Sunday, August 19, 2007

Medieval Memoria

I feel like if I go far enough into theories of memory I will come out on some other shore having truly understood something. But there's no end to memory....

Despite the title of this post, I can't claim any knowledge of medieval memory. But as I was reading Mary Carruthers's and Frances Yates's selections in Theories of Memory: A Reader (eds. Michael Rossignton and Anne Whitehead) I found an interesting link to my argument (or, more like, a more coherent and informed sense of some feeble idea I've been struggling to articulate) on Reznikoff's long poem Holocaust and the issue of memory. The introduction to Carruthers explains: "The early medieval Memoria informed a conception of reading as 'tropological'; this is reading which turns 'the text onto and into one's self'. Originality and imagination are of less value than a good memory, which enables a reader to internalise another's work. The reader has to 'digest' what they are reading, placing it so securely in their memory that they effectively become its 'new author'. Whereas we consider such assimilation unethical, an example of 'plagiarism' or the theft of intellectual property, in the monasteries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was conceived rather as an ethical dialogue between memories, the sharing and preservation of communal wisdom" (23).

It would be interesting to see the ways in which 'tropological memory' plays out in Reznikoff, (something which I will (or hope to) explore further in a bit) especially as it might be seen as both a device that constructed the work and as a reading practice that brings the experience of the text into proximity. What I find interesting in terms of the idea of proximity is that there's a sense when one reads Holocaust that it is too close--it gets under ones skin in a way that precludes, in fact, making it ones own. Yet I think, for Reznikoff, his approach to the archival works he was condensing, selecting, transforming, entailed a process or method that allowed him to keep memory in proper proximity, while at the same time conveying to the reader its affective and cognitive resonance. This all connects in my mind to the phenomenological approach of Paul Ricoeur in his text Memory, History, Forgetting, where the "duty of memory" approaches its most significant ethical task, i.e., justice. For Ricoeur, the question of the proper use of memory is directly related to its necessary application in the field of justice, for, despite all of the uses and abuses it gives rise to, it is in the field or arena of justice that the individual memory transforms itself into a collective task, or, more precisely, a task performed for the sake of both the individual and the collective. [Of course, mention of the term 'use and abuse' reminds one of Nietzsche's essay "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life," which Ricoeur does mention, but since I don't have the text here with me I can't accurately describe the significance of Nietzsche's essay on Ricoeur's analysis of the abuses of memory as they pertain to the duty of memory and justice. More on that later as well.]

The issue of distance and proximity in relation to a traumatic text, a text which may, either during its construction (for the author), or as a finished product, (for the reader) be experienced as at least somewhat traumatizing seems to require what we might call a tropological method' or approach. This method would 'digest' its subject carefully, selectively, 'ruminating' for neither too long nor for too short a time. Yet there seems to be a difficulty here in terms of balance. The issue of 'managing' and 'organizing' the relation between self and other in terms of this tropological approach seems to mean that 'turning the text into oneself', i.e., memorizing a text until it 'becomes' a part of one's own psyche and memory would 'subectivize' the text into oblivion. Perhaps for the medievalist, since this incorporation was managed through certain techniques, this 'taking into oneself'' is a form of transformation whose goal is a kind of strict accuracy. For instance, the medieval Quintillian recommended re-reading, copying out, annotation and recitation, which were all thought of as proceses of rumination and digestion but whose intention or goal is a level of accurcy and fedility to the text. This is, in effect a kind of incorporation (the Host as the body of Christ, trans-substantiation, etc) which might more accurately be said to transform the reader into the text rather than the other way around. Or at least, one might say that there is a kinship or relation established with the text that, through proper mnemonic techniques, turns the text into a kind of 'second nature' for the reader or memorizer in such a way that the text's meaning and the readers's own moral understanding of the world now unconsciously inform one another.

This in turn points to the ways in which the tropological approach to texts is fundamentally a rhetorical exegesis that ascribes to them a moral dimension. That is the tropological method, as a proper form of incorporation (memorization) not only finds the moral dimension in an analysis of the text, it also implies that there is a moral dimension to the act of memorization itself. What I find intriguing about this "turn" is that there are two necessary components to this transformative incorporation as a moral or ethical act. What I'll call 1) a proper proximity, and, 2) forgetting, which is an inevitable component of this incorporation.

OK, more tomorrow. (Unless I forget!)

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