07w04:1 The Confusion of Memory with Thought

by timothy. 2 Comments

This Goodreads is based around the current confusion between memory and thinking, which I began to notice after reading a footnote in Voltaire’s Bastards a year ago. Describing the character of Simon Reisman, who was once a Liberal Party honcho and who negotiated Canada’s free-trade deal with the United States in the late 1980s, Saul quote from the phone conversation in which he interviewed Reisman:

“Our conversation began civilly. Gradually Reisman’s voice rose and his tone became more vociferous. Eventually he was shouting about the Europeans…[etc]…and eventually, about the person he was talking to, ‘You’re looking for sensationalism! You describe yourself as an historian! [emphasis mine] More likely you’re muckraker!”1 [1: JRS, VB, p.638, itself footnote 20 to Chapter 4]

I found this to be a very revealing quote, because what it says is that at the time Saul was writing his magnum opus, he was describing himself as an historian, and presumably, thought he was writing a history book. Yet, three years after the publication of Bastards, and on its strengths, Saul was asked to deliver the 1995 Massey Lectures. In the process, Saul’s went from being a self-described historian to being a media-described philosopher. Simply, this is because there has been a confusion between the capacity for memory with the capacity for insightful thought.

In the January 16th edition of The Globe & Mail an image of a snow filled street was captioned this way:’…Ottawa enjoyed weeks of unseasonably warm weather before the snowfall,’ of the day before. Even if I was living in Vancouver I’d have known about this already, and I wonder why the editor chose remind us as if we’d suddenly forgotten our ‘unseasonably warm’ winter. Perhaps, as a suggestion, it is because in this culture we are trained to forget, or at least, to be forgetful. It helps to sell us the DVD release of stuff we’ve already seen, for example. Further, we aren’t supposed to know the contexts that shape our lives and the politics of our societies. Diary keepers and bloggers can be dismissed as narcissists and who wants to be a narcissist? Isn’t there a party to go to? Isn’t there some hot indie band at the club singing what we’ve heard sung before? Can’t we drink ourselves into another night of ringing-eared forgetfulness?

And so, given the pressure to ignore context and to be forgetful, it’s no wonder than anyone who can string together the connections between last week’s event and today’s seems a little smart. Intelligence is thick on the ground; as John Taylor Gatto once wrote, ‘genius is as common as dirt’. And especially in today’s culture, when any bum probably knows more than Galileo ever knew about Jupiter, the problems of inadequacy have little to do with raw intelligence or access to information. Rather, it may have something to do with our relationship to memory.

Modern Social Imaginaries | Charles Taylor & David Cayley
http://goodreads.timothycomeau.com/audio/taylor2005-12.mp3 [Goodreads Mirror]
“What makes modernity different from all previous ways of life? Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor talks to IDEAS producer David Cayley about what makes us modern.”

I was happy to see this show up on the CBC Ideas podcast, saving me the trouble from excerpting the recording I already had. Charles Taylor speaks of our society’s relationship to memory through our need for a ‘special time’, a ‘time outside of regular time’. He brings up the popularity of Proust in this regard, and what he calls an unprecedented interest in biography. This begins around the 45.00 minute mark.

To be specific, Taylor is referring to our ‘tremendous preoccupation with memory’ and raises Proust as an example of the modernist and pomo-version’s need to fetish-size history. Which raises another article I sent out on Goodreads before, and deserves to be included here again:

The Reasons for the Current Upsurge in Memory | Pierre Nora

Nora’s essay really gets going in the third part, in which he speaks of ‘the age of commemoration’ (my example: the ceremonies in 2005 to mark the 60th year since the end of World War II, as if the one’s from 1995 weren’t good enough, and I suppose we can look forward to the next generation of political leadership at their 75th anniversary photo ops in 2020) and our current attitude toward stockpiling the present:

Broadly speaking, the future could be interpreted in one of three ways, which themselves determined the image people had of the past. It could be envisaged as a form of restoration of the past, a form of progress or a form of revolution. Today, we have discarded these three ways of interpreting the past, which made it possible to organize a “history”. We are utterly uncertain as to what form the future will take. And because of this uncertainty, the present-which, for this very reason no doubt, now has a battery of technical means at its disposal for preserving the past- puts us under an obligation to remember. We do not know what our descendants will need to know about ourselves in order to understand their own lives. And this inability to anticipate the future puts us under an obligation to stockpile, as it were, in a pious and somewhat indiscriminate fashion, any visible trace or material sign that might eventually testify to what we are or what we will have become. In other words, it is the end of any kind of teleology of history-the end of a history whose end is known-that places on the present this urgent “duty to remember” (devoir de mémoire) that is so much talked about.

You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have, or were at least seated at, a computer, which is a remarkable machine for memory. It’s search function has made finding those half-forgotten tidbits effortless, and it’s capacity to store the raw information we collect in our lives means that as a personal library it easily beats the old analogue cut-n-paste scrapbooks. What then does the future hold? Gordon Bell is trying to find out. Working for Microsoft, he’s been pushing the limits of digital memory by trying to input everything so that Microsoft can develop the ‘organize your life-memories!’ software they’ll later try to sell to you.

My Life Bits | Gordon Bell et al
http://research.microsoft.com/~jgemmell/pubs/MyLifeBitsMM02.pdf (PDF 445k)

The Persistence of Memory | Gordon Bell on On The Media

Mr. Mee by Andrew Crumey (2000)

Proust has already come up twice – first in Taylor’s discussion, but also it the title of the Gordon Bell presentation. What better way to introduce Mr. Mee? The truth is I wanted to publish a review of Mr. Mee in the summer of 2005, and it is a novel I read in the summer of 2004, but obviously didn’t get around to it until now. Mr. Mee is a novel of three story-lines, with two of the major players being Rousseau and Proust; Rousseau as a character, and Proust as an idea. It is set a decade ago, in 1997, during the early years of the internet – which is an important element to the fiction. The eponymous character of Mr. Mee is a retired, naive academic who buys a computer in order to use the nascent World Wide Web to try and track down an obscure book. In a Borgesian allusion, Rosier’s Encyclopaedia has been referenced in the bibliography of a book he brought home from a leisurely afternoon at the used bookstore.

Andrew Crumey shifts the scene to tell us more about the Encyclopaedia by bringing us back to 18th Century Paris, and introducing us to two characters, Ferrand and Minard, two down-on-their-luck copyists who are commissioned to copy a bunch of nutty writings by a Mr. Rosier. F & M are named after two people who Rousseau wrote about in his autobiography, and Crumey’s speculation on their backstory, and its consequences were outstanding. This novel is simply intellectually delightful in that regard. Perhaps they had something to do with Rouseau’s famed paranoia? Maybe they thought Rousseau a murderer? And perhaps their paranoia was fueled by their work fair-copying this work of an 18th Century genius who’d thought up 20th Century quantum physics and binary computers in 18th Century terms? (One of my favorite parts of the book describes Minard’s construction of a digita-binary computer out of string and bits of paper, and he is heard to complain about needing more memory. It seems that even in the 1760s, it was desirable to have more RAM).

In the 1990s, a professor lies in a hospital bed, contemplating his life over the past several months, and the possibility of his death. He had been a professor of Proust, and had come to teach this work of autobiographical literature after an adolescent infatuation with the work of Rousseau. And so, as he writes his memoir, he reflects both on Rousseau and on Proust. This is the tour-de-force of the novel. I found this the most satisfying, and appreciated it’s intricate subtleties. The professor comes across as just another dime-a-dozen mediocre academic who live their quotidian lives a students and commentators of past human achievement. The Proust-bug has not yet bitten me, and it was here I learned of how Proust described his magnum opus as being ‘about an I who isn’t I’. The introduction of this thought in the professor’s memoir raises the question of how much of his text is about an I that isn’t he. The overall impression is that, faced with impending death, Dr. Petrie has at last given it a try, written his work of autobiography about and I who isn’t I, inspired by his mastery of knowledge of these two masters of the art. Dr. Petrie ignores whatever sense of failure that has brought him to this point – the broken heart, his cancer, the sense that it was his attempt to initiate an affair with a student which brought on the illness. Instead of being cowed by a sense of mediocrity in comparison to his literary heroes, he gives it a go and in so doing constructs a literature of the self. The added poignancy comes from the embarrassed recounting of the infatuation which he blames for the illness out of a sort of hubris, and it is perhaps through this honest memory that his work becomes literary and becomes the final accomplishment of his life.

And perhaps here it is worth remembering that a year ago, James Frey was in the news for his book of autobiography, and it should be an embarrassment to anyone who claims to run a book club to not understand the need to embellish, to lie, to cheat the details as (what used to be called in a more literate age) poetic license.

Crumey’s skill is seen in his ability to weave together the tale of naive Mr. Mee, the octogenarian centre of the story, with the dying professor and the story of Rouseau’s Minard and Ferrand, and in the process, imagine 20th Century theoretical physics in 18th Century terms, remind us of what the internet was like a decade ago, muse on human foibles and the nature of autobiographical literature. Perhaps an even more central thesis to the story is that consciousness comes from writing, or at least, from the type of contextualization of memory that can come from writing. If we are not telling the story, than it didn’t really have to happen. Ultimately it ties into the nature of memory in our lives and the nature of identity as a narrated self.

Mr. Mee on Amazon.ca

As I Was Saying to Rousseau … | Hilary Mantel
April 2001 Review of Mr. Mee in the New York Times

The segments from Rousseau’s Confessions on which
the Ferrand-Minard chapters of Mr. Mee are based


And finally, you might remember last week I noted I was working on a website that I wasn’t yet ready to promote. I now am. After several years of hosting my artistic/narcissistic portfolio first as a subsite of Instant Coffee, and than as a subsite of Goodreads, I now have a dedicated eponymous url: timothycomeau.com.I expect the visitor-stats to be low and the blog comments to continue to be nil, yet perhaps it is a way – or simply my way – to construct something about an I who isn’t I in the 21st Century.


Long links made short by using Shorty (http://get-shorty.com)
To remove or add yourself to this list, go here

emailed by Timothy on Sunday 21 January 2007 @ 3:45 PM

2 Responses to 07w04:1 The Confusion of Memory with Thought

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *