Our Simonidean Times

April 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates.

I’ve wanted to read this for years, and am finally indulging my nerdiest impulses. This is a more or less legendary scholarly study, published in 1966, of organized systems for enhancing the memory, from the ancient world to the Renaissance. I’m only a chapter and a half in, but let me tell you: this book has got it going on, as scholarly treatises go.

Some fascinating tidbits:

The book starts with an account of Simonides, a fifth-century B.C. poet in Greece, and the “cult hero” who is credited on a marble tablet of some 200 years after his time with inventing “the system of memory-aids.” Anyway, this story of Simonides being saved from certain death at a banquet by the intervention of the twin gods Castor and Pollux, then identifying the victims of a roof collapse by recalling their places at the table, is totally awesome, but the thing that especially caught my eye was this: “He was said to have been the first to demand payment for poems; the canny side of Simonides comes into the story of his invention of the art of memory which hinges on a contract for an ode.”  (How has this not become a common adjective?  Meaning artistically mercenary?  “I love Pop Art!”  “Really?  It’s all so Simonidean.”)

I think the really cool, really challenging thing for any intellectual history is to recapture the mental workings of earlier times, and this book is really succeeding on that level for me. The mention of Simonides as the first poet-for-hire somehow crystallizes that for me: it’s somehow amazing to be taken back to a time when poets were realizing that their services might actually be monetarily valuable, and that money might actually be important to their survival, and back to a time when people were ruminating on this hip new thing called “memory” which apparently “stored knowledge” about the “world” in their “minds.” (But apparently there’s been some speculation that the art might actually have originated in Egypt. There’s always a before, I suppose.)

There’s some cool stuff about Aristotle in here, too. (I know, I know — all the cool kids are so over Aristotle, but I think he’s still underrated, myself.) I’d never heard of his De insomnis, but it sounds really great. In it, “Aristotle says that some people have dreams in which they ‘seem to be arranging the objects before them in accordance with their mnemonic system.'” Glimpses of what ancient dreams would have been like fascinate me. This seems like an ancient anxiety dream: you’ve been trying to memorize your images symbolizing parts of your speech or recitation for the next day, and when you nod off there you are again, putting these symbols in their places, getting them mixed up, words and pictures jumbling in your head.

Anyway, I’m amazed by how this idea of an “art of memory” seems simultaneously familiar and even mundane and utterly mysterious, magical, and foreign. I mean, retracing one’s steps is trite advice for remembering or finding something: having the ability to do so mentally seems like little more than human nature. But at the same time, the argument Yates seems to be building — that the method of abstracting that concept to an imaginary realm, constructing a place in which to store information and a system of images to trigger memories or pieces of knowledge as one mentally walked through that place, was a profoundly important and influential tool for thinkers in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, a foundational mechanism of thought for many great thinkers and perhaps a kind of key to consciousness itself, forgotten until reconstructed in the 20th century — this seems so amazing, hard to believe.

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