On Memory

Here are a couple of quotes that I found paired — again, where was that…?! — on the nature of memory, which turns out to be a theme that keeps coming up in my work. The concern came to the foreground when I was working on Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir, which is by its nature an exercise in memory:

“Although with regard to the past, when this is reported correctly, what is brought out from memory is not the events themselves (these are already past) but words conceived from the images of those events, which, in passing through the senses, have left as it were their footprints stamped upon the mind. My boyhood, for instance, which no longer exists, exists in time past, which no longer exists. But when I recollect the image of my boyhood and tell others about it, I am looking at this image in time present, because it still exists in time present.” — St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 398

“Memory is the same as imagination.” — Giambattista Vico, New Science, 1725

The Augustine I had to read a couple of times to “straighten out,” and the Vico so deliciously says the same thing in 6 (English) words.

I’ve always loved the Greek myth in which Zeus made love to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, who then gave birth to nine daughters, known as the Muses. So: the Muses, who inspire the arts, are descended from the Big God Himself and Memory. The arts are how we remember who we are as a people, a species. It used to be originally that these poems and music got handed down and preserved through the memory of the bards, so their great status lay in their precious knowledge of the epics and songs; I could imagine a prayer being addressed to the apporpriate Muse to help the bard in remembering correctly — as in the invocation at the start of any epic poem. Memory was soon to be superseded by writing and notation, but the act was still one of preserving memory. Much of culture still gets passed on in oral tradition, within a family or group, but the vast store of culture is preserved somewhere other than the memory of a few individuals — in books, scores, libraries, film, digitally. The acts of reading, watching, listening, attending a performance, are all ways of participating in one’s own (or another’s) culture, and store of wisdom. If the aim of a life is to attain wisdom, the arts contain the sum of what mankind has learned, and it is only up to the individual, or society, to avail himself of it, and make of it what he will. But if we forget — woe to the unconnected, the one without memory, without identity.

On the other hand, to falsify memory is a great crime against oneself, and the culture. It is as if the pool of the collective memory is tainted, even poisoned. Or: it might be a way cultures change and even regenerate. Perhaps one can build on top of past structures only so long before they topple and new ones need to be begun.

The Glass Hammer CD cover


The loss of memory we consider to be a terrible thing. Who can we be without our memories? Can we be anyone?

For the subtitle of my song cycle based on Andrew Hudgins’ poetic memoir The Glass Hammer, (which itself is merely subtitled “A southern childhood”) I chose a phrase from one of the poems: scenes from childhood “Kept against forgetting.” (The image of the hourglass for the CD cover was an interesting choice: it suggests in the passage of time the constant struggle to remember, to keep memory alive, against time, against death itself.)

Think about all the artworks that have been created around the theme of memory itself — a revealing exercise!

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