On Friday it was the woman who wrote My Ántonia. You know, what’s her name? The great novelist abused by her most ardent admirers? On Saturday it was the Battle of Antietam. 1862 or 1863? And the one time I visited the battlefield, ushered by a black park ranger, feeling privileged to have a private guide – was it 1986? On Sunday (this is shameful, not the forgetting but the knowing in the first place): The actor, you know, repeatedly cast by James Cameron? Terminator, Aliens? What’s his name? All blanks, all effortlessly filled by memory’s surrogate, the internet. Anxiety over memory loss as a symptom of incipient dementia is to my generation what fear of eternal damnation was to my grandparents’. We’re a self-centered bunch, ever ready to equate forgetfulness with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
And yet, we know at the cellular level that every gift comes with strings attached. Live long enough and you’ll forget things, occasionally important things. Alzheimer’s disease is not inevitable but it sure is fashionable, like tuberculosis in the nineteenth century, not to mention all the crackpot theories devised to explain it. Think of memory as a great joy and an occasional curse. In his Notebooks, Michael Oakeshott writes rather teasingly: “To love is to have a faithful memory.” I’m blessed with a big, elastic memory, one I frequently replenish and backup with the written word. Among other things, Anecdotal Evidence is my external hard drive. Its internal analogue is fraying not being erased. Memory used to be a passive function I took for granted. Now I try to remember to work at it. The wonderful Turner Cassity puts it like this in “The Persistence of Memory” (Between the Chains, 1991):
“What is it that a string around the finger says?
Remember to remember. It is Fool’s Regress.”
Like so much else as we get older, work is required where once we could coast. I’ve known at least since I started Latin in seventh grade that conscious, focused memorization genuinely works. Dr. Johnson writes in The Idler #74:
“The true art of memory is the art of attention. No man will read with much advantage, who is not able, at pleasure, to evacuate his mind, or who brings not to his author an intellect defecated and pure, neither turbid with care, nor agitated by pleasure. If the repositories of thought are already full, what can they receive? If the mind is employed on the past or future, the book will be held before the eyes in vain.”
My intellect has never had trouble defecating.