Let’s try to clarify one thing about writing: its association with memory. Writing enables us to remember things – that’s how the saying goes. But I wouldn’t be so fast in perpetuating this almost dogmatically embraced dictum.
Let’s take a look at the most recent thing you’ve written. I don’t know – anything. Say, the email you’ve written this morning. How much of it can you remember? Really. Not just recollecting (which is a milder version of the same thing, don’t we agree?) but remembering: putting the members together. Got it? Re-membering. Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Writing is not (our) memory
So. How much can you remember? Let’s say, a lot. Let’s say the whole frigging thing – commas and full stops and exclamation marks and all. Every single thing, to the breath in your lungs while you were typing the message after having brushed your teeth with your favourite mint-flavoured tooth paste, and after having had your breakfast eggs the way you like them: sunny side down. Let’s say.
Wow. I’m hardly ever capable of that. I’m more of a Platonic type, you know. (Of this, a little later, though.) So well done you. Well done.
If you say you’re so good at remembering things, I wonder: why did you need to write the whole damn thing? How is this feat of memory indebted to your having put all that stuff into words?
Of course, an email (you’ll say) is never written in order to remember anything, but in order to remind (presumably others). Not to re-member, but to re-mind. To re-mind. To make the mind feel good in repetition. But you are catching my drift, aren’t you? If not, check out another type of writing. Let’s take a post-it stuck to your fridge. Telling you that you need to buy milk and coffee. Now that’s a more accurate depiction of how we are made to remember through writing, right?
You didn’t remember because of those words, but in spite of them. You remembered because you were endowed with a spectacular memory in the first place – you lucky thing you. You did not remember with the words on the paper but with the words in your mind. And in that mind of yours, in that beautiful receptacle of ideas, things are not written. Never. Not with a pen or pencil, no.
Writing is more like putting things in a cupboard
The question that arises straight away is this: when we speak of memory, whose memory do we mean? Because, we need to admit it, some kind of memorisation is taking place every time we write. And we kind of agreed (have we?) that it’s not our memory, because ours is busy with all manner of things which are not written – cannot be written, unless we’re talking about writing in a metaphorical sense; but we don’t want to complicate things.
Here’s my thought: the memory we’re talking about belongs to the device: paper, computer, smart phone, tablet, piece of bark with incrustations on it, papyrus, wall, noticeboard – whatever. I mean the object itself, not the text upon it. It’s in the device that the text is placed. It’s in the device that we find what we stored earlier. So what does this make of the thing we call writing? Well, let’s say writing is not actually a form of memory. It is not mémoire (read this à la French, s’il vous plaît), but aide-mémoire. Help to memory, to be more precise: a prop, a prosthetic device.
Now we’re onto something. And that’s this: Writing is truly storage. It’s where we put things in order to find them later. Like a cupboard, if you like, or like your kitchen drawer. Or (yes, why not?) your bookshelf.
Do you understand now where our obsession with having things in the right place at all times comes from? Oh yes, we have derived it from another obsession, which is truly a necessity: the need to store. Since we can’t carry all our possessions with us everywhere we go, we need a safe place to put things to rest; to take them off our minds, in fact. Hence – writing, reading, and the whole OCD we have developed around correct reading, the ‘right way’ of texts, the ‘actual’ meaning, and so many other legends we’re not going to elaborate on here.
|Source: Treasure Chest of Memories|
So what was that thing that Plato said?
Theuth, the inventor god of numbers, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing, meets king Thamus to exhibit the extraordinary features of his arts. When it comes to writing, which he promotes as “a potion for memory and for wisdom,” Theuth goes:
“O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wised and will improve their memory.”
But the king, wiser himself than the god who’d spoken to him, finds the effects of writing “the opposite of what they really are,” and swears that those who employ the art of writing are doomed to millennia of stupidity:
“They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.”
Plato is famous for this rejection of writing, in Phaedrus. The reason of his distrust is clear, I hope. Haven’t we, so many centuries after him, discovered the truth of Plato’s words when we started using the memory of our mobile phones rather than our own memory? We have given the device what has always been the device’s. We have embraced writing together with the reliance on its memory.
What can we say to Plato, then? Sorry, Sir, but among other things we have also discovered the pleasures that lie in the art of forgetfulness. Oh, yes, we have. We’ve built libraries and archives, we’ve conceived of human beings capable of remembering everything, and have invented machines that do so in real time. We have, in other words, fallen prey to the lures of this art, of this deceit. But man, we’re loving it.
(to be continued)