Are We Forgetting How to Remember?
I saw a notice of the death of Umberto Eco, a semiotician, philosopher, essayist, and novelist. He wrote The Name of the Rose. Something he said in a 2011 interview with the Guardian resonates with me.
"I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it. I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged."
I've been accused, perhaps deservedly, of writing difficult poetry and prose. I remember being told to write at 8th grade level or below, to allow for readers to have better comprehension. Of course, it seemed prudent when writing documentation to use simple, straightforward language. However, like it or not, technical language and jargon creep into documentation; indeed must be there to coordinate with processes and choices based on those ideas. It cannot be avoided.
In my poetry and prose, I search for and try to use the right word for the meaning I am trying to convey. At times, I will delve into the realm of archaic words and resurrect a seldom-used, but succinct word. For example, I like Cerulean blue. It's not azure. It's not sky blue. It is darker than both, yet not simply blue. If it fits, and the color is important, I will use it. My father's eyes were not simply blue, or even ice blue, but glacial blue — the pale, watery, chill, ancient derivative of sea water blue. They could chill your mind and freeze your soul. That's why I use specific words.
Although I agree with Eco that people want to challenged, I take it one step further. People need to be challenged. Eco once commented (from an online essay: Letter to my grandson), that people are losing their memory because of the Internet and storage on computers. They no longer need to remember. They no longer want to remember.
I want to remember.
I attended a Lutheran grade school. We were required to memorize five Bible verses every day and be prepared to recite them when classes started. Now, that might have been a religious exercise, but it taught me how to memorize quickly and efficiently. More importantly, it challenged me to find a way to remember.
Building and maintaining a memory palace became part and parcel of my everyday practice. A memory palace or mind palace is a method of loci or mnemonic device to store and retrieve information. At the time, I didn't know about the Roman and Greek development of the practice. I built my Great Library over time and as it grew, it became increasingly grand. The walls shone with the burnished beauty of mahogany panels and walls of crystal that shimmered with sunlight and moonlight. The floors of onyx and walnut travertine were polished and dust-free. The ceilings were sky blue paintings of the skies high in great mountain ranges. In many ways, it looked a lot like the Ford Rotunda that burned to the ground in 1962. I remember the great glass dome, the steel and marble walls, and the wood panels around displays. My Great Library was as huge and even more glorious!
In school, I found information in brick and mortar libraries, from books and periodicals printed on paper — or I saw and heard it first hand or from those who knew and told me. Nothing was instantaneous; and with my lousy handwriting, little that I wrote down was clearly legible. I had to remember. Now, like nearly everyone else in the modern world, I can type in a search term and information flows across the screen of my computer. So, why remember?
My recent adventure in hospitalization reminded me why it is so important to remember things. I was put on an air ambulance to Rochester, MN without time to reference my records. I had to remember important things about my medications and my recent medical history. The Internet could not help me, nor could my (now dead) desktop computer. My Grand Library is still mostly there, but because of chemotherapy and high dose medications, I can barely find anything.
I also believe that the Internet, which should have been a boon to the storytellers among us, is actually a bane. A friend of my mine once defined the Internet as "an ocean of information — one inch deep." Of course, one can still drown in an inch of water and up-wellings of bad water are still dangers lurking upon that ocean. The ease of the search, the speed of the response, and the volume of information (good and bad) have lured folks away from the sonorous voice of the storyteller and the carefully crafted word images of the poet.
If we don't use our own, incredibly powerful, totally free, super computers (our brains) we may lose the ability and the skill to use them. That frightens me.
Eco also said something that echoed with my own experience:
"All the stories I would like to write persecute me when I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are all around me, the little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, ‘Sir, write me, I am beautiful’."
I've had a lot to think about today. I hope you will also think about it.
Good day and God bless,