Cultivating a Culture of Memory

“Memory is the cabinet of imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, the counsel-chamber of thought”: these words, quoted at last month’s CiRCE conference, have continued to percolate in my reflections on what I heard there, helping to rehabilitate the very word “memory” from its eroded modern definition—the mere storing of information, accomplished as efficiently by an external hard drive as by a human mind. Running straight through the conference was the insistence that human memory is so much more.

To remember and to be remembered are fundamental human longings. Memory shapes identity and self-understanding, whether as cultural memory, carried within the whole great tradition we inherit, or as personal memory, most powerfully communicated through the nostalgia surrounding our youth. Memory is not simply a faculty of the brain, but mysteriously of the body as well: musicians and craftsmen rely on “muscle memory,” and surgeons know stories of “organ memory” witnessed in the experiences of those with organ transplants. The Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne, and so history, poetry, music, drama, art, and dance are born from memory and are ways of remembering. We fear the loss of memory, but more fearsome still is inability to forget. We are what we remember, and yet, when memory fades, we understand that we are at all simply through being remembered by God.

Speakers at the conference gestured toward all of these dimensions of memory, but the quotation with which I began, attributed to St. Basil the Great, implies the claim that seemed to underly all the week’s discussions: if memory is that from which imagination, reason, conscience, and thought—the defining human faculties—draw their matter, then an impoverished memory leads to impoverished art, logic, ethics, and insight. And, this being so, an impoverished memory leads ultimately to an impoverished soul.

It hardly needs statistics (though there are plenty) to demonstrate that such amnesic impoverishment marks modern Western culture, and personal experience testifies to the same state in too many of our own lives as well. Yet the resounding tone of the conference was one of hopeful urgency: for, if the soul can be shriveled by starving the memory, then it can be revivified by cultivating the memory.

This means, partly, memorizing stuff. As Andrew Kern remarked, perhaps Quintilian included only one chapter on memory in the Institutio Oratoria as a hint that memory needs to be practiced more than discussed. Scripture passages, poetry, phone numbers, a hundred digits of pi, Latin vocabulary, the Greek alphabet, the names in your church’s directory, your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe—both intentionally training the memory and simply exercising it on the daily affairs of life are essential. Learn how to build memory palaces. Make up ditties to sing your verses. And don’t disparage repetition: say things over and over and over.

But I also came away from the conference thinking that, over above the practice of memory, we need to be thinking about cultivating a culture of memory in our homes, our schools, our churches. We might assent with our heads to the importance of memory and the need to practice it, but we may not get much further than head-nodding until we begin to breathe the air of a culture that values memory, enjoys remembering, shares memories—a culture in which remembrance is stitched into the daily fabric of learning, worshipping, celebrating, serving, making—indeed, a culture in which remembrance becomes the thread that stitches this fabric together.

In a few succeeding posts, then, I’ll be thinking through practices that might help us to cultivate a culture of memory in the places we live and learn. And if you want to keep contemplating memory in the meanwhile, you may want to take a listen to CiRCE’s Quiddity podcasts on memory with Jenny Rallens and Andrew Pudewa, or even check out the 2017 conference audio that just came out for pre-order.

Leave a Comment

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

Related Articles