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.

More about reading aloud

To have supper as guest in a Benedictine monastery, where a book is read during the meal, is to have a potent experience of what is generated when a group hears memorable words read aloud.

Here at school, one of our department had read the Aeneid a number of times in the original, but it was a revelation for her to read it aloud with a sixth form Classical Civilisation group—in English, in a prose translation, without the diction of the poet.  “I didn’t realise,” she said, “how memorable the Aeneid is, or how often memory itself is a recurring theme in it.”

Another story that, like the Aeneid, is written in praise of memory is The Brothers Karamazov, of which Donald Nicholl says: ‘I am convinced that (it) cannot be appreciated if it is read in isolation. It must be read in community, each sharing insights into the meaning of this profound statement… Like everything else that is worthwhile, The Brothers Karamazov is meant to be shared in community.’ (The Beatitude of Truth, Chapter 5.)

Nicholl later quotes from the book itself words spoken by Alyosha: ‘I’m sure you will remember that there is nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome and more useful in life than some good memory, especially when it goes back to the days of your childhood, to the days of your life at home. You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory preserved since childhood is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days.’

People remember things that were said to them fifty years ago, in the exact words. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but is the voice even more powerful? Both Greeks and Romans thought so.

On the subject of reading aloud, see a link from The Guardian:

Next post: gerunds, gerundives and other things grammatical.