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Memory and its absences.

When one of our memories slips away from us -- a face, a name, the exact circumstances of a Long-ago event -- it can be the most maddening of experiences. We search amidst our conscious mind's architecture for clues or scraps of recollection; we hope our unconscious will somehow come to the rescue. And it is not just the individual who is plagued with these mental gaps. It is truly numbing to consider all that has been forgotten utterly by our species over its long history -- whole peoples, canons, and their countless tongues.

MY first encounter with memory and its various absences as existential issues came when I was a nine teen-year-old undergraduate. For emotional reasons I only dimly remember now, I found myself staying awake for several days. It soon seemed I had forgotten how to sleep. Except for occasionally falling upon very brief shards of it, from which I'd find myself waking. At first it became a "who-needs-sleep?" game I initially half chose to continue (my being an undergraduate might explain much) but one which I soon could not stop playing. I found myself wandering within a sense of time that ran faster and faster, with the nights and days flying by with an increasing and soon extraordinary speed, as if flipping around me and planet earth, forcing me to realize how short the nights really were. Little more than a glass of beer is how I thought of them, when previously I used to think of them more along the lines of vast expanses of dark rest in re-energizing, bottomless waters in great hidden lakes.

Staying awake as I did, I soon felt I was losing dear illusions of psychological havens, and I was also losing, palpably, much intellectual ability, when I did not think I had much to spare. I have always been on the innumerate side, but I could barely count change any more, at all. Caught awake in that drug-like present that would not let me go, and having always been a downright religious enthusiast of sleep, and of dream, I also became convinced that if I did not soon find a way out, I would become thoroughly idiotized. My memory had begun to go surprisingly quickly, as if now that I was a creature of the present, it was not needed quite as much. It was a very reductive experience. If memory is, as was said by the ancients, the treasure house of all things, I felt I had managed to empty the place. As well as myself.

YEARS LATER, while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, I came across an experience similar to mine when the people of the village of Macondo are infected by a plague carried to them by passing gypsies -- sleeplessness. One by one they fall to sleeplessness, and with it comes a loss of memory that forces the villagers to put written signs on familiar objects -- such as "Tree" -- and even to post such reminders as "God exists," just so they might remember.

The people of the novel's New World utopia -- young and healthy as they are, and so at one with Nature -- carry a great anxiety from a great sin: incest, from the marriage of their founding couple. They worry constantly that in the New World their children (as was once already the case) will be born with tails. The terrible anxiety is that, in their rediscovered Edenic state of Nature, they will lose their humanity, become animals, sink back lower into nature and disappear in the darkness of the American forest. Whatever the reason, they greatly fear that what disappears with memory, and the narrative that is a self, is the humanity that made them in the image of God, above the beasts, who are enviable perhaps in their lowly freedom, but still lowly. They would indeed become beasts, much like the animals Adam named -- or catalogued, one might say -- with that now lost Adamic language that was also reputedly more precise and closer to reality than our own post-lapsarian languages are. Adam knew what he named t he animals, and they did not know what they were named. Nor much cared, as he went about practising human consciousness. Memory, and its necessity for thought and higher consciousness, one in the image of God's, have been linked for us from the very beginning.

We know of a similar moment of anxiety about the fear of having sunk into barbarity through the loss of memory. It happened, reports Frances Yates in her incomparable book, The Art of Memory, to none other than Charlemagne himself. She called it "one of the most poignant moments in the history of western civilization," when Charlemagne calls the supposedly great rhetorician and artificial memory artist, Alcuin, to his presence and asks him to revive the educational system of antiquity for the new Carolingian empire. Let us not forget that people of Charlemagne's time supposed that the ancients knew everything, a great bounty of wisdom that had been all but lost in Europe's Dark Ages. This was an age, very unlike ours, where the greatest knowledge was understood to reside in the past rather than the future.

Arriving at the subject of memory, one of the five parts of rhetoric, the conversation between Charlemagne and Alcuin goes as follows:

Charlemagne: What are you to say about memory, which I deem the noblest part of rhetoric?

Alcuin: What indeed unless I repeat the words of Marcus Tullius that "Memory is the treasure house of all things and unless it is made custodian of the thought-out things and words, we know that all the other parts of the orator, however distinguished they may be, will come to nothing."

Charlemagne: Are there not other precepts which tell us how it can be obtained and increased?

Alcuin: We have no other precepts about it except to exercise in memorizing, practice in writing, application to study, and the avoidance of drunkenness, which does the greatest possible injury to all good studies.

At which point the normally serene Frances Yates, outraged and horrified, exclaims: "The artificial (art of) memory has disappeared! Its rules have gone, replaced by 'avoid drunkenness!'" With so few books, the West had fundamentally forgotten its own identity, with cultivated memory no longer being present to serve as that essential "custodian of the thought-out things." After all that Christian darkness, featuring the most sustained campaign of iconoclasm in European history with the mutilation of antique statues from the fourth century onwards, from the Christian conviction that pagan statues were inhabited by demons, high, mind-stretching intellectual activity had been replaced by mere low-level moralizing such as "avoid drunkenness."

BUT the loss of both past and identity also sometimes appeals, even if (or because) it removes us from being in the image of that highly conscious god. It offers a respite, if not freedom, from carrying the burden of being ourselves. By which I mean, the ones we think we should be. It can even offer briefly to end the solitude of the master in the relentless war that is the master/slave relationship, if the master is allowed to forget to be master (not recommended if he wishes to remain one). We find it in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, when Alice enters "the wood where things have no name." Amnesiac Alice -- who cannot answer her own "Who in the world am I?" -- had been on her way to fulfilment, playing the role of Queen on the chess board, that ancient metaphor for war and life. But suddenly she finds herself unable to recollect what she should call herself -- or even, like the people of Macondo, to summon the memory of what a tree "calls itself."

In trying to remember ("L. I know it begins with L ...") she finds herself, for once, enjoying a welcome rest in the cool shade offered by this strange wood. She even has a taste of warm, egalitarian company in the only moment of cessation of hostilities in either Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass (I discount her tenderness toward her alter ego, Dinah the cat, who is, Alice proudly tells a terrified mouse, "such a capital one for catching mice!"). This occurs when a fawn comes peaceably wandering near her, and a now timid Alice asks the animal to tell her, please, who she is. The fawn begs off doing so in the wood, for it cannot remember anything there either, and so with "Alice's arms clasped lovingly around the soft neck of the fawn" they go out to an open field. Suddenly the deer, with a leap of delight, cries out, "I'm a fawn!" and then, after a look of alarm, "And, dear me! You're a human child!" And it boils away. Prey and predator have been once more identified, and so have the parts they must pl ay. Loving has ended.

Alice is on the point of crying after this loss, but soon her identity returns to her with her memory: "However, I know my name now. That's some comfort. Alice -- Alice -- I won't forget it again. And now which of these finger-posts ought I to follow, I wonder?" And so she proceeds, resigned to being alone but necessarily toughened, on her road to ultimate power as master of the chessboard. Or so she hopes -- troubled as she is by the news of the Red King that might be dreaming her, which would mean she is not master after all. As Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice, "The question is: which is to be master. That is all."

But what most distinguishes this character from Adam, another master of his paradise, is that Carroll's Darwinian Alice -- who is accurately called "a kind of serpent" by a pigeon and who has found herself sounding surprisingly like a crocodile in "the pool of tears" (reptiles, as we know, have very negative press in the Bible) -- precisely for her amorality and lack of compassion for the story's many, many victims is shown to us not in the higher image of a moral god, but in that of Darwinian beast. Indeed, she is akin to the very worst of Darwin's creatures, those with no consciousness of (nor interest in) the suffering of others. Carroll, clearly hostile to Alice, is intent on depriving her of her illusion of mastery -- not by conjuring a gypsy plague of insomnia and forgetfulness like that of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but on the contrary by attempting to infect her with the awareness of suffering, and then not allowing her to forget. For her part, Alice is intent on being oblivious to each reminder s he encounters, while living as unreflectively in the present as possible, rejoicing in the will to power.

Therefore, when Alice finally arrives at the eighth square, she finds a banquet and what Carroll's agent, the Red Queen (not his only one), calls a final "test" before she can be created a true queen. A waiter brings mutton on a tray, and before the eager Alice can get at it with carving knife and fork, the Red Queen stops her with an introduction -- "Mutton, Alice. Alice, Mutton." The mutton stands up to greet Alice with a little bow, returned by Alice, who an instant later is cheerfully offering to carve slices for all around the table. But the Red Queen stops her very decidedly with, "Certainly not, it isn't etiquette to cut anyone you have been introduced to. Remove the joint!" And another tray arrives bearing plum pudding, whereupon Alice hastily says, "I won't be introduced to the pudding, please, or we shall not get any dinner at all. May I give you some?"

Alice's great weapon here is the unconsciousness she hopes to maintain in the teeth of Carroll's challenges, so she can enjoy the feast of life as its dominant predator. The pool of tears into which Alice falls is created by the self-pitying animals before they are born into the world. As we see in the indignant mouse who dislikes cats, these creatures have a sense of tragedy about their destiny as victims, a sentiment Carroll clearly shares. Darwinian nature, "red in tooth and claw," is a ceaseless hell for them, but paradise for Alice so long as she is unconscious and has no guilt. Her unconsciousness, and animality, based on her apparently invincible resistance to being reminded, is also her greatest vulnerability, although she would not think so. But Carroll clearly does, because for him it is what makes her less than human - or a lesser human, at least.

The appeal of the kinds of forgetting that leave us far short of the image of God can be very strong indeed, especially for more sensitive and humane types than Alice. We all can understand the porcine lotophagi of Greek legend, the shamefully debased people whom Homer represents as eating lotus so as to enter a state of dreamy forgetfulness where there is a "loss of all desire to return home." Here is the delicious sin of wallowing in being less than human, and in a foretaste of death, it would seem. This I say from having come across one Max Muller, a German anthropologist reporting in 1900 on the ancient Egyptians, those great death travellers. He notes that "after death the souls enter the calyx of a lotus" - apparently acceptable behaviour for the dead, but not right for the living. Being live lotophagi has generally seemed to us cheating, an indecent self-indulgence, and to be avoided for fear of liking it too much.

The loss of memory presents itself before us again and again as the loss of our existence as humans, one way or another. The atavistic old, entering oblivion through dementias of many kinds, not merely the feared Alzheimer's, can seem to have left most if not all of their humanity behind, though in their case it does not appear to be as enjoyable a lowly condition as that achieved by the lotophagi. Or, in her way, by the lucidly obtuse Alice.

REMEMBERING and consciousness are something else for us, connected to human life at its highest, which brings me to a story about the poet Simonides, whom tradition identifies as the inventor of the art of memory. Frances Yates recovered it from Cicero, and I here recover it from her. It is the story of how Simonides came to invent the very same art of memory that Charlemagne's Alcuin, and Western civilization, would later forget.

It happened at a banquet, which I take to have been orgiastic, hosted by a Thesalian nobleman named Scopas, who hired Simonides to compose and chant a lyric poem in his honour. This the poet did, before all the guests and their host, but in addition to his praise of Scopas, he included a long passage in praise of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. Scopas was not at all pleased at sharing the limelight, even with the gods, and in front of everyone told the poet he would only pay a part of the sum to which he hitherto had agreed (for Simonides is also credited with originating the idea that poets should be paid), and that Simonides could go collect the balance from the gods, to whom he had devoted half the poem. I imagine there must have been general approving laughter from the guests as the nobleman, publicly displaying his wit, put the poet in his place, and himself among the gods. Simonides, the servant, could only lump it.

A little later, as the orgiastic banquet progressed, a message came for the still miffed Simonides informing him that two young men were waiting outside to see him. So out he went to meet the mysterious callers, but found no one there. However, during the few moments he was outside the roof of the banquet hall suddenly came crashing down, crushing the nobleman Scopas and all his guests. Uncovered in the rubble, the corpses were so mangled that relatives who came to claim them could not identify their kin.

But as it happened, Simonides was able to remember the places at which each guest had been sitting and even what their postures had been, and was therefore able to identify which dead belonged to which relatives. So out of this tragedy, supposedly, were born the principles of Simonides' art of memory: through this feat of recollection, he came to understand that orderly arrangement is essential to good memory. Thus, translating from Cicero, Frances Yates reports to us with cheerful practicality:

He (Simonides) inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places ... and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-table and the letters written on it.

Interesting as the tricks and techniques of this visual art of memory may be - making for a mastery of the "storehouse of all things" - what I find more appealing is how the gods indeed paid Simonides for their share of the panegyric, and why they did. The two young men who called him out of the banquet hall, just before it caved in and crushed everybody else to death, were no doubt Castor and Pollux, the twin gods themselves. They were rewarding the poet for singing their praises, while simultaneously punishing the arrogant nobleman Scopas and all those guests who had laughed.

But it seems clear that there was a more important reason for sparing the life of the poet than just rewarding his piety. He was saved by the gods for the task of remembering the past and saving it from time's flow for the rest of the human tribe. In that banquet hall edifice where the present became, inevitably, a rubble which no one else could reclaim and decipher for the living relatives who stayed behind, there stood Simonides, whose mission was to recover it for all the others. Lest we all get lost in the rubble. His task was to reorganize it in his mind in an orderly way (in his case through images and words) so as to be able to invoke it at will, and bring it back to life in the present as no one else could. His memory art is different in this way from Proust's less willed and more passive memory art, but with similar ends. We humans do seem to have more to do with the past than other animals. In the long tradition of saying what it is that separates us in kind from the animals, especially after the sh ock of Darwin's telling us that we are animals too, I am now prepared to side with those who see the greatest difference as our relationship to the past, and to narrative, as part of our present. This is what I felt close to losing when I was nineteen and stayed awake too long

BUT now, after so many of the differences we had jealously counted on to guard our higher rank on the planet have evaporated as illusory, it almost would not surprise us if we were to read that a "new study" strongly suggests that the singing whales are actually bards, and that all those bleeps and whirrs and whines are grandly constructed epics about the divine and heroic origins of their pods. And that the reason sharks do not sing nor have any memory art, even of the most minimal kind, is because they never sleep. Unless they do.

JUAN ALONSO is the author of five novels and the founding editor of the Boston Review. He teaches literature and creative writing at Tufts University, and has received a National Endowment for the Arts Award. Killing the Mandarin is now in paperback, and he has just published The Chipped Wall and Two Other Stories.
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Author:Alonso, Juan
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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