Memory is so much a part of us that it might as well be an organ, like the lungs or the heart. It is as much relied upon as they, equally unconsciously and, when needed, spontaneously. And when is it not needed?
We have to remember to turn off the light when we leave home. We have to remember which one from a bunch of keys opens what. We must not forget the umbrella left under our theater seat. Such things may be as natural as breathing, but breathing does not require remembering as the other things do.
When memory works for us, we feel no gratitude; but when it fails us, how furious we become. Imagine not remembering to pull up the chair when about to sit down at table; yet inconceivable as it seems, haven’t we done so? And that is how embar-rassing all kinds of failure of memory can be.
What keeps memory so persistently in my own mind is awareness of the lack of it. At age 87, I suppose I am entitled to lapses of memory, but doesn’t it seem unpardonable not to remember why I went from one room to the next, to forget something within seconds? Not to remember who that person is who accosts me with intimate knowledge of me? Not to have remembered an important item on my shopping list?
I especially envy people who remember whole poems, lots of poems. They make for a wonderfully portable library we can refer to on all sorts of occasions. Not for nothing were schoolchildren, in the days when education still mattered, made to memorize poems. Why, even on an exam in a Milton course at Harvard, one could score just by writing down a few verses from memory. (I couldn’t. But then I didn’t care for Milton.)
Memory, though, can be a solace: remembering good things from your past. But is that an unequivocal good? Or was Dante right with “Nessun maggior dolore/ Che ricordarsi del tempo felice/Nella miseria,” which Longfellow translated as “There is no greater sorrow/ Than to be mindful of the happy time/ In misery.” But, happy or not, how often we encounter memory in everyday speech, reminders—memorials—of its importance.
Just think: memo pads, memoirs, Memorial Day, memorabilia, memorization, time immemorial, within living memory, and so many other words or phrases. And, somewhat less often, from the Greek, mnemonic and mnemonics. The Latin memoria is obviously present in Latin-derived, Romance languages, as in French, mémoire. But also, as in English, and other kinds of languages. Take the German, Memoire and memorieren. Take the Hungarian, where the prevalent term for memory is emlékezet, but there is also the more intense memória, specially in the phrase tökéletes memória, total recall.
Too much memory, granted, can become a burden. The great writer Jorge Luis Borges has a story, “Funes the Memorious,” about Ireneo Funes, a fellow who remembers absolutely everything. We read, among other things, “Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.” And again: “He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho.” No wonder the poor creature could hardly sleep and died young.
Borges himself was no slouch when it came to memory. One of the world’s greatest polymaths, his writings unostentatiously display reading and erudition hard to imagine, let alone equal. Not without interest here is the epigraph in English (which he spoke fluently) from Francis Bacon’s Essays: “Solomon saith: There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination that all knowledge was but remembrance, so Solomon gives his sentence that all novelty is but oblivion.”
Well, almost everything has its seductive antithesis, and so too has memory. The marvelous poet Guillaume Apollinaire has written in praise of oblivion, “Où est le Christophe Colomb à qui l’on devra l’oubli d’un continent?” (Where is the Columbus to whom we’ll owe the oblivion of a continent?) And with what melodious eloquence Swinburne has written, “But the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.” This is so good as to make the solecism “most” for “more” entirely forgivable.
Nevertheless, memoria, Mnemosyne of the Greeks, is a goddess. Let me quote the delightful Dr. Lempriere’s invaluable Classical Dictionary: “Mnemosyne, a daughter of Coelus and Terra, mother of the nine Muses by Jupiter, who assumed the form of a shepherd to enjoy her company. The word Mnemosyne signifies memory, and therefore the poets have rightly called memory the mother of the Muses, because it is to that mental endowment that mankind are indebted for their progress in science.” Nicely put by the Reverend Lempriere (especially that very Victorian “enjoy her company”). Yet only one of the Muses was the inspirer of science, Urania, the Muse of astronomy. The eight others were the patronesses of history, various kinds of poetry, music, drama and dance.
What is so wise about this myth is that it proclaims the quasi-divine origin and status of the arts, history, and science, and that it recognizes the importance of memory in their creation. For they are all based, at least in part, on memory: summoned-up feeling, memorialized experience, a recalled something or other.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about memory is that, though we may call upon it, it just as likely seeks us out on its own, pleasantly, sadly, wondrously. As the Serbian poet Milan Rakić put it, “When the heart cries out, thought is to blame.” That thought, more often than not, is the voice of memory, happy, unhappy, or just surprising.
I myself am a bit surprised by the particular choices in bits of poetry my memory has made, and that I have remembered, with rhyme in most cases, but for no obvious reason. Well, yes, there is a reason in some cases, as with that great concluding line of The Divine Comedy, that almost justifies slogging through the Paradiso: “L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle” (the Love that moves the sun and the other stars), which remarkably loses almost nothing in translation.
But why, from all of Apollinaire’s marvels, remember “Ce lourd secret que tu quémandes” (this heavy secret that you beg for), which haunts me more stubbornly than I can comprehend. In context, it refers to the lover’s secret self, for whose disclosure even the beloved must beg. But I don’t remember the context, merely it. It may have to do with the music of this line of verse, the cunning sequence of vowel sounds, ending in the melancholy nasal “an” and the ghostly mute “e.” Also the echo effect between ce and que and the onomatopeic lourd.
More comprehensible is the staying power of a quatrain from Rilke:
Befriedigungen ungezählter Jahre
Sind in der Luft. Voll Blumen liegt dein Hut
Und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
Mischt sich mit Welt, als wäre alles gut.
And in sadly prosaic translation:
Appeasements of innumerable years
Are in the air. Your hat lies full of flowers
And a scent from your pure hair
Mingles with [the] world as if all were well.
Here there is no question of the beauty and power of the verse. There is, first, the situation. Rilke is writing a poem to Marthe Hennebert, a tearful working girl he crossed in a Paris street. He consoled her and became her lover. I imagine them sitting on grass in a setting not unlike Seurat’s Grande Jatte. The girl’s hat is full of flowers, picked or bought, and their scent, the German says, “mingles with world,” where the German, like English, would expect an article before the noun. Plain “Welt,” however, becomes not the whole world, but something both more intimate and transcendent: part of the surroundings, nature, something greater thus made more immediate.
Then there is the verse, with its music. First, the rhyme scheme: the feminine “Jahre” and “Haare” neatly alternating with the masculine, tonally different, “Hut” and “gut.” There is piquancy in such different vowel sounds, the floating disyllables arrested by anchoring monosyllables. There is the wonderfully polysyllabic “Befriedigungen” with its dying fall, subsiding from five syllables to the quadrisyllabic “ungezählter,” thence to the two syllables of “Jahre,” followed in the next verse by several monosyllables. There is also a kind of arpeggio in the four u’s, progressing from “Geruch” to the culminating “Hut.” There is the lovely inner rhyme of “deinem reinen,” the bright diphthongs flowing into the dark “Haare.” And there is the delicate assonance in “mischt sich mit,” followed by the alliteration of “Welt” and “wäre.”
More beautiful yet, perhaps, and immensely moving, is he drama of the final verse. Here, in a scene of quasi-pastoral serenity and intimate charm, surely we can expect God to be in his heaven and all well with the world. But no! “Als wäre alles gut”—a melancholy “as if all were well.” For, after all, what is perfect? The splendor is only of the moment, and nothing lasts.
On account of these bits of Apollinaire, Swinburne, Dante and Rilke, I remain deeply beholden to memory, memoria, Mnemosyne. She is truly a goddess.