Committing to Memory

by Sam Buntz | 11/28/10 11:00pm

I have a considerable amount of nostalgia for the 19th century. This is possibly misplaced after all, we have abolished slavery, discovered penicillin, etc. But, I suppose the thing that I look back on as being of worth has more to do with personal development with what kind of human beings we're trying to create. Obviously, social and medical conditions have improved immensely. No argument there. But there is a notable lack of self-cultivation in the world today. By "self-cultivation" I simply mean the age-old formula of forcing human beings to gain some measure of control over their own minds, by forcing those minds to adopt certain patterns of thought. In the West, this traditionally took the form of doing things like memorizing parts of The Iliad in the original Greek. In the East, it took the form of epic recitations of great poems like the Ramayana, yogic practice, tai chi, etc. In the Islamic world, people still routinely memorize the Koran in its entirety. And so memory, I believe, is the key to what we are missing.

Recently, as part of my own meager efforts, I've taken to memorizing poems purely for my own health and enjoyment (and, apparently, as an annoying thing to do at parties). It's not at all a matter of rote memorization. I've actually found it to be more a matter of savoring the sound and meaning of words until I've fully digested them. I've been surprised by how many patterns I've found within the tiniest poems, how many subtle shifts and tricks of language. When you take in information through memorization, you're making your mind bend to the design of the poem, and it really helps you start to see the order of your own mind. You start to see so many connections between things within literature and without the help of any "artificial paradises" (drugs) either. Here's an exercise: Read "Design" by Robert Frost a few times. And then read "The Rhodora" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another couple of times. And just see what you think.

Rather than viewing memory as a mechanical process, in which we essentially turn ourselves into computers and read data over and over again until it is programmed into our heads, we need to view it as a creative one. The reason Dante was able to write the Divine Comedy and the reason Milton was able to write Paradise Lost was not only because they had a vast database of classical literature stored in their minds it was because, when all of that information was in place, it seemed to fall naturally into patterns. It stuck together, formed certain constellations of thought. The poets examined all of the connections and interrelations between the vast amount of things they remembered and put that coherence on paper, bending the order of the past into something fresh and new. Without at least some significant store of memories literary and cultural the brain is helpless. Lacking sufficient input, it will fail to be irradiated in all of its powers. Our own creative projects probably will not measure up to Dante's or Milton's, but without memory without at least a small portion of the library of humankind within quick mental reach they won't add up to anything.

Remembering anything is quite out of fashion these days. We do not remember The Alamo any more than we remember Shakespearean sonnets or even World War II. This sounds like pessimistic old man talk. To some extent, that may be correct. But if you're willing to admit that memorization has fled from the curriculum, having been disparaged as rote and robotic, perhaps you'll being willing to listen to this argument as to how and why it should be restored.

The central mystery of memory seems to me to be this: When you memorize a poem, you do not simply remember some words. You remember something about yourself. Emerson said, "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." If we are to recover any understanding of ourselves or of anyone else, it seems to me that reviving certain practices of self-cultivation Eastern or Western or both will be essential. Otherwise, it is quite likely that we will improve social conditions and medical conditions, but without a corresponding growth in ourselves we who would profit from such changes.