Gifts of Mnemosyne

What service are we providing for children when we assist them in training the memory? The answers to that are complex.

Memory feeds the affections. In any recherche de temps perdu, the memories and images of sweet things in the past, and the people who provided them, are the material of gratitude and grateful response.

But in a literate society, people have not only their own memories to motivate and inspire: they can have, as a treasure and a comfort in their life, the music, the poetry and the stories of other people: which is why the committing of certain memorable passages to heart, and the recording of them, was regarded by our forebears as a valuable component of education.

‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’ said the woman in E M Forster (Aspects of the Novel.) She was adverting to a fact that did not escape Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four: that the word can be father to the thought.

Deprive people of words, and you take away their thoughts; of their history, and you remove their identity. Deprive them of memory and you take away the power of recognition.

George Steiner on education in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries:

‘Habits of communication and schooling, moreover, sprang directly from the concentration of memory. So much was learned and known by heart – a term beautifully apposite to the organic, inward presentness of meaning and spoken being within the individual spirit. The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources, is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an after-culture.’ (In Bluebeard’s Castle, Chapter 4.)

“Why look for counselling when you can listen to Bach’s B Minor Mass?” Whoever said that could have added that knowing some of the lines in Lycidas might help. But that would be only one of many consolationes to be found in the writings of our forebears.

Next post: Purple, and other colours.

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