You might not remember what’s in a spreadsheet, but you can remember the path of folders and subfolders to get there. Professor Fornara did this technique for years, but eventually abandoned it after it got too big: the housekeeping was enormous and it was ‘getting up to be the size of the universe’, as he said. I tried it too. For a few months. It works. They cool thing after a few months is that you can start wandering through the house, finding things as you go. Yes, sometimes you have to do some light dusting to refresh the memory about what is where. Try it out and let me know! It might make you a better writer!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work in the muggy summer heat.

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