Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2020: MEMORY, pt. 2

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
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[L.Q. cover, quotes, and images from Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2020: MEMORY, except where noted.]
[Right-click on a photo may give the option to open it separately.]
[NEW to Lapham’s Quarterly? See the standard notes at the end of this review. After 45+ LQ summaries I jump right in.]

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My desktop

The Voices In Time this issue are Save, Edit, and Delete.

An online Table of Contents is available HERE. Underlined items are a link. The left side links to the extract or essay, right side to author info. Inquiring minds may explore.


— I find the very first extract in each issue is often a contemporary piece, very up-to-date. Physicist Gene Tracy ponders selective ‘forgetting’ as technology advances. His blog site, itself a list of essays that pique my curiosity (check its Home Page), has a succinct summary of this piece:

“How much can we afford to forget, if we train machines to remember?

Without food we starve, without energy we huddle in the cold. And it is through widespread loss of memory that civilisations are at risk of falling into a looming dark age.”

“Civilisations evolve through strategic forgetting of what were once considered vital life skills. After the agrarian revolution of the Neolithic era, a farm worker could afford to let go of much woodland lore, skills for animal tracking, and other knowledge vital for hunting and gathering. In subsequent millennia, when societies industrialised, reading and writing became vital, while the knowledge of ploughing and harvesting could fall by the wayside.” (p. 23)

I often say if I were transported back in time and had to hunt my own food, I’d die in a very short time, or at least get very, very hungry.

“…most people no longer need to remember most things. This is not because that knowledge has been entirely forgotten or lost, but because someone or something else retains it. We just need to know whom to talk to, or where to go to look it up. (p. 24)

I think this is nothing new, as trade specialization has been with us for thousands of years. Still, with the advent of calculators it has been said that basic math skills have deteriorated. Since script handwriting, as opposed to print, is no longer taught in many schools, many of us can leave a note for our spouse that will be secret and unreadable code to our children.  A bonus, perhaps?

The loss of skills reminds me of the Eloi race in H.G. Wells’ 1895 love The Time Machine, for which Wikipedia notes:

“…humanity has evolved into two separate species: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi live a banal life of ease on the surface of the Earth while the Morlocks live underground, tending machinery and providing food, clothing, and inventory for the Eloi. … With all their needs and desires perfectly fulfilled, the Eloi have slowly become dissolute and naive… They do not perform much work, except to feed, play, and mate, and are characterized by apathy…”

Tracy concludes: “…memory can adapt and evolve. Some of that evolution invariably involves forgetting old ways, in order to free up time and space for new skills. Provided that older forms of knowledge are retained somewhere in our network, and can be found when we need them, perhaps they’re not really forgotten. Still, as time goes on, one generation gradually but unquestionably becomes a stranger to the next. (p. 26)

I like having more knowledge at my fingertips. I use Wikipedia many times every day. It’s better than having a set of dictionary and encyclopedia books on a cart to take everywhere. Still, I hear that lack of education is the cause of many modern crises.  What are people being taught, that we still harbor prejudices of our fellow Man, and lack appreciation and conservation of nature?

(detail, p. 4)

— Circa 95 A.D. Roman rhetorician Quintilian tells us of Simonides, the earliest known user of the memory palace method of memorization. (6th century B.C.)

“This achievement of Simonides appears to have given rise to the observation that it is an assistance to the memory if localities are sharply impressed upon the mind…” (p. 29) Brief, noteworthy, free online.

Ethologist (animal behavior) Konrad Lorenz has an intriguing piece on the mannerisms of the poor-sighted shrew, cutely titled by L.Q. ‘Taming of the Shrew”.

“In a territory unknown to it, the water shrew will never run fast except under pressure of extreme fear, and then it will run blindly along, bumping into objects and usually getting caught in a blind alley.” …

“But after a few repetitions, it is evident that the shrew recognizes the locality in which it finds itself and that it repeats, with the utmost exactitude, the movements which it per- formed the previous time. At the same time, it is noticeable that the animal moves along much faster whenever it is repeating what it has already learned.” (p. 30-31)

Stefan Zweig has a noteworthy piece (free) on remembering a Viennese cafe and an encyclopedic bookseller. I am always sad to be reminded he escaped Nazi Germany in 1934 and after sojourns in England and the U.S., resided in Brazil where he and his wife committed suicide in 1942. “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth,” he wrote.[17] (Wiki.) Au contraire, IMO. “…in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most popular writers in the world.[2]

In 1345 A.D. Richard de Bury (who? I meet many, many authors new to me every issue) writes of the beauty of books and the memories they hold, not unlike those modern machines we were discussing, but somehow more personal, more rewarding:

“Truth latent in the mind is wisdom that is hid and treasure that is not seen, but truth that shines forth in books desires to manifest itself to every impressionable sense.” (p. 40) Free.

(New readers please note, I encourage you to subscribe to L.Q.  I point to what is free only to whet your appetite. If you don’t have such, more’s the pity, but ‘no problem.’)

(p. 7)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (British poet, lived 1772-1834, Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan) has an intriguing piece on an illiterate young woman who ranted in numerous languages.  It happens she worked in a house where a man read books out loud. She had an incredible memory, despite her illiteracy. Free, online. A clue to finding it is right here in this very post, for the sleuth-worthy.

The author’s info on Coleridge (a friend of William Wordsworth) mentions his addiction to opium, so off to Wikipedia I went, as I hadn’t heard about this when exposed to Rime in college English Literature class during the previous century. Sure enough, he consumed large quantities of laudanum, possibly starting with childhood illnesses. There is some debate as to whether or not he produced some of his finer works under this influence. This reminds me a bit of Alan Watts, Western philosopher of Zen Buddhism, who alludes to enjoying wine and meditation collaboratively. I enjoyed Watts’ autobiography In My Own Way many years ago, particularly the first several chapters on his childhood. I recommend it. Speaking of childhoods, I was equally intrigued by the early chapters of My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I’m not a Thomas fan or enemy, but people have a history.

Brewster Kahle has a piece on archiving the internet. His 1996 extract says there are an estimated fifty million pages. Today some resources say there are 6.44 billion pages in the Indexed Web, whatever that is. It’s an increase of 128.8 times, if I’ve done the math correctly. Lest we forget.

Virginia Woolf I find a little incomprehensible (oxymoron?) in her extract from To The Lighthouse. Wikipedia and Sparks Notes provide summaries for the befuddled like me. First you must read it somewhere, as it’s not free from L.Q. It appears to be Chapter 9, starting “The house was left”. Sleuth-worthy. It is beautifully, almost poetically, written. Actress Nicole Kidman did a superb job portraying Ms. Woolf in the 2002 movie The Hours. But it’s about suicide again, and I am not about that.

Let me read that again. The first paragraph describes a decaying house. Written in 1927, and with Nature taking over the house, it reminds me of a rural, decaying farm house, open to the elements.  Woolf’s writing, as noted, is eloquently descriptive.

“The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the sway- ing shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots.” (p. 49)

The rest describes the cleaning and restoring of the house, with memories of old times interspersed. It’s better the second time through.

In 1595 China, Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci uses the memory palace system to remember Chinese characters: “For in truth this Memory Place System seems as if it had been invented for Chinese letters, for which it has particular effectiveness and use, in that each letter is a figure that means a thing.” (p. 50)

Old Trees, Level Distance (detail), by Guo Xi, c. 1080 (p. 25)

In 1130 Paris, Hugh of Saint-Victor encapsulates: “Matters that are learned are classified in the memory in three ways; by number, location, and occasion. Thus all the things that you may have heard you will both readily capture in your intellect and retain for a long time in your memory if you have learned to classify them according to these three categories.”

“The whole usefulness of education consists only in the memory of it, for just as having heard something does not profit one who cannot understand, likewise having understood is not valuable to one who either will not or cannot remember. Indeed, it was profitable to have listened only insofar as it caused us to have understood, and to have understood insofar as it was retained.” (p. 52)

I take back what I said about Virgina Woolf. Compared to Henri Bergson, she is clear as a bright, blue sky, sunlit day. Is memory experience, or vice versa, he posits? Free online. See what you think.

Ten extracts left in SAVE.  This isn’t taking too long, is it? ‘Time is on my side. Yes it is.’, according to an obscure-to-me philosopher songwriter. I haven’t covered every one of the first seventeen prior, for which you should be grateful. Many of the remaining touch on memory techniques.

Gregory Bateson is in 1930 New Guinea analyzing word associations of the Iatmul tribes, who were, at that time, recently converted from head-hunting. That must have been an experience. Wiki says he took 10,000 photographs. A valuable archive.

Richard Grey, 1730, refers to techniques…

“the design of which is not to make the memory better but things more easy to be remembered, so that by the help of it, an ordinary or even a weak memory shall be able to retain what the strongest and most extraordinary memory could not retain without it. For as he who first contrived to assist the eye with a telescope did not pretend to give sight to the blind, or make any alteration in the eye itself, but only to bring the objects nearer that they might be viewed more accurately and distinctly, so neither is it pretended by this art to teach those to remember everything who never could remember anything, or to make men in an instant skillful in sciences which before they were entirely unacquainted with, but only to enable them to retain with certainty and exactness what they have already a general and competent knowledge of, that they may not be obliged upon every occasion to have fresh recourse to their books or maps, or be under the tiresome necessity of reading the same things again and again, still forgetting them as fast as they read them.” (p. 57-58)

I applaud his intent, but the method escapes me. Per the author side bar: “His method for ensuring the recall of facts involves substituting numerical digits with letters, which could then be combined into pronounceable, if nonsensical, words. “Thus in history,” he explains after this introductory essay, “the Deluge happened in the year before Christ 2348; this is signified by the word Deletok:Del standing for Deluge, and etok for 2348.”” (p. 58) No thanks.

Sarah M. Broom has a noteworthy extract from her contemporary novel The Yellow House, which addresses the black history, or lack thereof, in New Orleans. Per the author sidebar:

  • “In an interview Broom was asked what readers should take away from her book. She responded, “I hope people ask themselves the question: Who makes the map? Who’s left off of the map? Who has the right to tell the story of those people who are not being important enough to matter to the story of America?”” (p. 63) Coincidentally she explains something I wondered about when I visited N.O. outside the Mardi Gras period. I saw a parade going on and was curious of the purpose. Ms. Broom notes you can hire your own parade for a multitude of purposes. As an aside, Ms. Broom’s partner Diandrea ‘Dee’ Rees earned a 2017 Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for her film Mudbound, which Rees co-wrote and directed.
    (p. 9)

    Walter Benjamin suggests that routine work frees the mind to listen carefully.

    “The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself.” (p. 62)

    Sadly, Mr. Benjamin was yet another WWII suicide: “In 1940 Benjamin, having fled his native Berlin, committed suicide in Spain to avoid capture by the Gestapo.” (p. 62)

    Charles Babbage is free online, a note on Man’s inhumanity to slaves in the early 19th century.

    Eva Hoffman, not available free, has a VERY poignant piece on the piecemeal memories of WWII and Holocaust survivors. You can read most of the extract here from page 3 to 12.

To be continued…

The standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered, printed on high quality paper throughout, with richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and 221 pages up to a page or two of addenda at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
3. Per the L.Q. website:
“Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
4. I encourage all to subscribe to this fine publication. It is a rich supplement to anyone’s reading.

2 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2020: MEMORY, pt. 2

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