I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power or memory is never heard, never described or passed on.
— W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE at UCLA, I worked at the Hammer Museum at the corner of Wilshire and Westwood, near the Federal Building. On weekends, I'd watch from behind the ticket window as masses of protesters headed to or from the white monolithic building down the street. Sometimes, on very slow weekday afternoons, or late, before closing, I'd sneak away from the ticket desk and hang out alone in the exhibitions. The Hammer, then as now, gave over much of its gallery space to young, emerging, or otherwise unknown artists, and it was here that I saw the work of Emma Kay. In her gallery, Kay hung artworks in which she had attempted to recreate the whole of the Bible, a map of the world, and the full text of every one of Shakespeare's plays, all of it entirely from memory. read more
These re-creations, as you might imagine, fell drastically short, at least in terms of strict fidelity to the facts. The world was mashed and irregular: Caribbean Islands misnamed, Eastern Europe a mess. Many of Shakespeare's plays had barely a title, and some were titled but didn't exist ( Henry V: Part 1 & 2). What I admired was the sheer bravery of it: here, Kay was saying, is everything I do not know. Basic information seemed to be reproduced as raggedly as it existed in the artist's head. And it involved the viewer in a contest: it asked, point blank, how much one had actually retained of the things one had studied. Even then, fresh from my own college Shakespeare courses, I couldn't do any better with the plays than Kay did. This was affecting, but also staggeringly sad. The world is a forgetful place. We cannot remember even what we wish to, what we've tried so hard to hold onto, our holy books and most famous writers and the terrain of the planet on which we live. Call it the Sebald problem: the mind is always lapsing into oblivion.
At this point, someone might step in and try cheering up the forgetful melancholist. Sure, your memory is weak and your knowledge fleeting, says the optimist, but this is a problem with an ancient solution: just write it all down! Thing is, we actually have it backwards: writing isn't memory's savior so much as it is the prime suspect in its murder. In Plato's dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates recounts a legend about the birth of writing in which a king demurs: "If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer within themselves, but by means of external marks." Look at our painstakingly edited copies of Shakespeare, Bibles with exhaustive concordances, and the wall-sized world maps of elementary schools: if almost none of us can produce this information from our own heads, it is only because there seems to be no particular reason we should have to. Our 'memories,' especially now, are almost entirely external: Facebook tracks friend's birthdays; smartphones hold numb...