An Invitation to Forgetting

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.

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 numbers for us; digital cameras efficiently document celebrations, trips, plates of exotic foods. All this recordkeeping seems to have created a peculiar world in which we simultaneously know and have forgotten everything.

As Joshua Foer points out in his book  Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, the specter of forgetting has haunted every advance we have made in externalizing our memories: “For normal humans, memories gradually decay with time along what’s known as the “curve of forgetting.” From the moment you grasp a new piece of information, your memory’s hold on it begins to slowly loosen.” To arrest this curve, we archive digital photos, emails, videos, trying to retard what, at a cellular level, we are every day losing. However, as Foer notes early in his book, if our culture has “transformed from one that was fundamentally based on internal memories to one that is fundamentally based on memories stored outside the brain,” a new question arises: is any of this data really memory? Or is all memory technology, as Plato’s Phaedrus suggests, an invitation to forgetting? In Foer’s book, we find that though we’re surrounded by more and more tools that might serve as counterfeit memories, we may be losing, or have lost, a crucial relationship to memory itself.

This loss is something to worry about, especially as Foer describes human memory as a rather miraculous thing, far more powerful than the weakling we sometimes take it for. The author recounts several spectacular feats: a man who can commit to mind “the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour”; people who memorize 50,000 digits of pi; ultra-Orthodox Jews who spend a lifetime imprinting in their heads “all 5,422 pages of the Babylonian Talmud so thoroughly that when a pin was stuck through any of the Talmud’s sixty-three tractates, or books, they could tell you which word it passed through on every page.” (This last story, implausible as it sounds, Foer claims was more or less backed up by a 1917 study in the journal  Psychological Review). These are small triumphs compared to what’s possible with a super-computer, but then again, only we can decide on what’s valuable or important to remember. (No computer is capable of embarrassment at forgetting the name of a dinner companion mere seconds after being seated next to them at a wedding.) With practice, Foer argues, it’s possible for nearly anyone to bend back the curve of forgetting in one’s favor, a notion that begins the author’s quest to improve his own memory. The book is largely an account of Foer’s immersion in the world of competitive mnemonists, nearly all of whom claim to possess merely average memories. World Memory Champions, it turns out, aren’t sponges; they’re athletes, and they owe their prowess to training techniques that were once common knowledge: “What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity,” Foer says. We meet Ed Cooke, one of the book’s champion memory subjects, “slowly slogging his way through Shakespeare” after he has already conquered memorizing Paradise Lost. “My philosophy of life,” Cooke tells Foer, “is that a heroic person should be able to withstand about ten years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed.” Cooke proves that it’s not that Emma Kay couldn’t remember all of Shakespeare: it’s that she hadn’t, with any deliberateness, really tried.

These vast memory projects draw on a repository of techniques that would have once been known to every educated Westerner. Ancient writers on the  Ars Memorativa used the “method of loci,” also known as the technique of the “memory palace,” to transform the unmemorable into the memorable. “The techniques of the memory palace,” Foer writes,

were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian, and flowered in the Middle Ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons and prayers to the punishments awaiting the wicked in hell. These were the same tricks that Roman senators had used to memorize their speeches, that the Athenian statesman Themistocles had supposedly used to memorize the names of twenty thousand Athenians, and that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books.

The central trick rests on a simple substitution, easy to describe, though often laborious to enact. Briefly put, the human brain is manifestly better at remembering images and spaces than it is at recalling numbers and letters. Cicero, then, counsels, “The best way to memorize a speech” is to “make one image for each major topic” and “place each of those images at a locus.” You might not easily remember every topic you need to cover in a speech, but you will, in all likelihood, effortlessly recall the layout of your childhood house. The task, then, is simply to build the speech into that house.

To demonstrate how the memory palace works, one of Foer’s interviewees has the author commit to memory a random shopping list containing, among other things, cottage cheese, wine, socks, garlic. For the first, Foer is told to imagine standing at the front door of his childhood home, next to “an enormous, wading-pool-size tub of cottage cheese.” Inside this tub of cheese is Claudia Schiffer “swimming in the buff, and dripping with dairy.” Each subsequent item on the list is similarly tugged out of its mundane, forgettable reality, luridly re-imagined, and then placed at a specific location in the house. The more strange, sexual, or multi-sensory the memory palace images are, the more remembering becomes as simple as taking a walk.

The only real trouble with Foer’s book is that this “memory palace” art so useful for memorizing digits of pi, decks of cards, and grocery lists doesn’t actually seem to have much to do with the type of memory most of us wish to improve. What most of us actually want is better effortless perception, the ability to commit to memory our experiences with the people we’ve met or of the places we’ve been. It’s intriguing to know that, with resolute drilling, any of us could memorize the whole of the Babylonian Talmud the way a memory champion might. I think many of us would settle, though, for a less shaky recollection of our more prosaic lives: When was it we ate at this restaurant? Have I seen this street before? Did I tell this joke already? Were you at that party or weren’t you? What was her name again? The feats of the memory champions don’t help us with such basic problems.

Certainly, there’s virtue in memorization, and we could each make an effort to remember more. To the extent that our memories are a part of us, of who we are, how we act and react, then Shakespeare on the shelf means less than Shakespeare in the mind. An archive is not a thought, and an index is not knowledge, let alone what might be considered wisdom. But, as Foer is first to point out, it’s not always easy to tell if our collective amnesia about readily findable facts is a result of failure or success. Before the printing press, when books were scarce and libraries far-flung, the small fraction of the literate population that did read couldn’t be assured of ever glimpsing the text in question again. This is a good reason to commit to memory what one has seen. Moreover, the number of books one might come across was also far smaller than our current canon of published work; reading was much more intensive, but much less extensive. There may be fewer highly trained memories in our world, in other words, but we do have many more books and more readers. We might remember less, but we still know more, which makes it hard to mourn the memory palace’s loss.

Reading  Moonwalking with Einstein, I became gradually less tormented by the idea of forgetting. I found myself worried, instead, about a phrase in the subtitle: “remembering everything.” The world we seem to be tending towards is one of perfect, digitally managed recall. Some pioneers already practice the art of “life-logging,” in which they wear devices that record every sight and sound of their entire lives, all of it uploaded and digitally archived, a prospect that has me reconsidering Emma Kay’s work: was I right to be so melancholy? I took Kay’s project as one about futility, about how little we remember compared to how much there is to know. But what if it isn’t a project about insufficiency at all? What if it’s actually about subjectivity? Had Kay’s map of the world been perfectly rendered, her exhibit would hardly be interesting — not to mention too vast to take in, even over the course of several stolen visits from the ticket desk of the Hammer to the gallery. No, it’s what’s missing that makes the work meaningful; I could see inside some other brain, witness how someone else had rearranged for herself the vast data of the world in a peculiar and distinct way.

If our limited human capacities will soon meet the nearly limitless capacities of the memory technologies we daily interact with, if, in some post-human moment, my brain and your brain will be able to scan a digitally implanted  Paradise Lost as quickly as we can blink, won’t we lose the intimacy of exchanging what we remember and misremember? Would there even be an encounter with the text? Would any one line speak to us? What you remember one way, I remember another, but “internal difference,” as Emily Dickinson said, “is where the meanings are.” Now, you may or may not recall that this is a line from the poem, “There’s a certain slant of light,” but so much the better: for it is not certitude that characterizes the light, but the lack of it — something on the tip of the tongue, something that, for all its un-utterability, is understood: “When it comes,” Dickinson writes, “the landscape listens / shadows hold their breath.” Regarded in this way, what Emma Kay’s little memory palace suggests is that we should embrace our forgetfulness and wait, patiently, for what we do know, however skewed. After all, Shakespeare’s work, like the moon, is a vast place; it exists not in some perfect superhuman archive, but in parallax view, from Earth, one reader at a time.