Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates

Henri Bergson told us that we forget nothing which seems fanciful when we may spend a morning looking for our keys. What he meant and here I am open to correction because there are opaque elements in his thought, was that we 'virtually' remember everything which is another way of saying we remember nothing if we construe memory on the model which is presented to us by the standard neuro-science of our day. Memory other that motor memory or stuff that is learnt by heart is not 'in' the brain. Where does that leave the ancient practice of memory loci as elucidated by Frances Yates in her magisterial Art of Memory?

I still can't find my keys though. I did not leave them in my usual place. They are good and lost. If I had left them in their usual locus, a place which I have by heart, then that motor connection between place and keys would allow them to merge together. So it is with information that I wish to remember. The use of a well known and gotten by heart room, to use a simple example of the Classical technique that Yates writes about, has placed on all its elements the varied items of information that may have no direct associative connection with each other. Then to recover the information I merely walk through the room picking up each item as I go. Does this not prove the associationist thesis that Bergson impugns? What he would reply to this is that what is happening is that motor memory has so to speak absorbed the item to be recalled and therefore the usual efforts to focus and condense what is virtual is obviated. Is this not the point of advertisements that by repetition make an indissoluble connection?

Now that everyone with a smart phone is a googleamus we need to ask whether the ancient skill of forgetting should be revived wherever we left it. Bacon in his 'Advancement of Learning avers:
There has been laboured and put into practice a method, which is not a lawful method, but a method of imposture, which is to deliver knowledge in such a manner, as men may speedily come to make a show of learning which have it not. Such was the travail of Raymundus Lullus in making that art which bears his name......
(quoted in The Art of Memory)

Haven't we all met them and do they not infest our centres of higher learning? I mean those rote learners by whatever means. Poetry should be learnt by heart and lectures should be orations to be most effective but what is the point of memorising the Preamble to the Brahma Sutra Bhyasa by Shankaracarya and applying over that a standard interpretation? That means you are locked into a certain unfolding. There is very little chance of a reconfiguring of the elements within it which lead to a genuine understanding.

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