Monday, September 7, 2015

The Muscle Called Memory

Frank Dwyer stands in front of our assembled class of octogenarians-plus at Santa Monica Emeritus and recites a rather long Longfellow poem by heart. A minute later he is delivering The Canterbury Tales in Middle English or passages from Shakespeare. Frank is a mere seventy years old. The muscle of memory is what he calls it; something he nurtured back when. We marvel at our teacher’s prodigious recall.

Besides being a poet, translator, scholar and supreme teacher Frank is a stage actor.  Thespians are either the last vestige of the old oral tradition or the finest examples of a new one. Their memories are a repository of our cultural heritage.

Call it a muscle or a faculty it is what most of us let fall into disrepair decades ago when we learned how to read. Literacy replaced memory. It is hard to imagine a pre-literate society when news was disseminated by word of mouth often by troubadours yet hearing was the heightened sense in acoustic space. The auditory sense was acute, even essential for survival in the bush.

Ancient texts, like Bhagavad Gita and Homeric tales, were passed along orally. Traces of this can be found in the way children’s street-games survive intact across generations, at least that was the case when I was a street urchin in New York.

If memory is a muscle so can muscles hold their own memories. Baseball players often go through a seemingly mindless ritual just to quiet their heads and allow their muscles to work in concert.

Marshall McLuhan made the case that the advent of the printing press extended our visual sense inordinately. Literacy became our measure of intelligence. He argues we are now in a post-literate stage. A certain shorthand of emojis, hashtags, avatars and icons have created a universal language replacing the old rules of spelling and grammar. Long-winded passages have been ceded to tropes and memes. The preferred mode of writing is with words reduced to numbers and letters (U 8?) and acronyms (INMO). We live in a hurry-up world.

Millennials have a disdain for lengthy texts. A shorter perceptual span is compensated for by a more inclusive and broader visual non-linear field. As geographical borders are being erased we are becoming retribalized according to kindred interests.

It’s been noted that pre-literate people in undeveloped areas have made the leap to this post-literate age more easily than the literati. Just look at our pre-literate grandchildren whom we depend upon to get us through the day.

The effect of media goes largely unnoticed. Most of us live our lives looking in the rear-view mirror. We judge behavior by standards no longer viable. In this post-literate period will memory return? Perhaps it already has. We must remember pin numbers, Social Security numbers and passwords enough to rival a Longfellow poem. On the other hand I don’t see many people assigning long passages of literature to their memory muscle except for Rappers who sing endless verses without benefit of the page.

After we have digitalized all our printed words and then hacked and fracked ourselves to oblivion let the last few standing have their memory muscles flexed to pass along our received wisdom to the visiting aliens. It is properly called reciting by heart.

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