Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Forget it!

Memorizing has always fascinated me. I cursed myself at my inability to recollect historical snippets, however obscure, about unsung phenomena and people including timelines. A woman, masked as AJ by psychiatry, shames me with her vast unforgettable memory. "My memory flows like a movie—nonstop and uncontrollable," says AJ. She remembers that at 12:34 p.m. on Sunday, August 3, 1986, a young man she had a crush on called her on the telephone. Huh! I gaped watching her cognitive gymnastics on NGC.

A rather well-known and named gymnast is the recently dead Soviet writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). When he referred Stalin as a “man with a moustache” in one of his letters, he was swiftly deported to a prison camp in Kazakhstan. He wasn’t given any thing to write on, but his urge to document the Stalinist atrocities was like an unexpressed gene. What turned on this gene was a keen observation: Catholic prisoners made a rosary out of “chewed bits of bread.” He used something similar to compose his book A Day in the Life. Every passage in the book was a bead to be memorized, until it was committed to the brain’s long-term memory. Bead after bead, passages started etching on his memory; at the end, he could memorize 12000 lines. Benevolent dictatorship, you see.

Quite similar cruel benevolence marks the life of the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006). Branded by Indonesian dictator, Suharto’s “New Order” regime as a communist, Pramoedya was sent to the penal colony of Buru in the eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Inspired to document his prison life, like Solzhenitsyn, Pramoedya was also deprived of any writing material. But unlike his Russian counterpart, he chose a different method. He recited the passages of his planned quartet, a series of four semi-fictional novels, to his fellow prisoners. So that the book was orally circulated. Eventually, his fellowmen who worked extra to reduce Pramoedya’s labor helped him write the novels down, aptly named the "Buru Quartet" after the prison where he produced them.

Oral memory has long been the way many civilizations treasured their wise wealth and passed them generation after generation; Vedas are a standing example. Many have savaged orality, to whose rescue came the brilliant polymath, Walter Ong (1912-2003). He found some glowing characteristics of orality, among which I was struck by what he called “formulaic styling”. Complex ideas, often expressed in novels, need to be cast into memorable packages like rhythms, mnemonic patterns (something like Solzhenitsyn’s beads), etc. These memory shortcuts or cues help thoughts linger even if they are momentary. Recent research has suggested physical actions can act as cues to recollect events that happened during those actions. Say, you sneezed strongly during some meeting; recollecting that you sneezed may help you recall the meeting’s proceedings. Or be blessed to use the technique called “memory palace” of the Greek poet, Simonides. After he exited a banquet room, its roof collapsed. And Simonides was called to identify the dead guests. “He managed to do so by correlating their identities to their positions (loci) at the table before his departure.” So don’t forget to do something physical on that next important occasion.

1 comment:

coldblooded said...

hi,vidya here
shall teach ,if u r serious abt it.
hey u write well man,do u write to papers? cool really
awesome vocab.