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Mnemosyne

Posted by Erik on September 21, 2008

Hello there.

This is Sannion, one of Erik’s friends. I agreed to fill in and do a “guest blog” post for him while he’s away over the next week, so here goes.

In the hopes of finding an interesting topic to write about for you guys today, I went out for a walk and my mind wandered in a totally different direction. I got to thinking about how the Iliad and Odyssey were originally oral poems, and not actually set down in written form until something like the 7th or 8th century bce.

Think about that for a moment. Those epics are huge! And yet they were memorized and passed down orally for many centuries, these wonderfully rich, nuanced, vibrant texts. Can you imagine what it must have been like to walk around with 10,000 lines of Homeric verse running through your head? And to be able to recall it, and recite it on the spot?

The Greeks weren’t the only people with this amazing skill. The Indians did the same thing with the Mahabharata. The Norse skalds remembered whole sagas and bafflingly complex genealogies. Australian Aborigines even today walk around with complete maps of the bushland in their heads. And me … I have a hard enough time remembering my address and phone number most days.

I wonder what it is about our society that has made us so ephemeral, so forgetful. Is it that we spend so much time watching tv or listening to the radio, that our capacity for memory and creation have atrophied? Is it the fact that we are bombarded with so much information – random, disconnected, and constant – that our forgetfulness is sort of a defense mechanism? If we retained every ounce of trivia we’re exposed to, from the population of Kazakhstan to Ben Affleck’s favorite color, our brains would certainly overload. Plus, our world is constantly changing around us: does one day go by without some new political coup, some new scientific discovery, some new movie or book or song being touted as the next big thing? There’s this constant stream of information … but none of it matters. It reduces everything, both great and small – genocide and the sex life of basketball stars – to the same status of raw information, of sound bytes flashing across the screen.

This isn’t healthy. I think we need to pull back. Shut down the tv, unplug the computer, turn off the radio. Not permanently. I’m no anti-technology Luddite who wants to live off the grid, huddled in a cave somewhere, muttering to my only “friend”, which I’ve managed to cobble together out of twigs and moss. Hell no. I love my indoor heating (and plumbing!), my iPod, my ability to stay in touch with friends all across the globe and find obscure information with ease. These are indeed valuable things, but everything in moderation, you know? Life doesn’t have to be so fast pased. We don’t need to have our heads constantly filled with trivial information. It’s okay to step back and spend time alone with our thoughts. It’s not just okay – I say it’s essential for mental health in this day and age. More than ever we need to learn how to think for ourselves, think about the big issues, remember what’s important in life, get some focus and perspective. And above all, clean out our minds to make room for the important stuff … like memorizing 10,000 lines of Homer.

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4 Responses to “Mnemosyne”

  1. Stephanie said

    Hi Sannion,

    Actually, according to one theory, they didn’t actually memorize all of those poems. Some scholars have identified repetitive patterns that have led them to believe that there are certain set scenes that are memorized, and inserted as necessary. This would mean that the bard would have to remember the basics of the story, and could fill in as much detail as he liked or was able to; but there was also a store of set lines and scenes that he could fall back on more or less automatically.

    I have to admit, this idea gives me some comfort, when confronted with the inadequacy of my own memory and mental training :) But I do agree with the point of your post.

  2. sannion said

    I’ve read that too. Additionally, the corpus of the “Homeric” poems underwent substantial revision, both in the initial development as folk epics, and later on under editorial hands at Athens and Alexandria. But still, it’s interesting to see how much of the poems people retained. Not just the rhapsodes, but also philosophers, historians, orators – and even common folks. (It’s quite striking to see how much of Homer has found its way into the Greek Magical Papyri, and the novel interpretations they’ve given the work.)

  3. sannion said

    Something else that this all reminds me of are the young children in Islamic countries who have memorized the whole Qur’an. Not just specific surahs, but the whole thing. They are regarded with great respect, and treated as quasi-holy – and for good reason, I think, when you compare them to our own society’s young, who can’t even remember to take out the trash. :)

  4. Feral Boy said

    Also, for the most part we ceased using our memory when we became a literate culture. There is no need to learn and pass on tales when you have the book with you! The story is also frozen into a fixed shape, and no longer partakes in what the teller contributes to it — if only nuances in those cultures that emphasize complete accuracy of recitation.

    It is truly amazing what your mind is capable of. I play harp, and have learned most tunes by ear, only using music when I want to be sure of what is actually happening in the piece. I play almost completely from memory, and can keep going for at least a couple of hours, playing from a list of over two hundred selections. Some I know better than others, and have to work at keeping the less-played tunes fresh in my mind. The advantage is that I don’t have to fool around with a music stand (a pain in the @$$ in a windy location).

    The structure of a tale or tune can also help with memorization (think “Tree in the Bog”, or KILHWCH AND OLWEN from the Mabinogion). Repetition is useful (“12 days of Xmas) and number may play a large part — the number three occurs in a LOT of traditional tales.

    Feral Boy

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