You have seen in the short presentation just projected that the idea of this meeting was inspired by the Encyclomedia (a printed and on line overview of the History of the Western world from the Big Bang up to our times).
I am not here to review that endeavor because I rank among its authors and I think it would not be too much elegant to review a sort of book to which I have myself collaborated.
But the very idea of Encyclomedia is inspired to a conception of our historical memory and it is on memory that I shall elaborate some re?ections that are today of the greater interest even though Encyclomedia never existed.
I can only say that the seminal idea that pulled me and other persons to try such an editorial venture was the fact that few people know how much time elapsed between Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas, even though they studied in the high school or at the university that both dominated the medieval philosophy.
Well, between Augustine and Tomas pass eight century, which means that they separated by the same temporal distance that separates us from Thomas Aquinas.
In order to make time evident through a spatial representation we conceived at the beginning of our work a sort of continuous line that shows the presurnable lapse of time if not from the Big Bang and us, at least form the death of dinosaurs and the birth of Jesus Christ. This line must ?ows through a long portion of space (and time), while, once arrived to the beginning of the first millennium the time between Christ and us occupies only a very microscopic length of our line, so that one is obliged to zoom upon it in order to have a visual representation of what happened in the last two thousand years.
At this point one can point towards a given portion of history and discover for instance that some artists, thinkers or scientists lived at the same historical moment or even ask the program to say if by chance Goethe could have had the possibility to meet Napoleon. The program can tell you that such an event could gave been chronological possible and if one point to other hypertextual links one can learn that it really happened.
The whole operation was inspired by the persuasion that especially among the young generations. from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, we are witnessing a loss of historical memory.
THE NECESSITY OF MEMORY
Mass media are mainly interested with present. It happens more and more than in Italy young people (including many university students) when tested about facts concerning, let us say, the Second World War, they do not know how to de?ne historical characters such as Badoglio or Churchill or Roosevelt — or think (as it really happened) that Aldo Moro was the leader of the Red Brigades. Worst than that, they are unable to tell something exact about events that happened ten years before their birth.
Unfortunately such a loss of memory is at work even in the scholarly word. If I consult an American book published today on some specialized topic, I detect that the bibliography does not go backwards beyond the eighties, which can be understandable for certain sciences in progress, dealing for instance with Higg’s boson, but it is whimsical as far as humanities are concerned. I remember to have seen a book on philosophy where at a certain point a certain idea by Kant was mentioned and a footnoted read “See Brown 1982.” The texts by Kant were considered too old to justify even a vista.
Besides many documents you can visit on line lack any date whilst it would be important to know if they were elaborated in 2009, 2010 or 2012. Any temporal dept is lost.
A legend says that at the door of a famous American philosophy department its head hanged up a billboard saying “entrance forbidden to the philosophy historians”. And I remember my conversation with a friend philosopher asking “why should we know what was the logic of Stoics. if formal logic made enormous progresses from their times up to now, and it is more fruitful to study a contemporary handbook rather that an historical reconstruction?”
I answered him that (i) if by chance the Stoics were wrong it is important to know also the history of past errors in order to avoid them and that in order to understand Copernicus it is crucial to know why Ptolemy was wrong, since Copernicus did not start from nothing but he started by criticizing the ideas of Ptolemy; (ii) to ignore the history of ancient philosophy, or of any other discipline, can help us not to invent (as we say in Italian) the hot water, and there are many contemporary scholars who waste their intelligence in rediscovering by useless efforts ideas that were expressed very clearly by an ancient thinker; (ii) the old dictum historia magistra vitae (history is the master of life) is more serious than it is commonly believed because, if Hitler had read the something on Napoleon (or at least Tolstoy’s War and Peace) he would have understood that it is pretty difficult for an army to reach Moscow before the arrival of winter — and if Bush had read documented historical narrations about the British and Russian attempt to win a war in Afghanistan in the 19th century, he would have suspected that that country presents many orographic and social features that make very difficult to submit its territory.
This diffidence about history was and still is a typical feature of many analytic philosophers and let me quote an incisive synthesis of the problem that I found in Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001:
“Continental philosophy usually considers these conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Thus continental philosophy tends toward historicism. Where analytic philosophy tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems, capable of being analyzed apart from their historical origins (much as scientists consider the history of science inessential to scienti?c inquiry), continental philosophy typically suggests that “philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence”.
The problem that comes into play is that no culture (in the anthropological sense of the world, as a system of scienti?c and artistic ideas, myths, religions, values and everyday customs) can subsist and survive without a collective memory. Societies have always relied on memory in order to preserve their own identity, beginning with the old man who, seating under a tree, told stories about the exploits of his ancestors and the founding myth of the tribe. And when some act of censorship wipes out a section of a society’s memory, this society undergoes an identity crisis.
EXCESS OF MEMORY
Let me now consider the opposite side of our question: namely the damages of an excess of memory.
To remember too much can result in a tragedy. Jorge Luis Borges told us the story of Funes el Memorioso, and let me read some passages from Borges’ short story:
“I come now to the most difficult point in my story, a story whose only raison d’ être is that dialogue half a century ago. I will not attempt to reproduce the words of it, which are now forever irrecoverable. Instead, I will summarize, faithfully, the many things Ireneo told me…
Ireneo began by enumerating, in both Latin and Spanish, the cases of prodigious memory cataloged in the Naturalis historia: Cyrus, the king of Persia, who could call all the soldiers in his armies by name; Mithridates Eupator, who meted out justice in the twenty-two languages of the kingdom over which he ruled; Simonides, the inventor of the art of memory; Metrodorus, who was able faithfully to repeat what he had heard, though it be but once. With obvious sincerity, Ireneo said he was amazed that such cases were thought to be amazing. He told me that before that rainy afternoon when the blue roan had bucked him of? he had been what every man was—blind, deaf, befuddled, and virtually devoid of memory… He had lived, he said, for nineteen years as though in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without listening, and forgot everything. When he fell, he’d been knocked unconscious; when he came to again the present was so rich, so clear that it was almost unbearable, as were his oldest and even his most trivial memories. It was shortly afterward that he learned he was crippled; of that fact he hardly took notice.He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a small price to pay. Now his perception and his memory were perfect.
With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Furies perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. Nor were those memories simple—every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream. every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day. ”I, myself alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,” he said to me. And also: ”My dreams are like other people’s waking hours.” And again, toward dawn: ”My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap (hip).” A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus—all these are forms we can fully discern (disern); lreneo could do the same with the stormy mane of a young colt, a small herd of cattle on a mountainside, a flickering fire and its uncountable ashes, and the many faces of a dead man at a wake.
I have no idea how many stars he saw in the sky…
He told me that in 1886 he had invented a numbering system original wit himself, and that within a very few days he had passed the twenty-four thousand mark. He had not written it down, since anything he thought, even once, remained ineradicably with him. His original motivation, I think, was his irritation that the thirty-three Uruguayan patriots should require two ?gures and three words rather than a single ?gure, a single word. He then applied this mad principle to the other numbers: Instead of seven thousand thirteen (7013), he would say, for instance, “Maximo Perez”; instead of seven thousand fourteen (7014), “the railroad”; other numbers were “Luis Melidn La?nur,” “Olimar,” “sulfur,” “clubs,” “the whale,” “gas,” “a stewpot,” “Napoleon,” “Agustin de Vedia.” Instead of five hundred (500), he said “nine.” Every word had a particular ?gure attached to it, a sort of marker; the later ones were extremely complicated. . . . I tried to explain to Funes that his rhapsody of unconnected words was exactly the opposite of a number system… Funes either could not or would not understand me.
In the seventeenth century, Locke postulated (and condemned) an impossible language in which each individual thing—every stone, every bird, every branch—would have its own name; Funes once contemplated a similar language, but discarded the idea as too general, too ambiguous. The truth was. Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree in every patch of forest, but every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf. He resolved to reduce every one of his past days to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would then de?ne by numbers. Two considerations dissuaded him: the realization that the task was interminable, and the realization that it was pointless. He saw that by the time he died he would still not have ?nished classifying all the memories of his childhood.
The two projects I have mentioned (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, and a pointless mental catalog of all the images of his memory) are foolish, even preposterous, but they reveal a certain halting grandeur. They allow us to glimpse, or to infer, the dizzying world that Funes lived in. Furies, we must not forget, was virtually incapable of general, platonic ideas. Not only was it dif?cult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the “dog” of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in pro?le, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen, seen frontally. His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them. Swift wrote that the emperor of Lilliput could perceive the movement of the minute hand of a clock; Funes could continually perceive the quiet advances of corruption, of tooth decay, of weariness. He saw—he noticed—the progress of death, of humidity. He was the solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentaneous, and almost unbearably precise world. Babylon. London, and New York dazzle mankind’s imagination with their fierce splendor; no one in the populous towers or urgent avenues of those cities has ever felt the heat and pressure of a reality as inexhaustible as that which battered lreneo. day and night, in his poor South American hinterland. It was hard for him to sleep. To sleep is to take one‘s mind from the world; Funes, lying on his back on his cot, in the dirnness of his room, could picture every crack in the wall, every molding of the precise houses that surrounded him. (I repeat that the most trivial of his memories was more detailed, more vivid than our own perception of a physical pleasure or a physical torment.) Off toward the east, in an area that had not yet been cut up into city blocks, there were new houses, unfamiliar to lreneo. He pictured them to himself as black, compact, made of homogeneous shadow; he would tum his head in that direction to sleep. He would also imagine himself at the bottom of a river, rocked (and negated) by the current.
He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, and Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of lreneo Funes there was nothing but particulars—and they were virtually immediate particulars.
The leery light of dawn entered the patio of packed earth.
It was then that I saw the face that belonged to the voice that had been talking all night long. lreneo was nineteen, he had been born in 1868; he looked to me as monumental as bronze—older than Egypt, older than the prophecies and the pyramids. l was struck by the thought that every word I spoke, every expression of my face or motion of my hand would endure in his implacable memory; I was rendered clumsy by the fear of making pointless gestures.
lreneo Funes died in 1889 of pulmonary congestion.”
Thus, just because of this unfortunate virtue Funes was a perfect idiot. He couldn’t act any more…
Now, if somebody believes that the World Wide Web can act to reinforce our memory of the past events, let’s consider that the World Wide Web is already (or will soon be) similar to Funes’ brain. Up to now society ?ltered things out for us, through textbooks and encyclopedias. With the coming of the Web, all possible knowledge and information, even the least useful. is there at our disposal. Hence the question: Who is doing the ?ltering out?
Last summer I was working at my countryside home, without the 30.000 volumes I have in Milano, and I needed some data about the Holocaust. I called up the Web and found an incredible amount of sites. Knowing pretty well the contemporary history I was able to eliminate the cranks. the fanatics, the websites which only gave super?cial information, and I was slowly able to select the, let’s say, ten sites which contained viable information. What will happen to laymen who for the first time search the Web for some elementary but feasible notions on the Holocaust? The inability to ?lter out entails the impossibility to discriminate. To my mind, to have ten thousands websites on the same topic is the same as having none, because one (and especially a youngster) is not able to select the important and reliable ones, and even if one could. he or she will have no time to explore all of them.
We have increased our memory storage capacity, but we haven’t yet found the new parameters of ?ltering out.
When confronted by the Web, we have at our disposal neither a rule for selecting information nor a rule for forgetting what isn’t worth remembering. One only possesses selection criteria in so far as one is prepared intellectually to face the ordeal of sur?ng the Web. We need educational centers (the school, books, scienti?c institutions, some meta-web sites) who will teach us how to select. A new art of decimation has to be invented.
Otherwise seven billion inhabitants of this planet will produce seven billion different ideological selection procedures. The result could well be a society composed of juxtaposed individual identities (which seems to me a mark of progress), without the mediation of groups (which seems to me a danger). I don’t know whether such a society would be able to function properly. Even in inventing something new we need a common encyclopedia from which to start.
The Funes’ complex obsessed the mankind from the beginning.
Since classical antiquity, the problem of the need to forget appears contemporaneously with the development of mnemonic techniques by which to commit to memory the maximum amount of information (especially in the centuries in which information was not as readily obtainable and transportable as it has since become, with the invention first of printing and subsequently of electronic devices).
The classical example of a mnemonic device consists imagining a complex spatial image (a palace, a square, a city) where there are architectural items or statues, many representing strange or terrifying fact, to which one could associate every kind of data, concepts, logical principles, events and so on, so that by ?guring out of visiting the place and remembering these images one could remember a complete system of notions.
But sometimes it was more difficult to remember the mnemonic images than the data to be retrieved.
In De oratore (II, 74), for example, Cicero cites the case of Themistocles, who was gifted with an extraordinary memory. When someone offered to teach him an ars memorandi, Themistocles replied that his interlocutor would be doing him a greater kindness if he taught him how to forget what he wished to forget than if he taught him how to remember, inasmuch as he would prefer to be able to forget something he did not wish to remember than to remember everything that he had once heard or seen.
Themistocles tried to escape the Funes’ syndrome..
The problem of the excess of memory explains why one of the terrors of the practitioners of mnemonics was that of remembering so much as to confound their ideas and forget practically everything as a result. It seems, in fact, that at a certain point in his life Giulio Camillo (who invented an absolutely unfeasible theater of memory) had to excuse himself for his confused state and for the gaps in his memory, citing as an explanation his protracted and frantic application to his mnemonic techniques.. On the other hand, in his polemic against mnemonics, Cornelius Agrippa (in De vanitate scientiarum) claimed that the mind is rendered obtuse by those monstrous arti?ces andvby being so overburdened is led to madness. Hence, subterraneously parallel to the fortunes of the ars memoriae, the reappearance from time to time of the phantasm of an ars oblivionalis.
Thus in 1592 a given Filippo Gesualdo wrote a Plutoso?a, a method for oblivion and in his intent upon developing an an of forgetting he suggested the same techniques as an art of remembering.
He recommended to imagine a theater of memory where usually were put different images associated to something to remember. And then “either in the daytime with closed eyes, or at night in darkness, you should go wandering with your mind through all the imagined places, evoking an obscure nocturnal gloom that hides all the places, and proceeding in this fashion, and going back a number of times with the mind and not seeing any images, every figure will soon disappear… ® Just as the painter pastes over and whitewashes his paintings to cancel them, so we too can cancel the images with colors painted over them. And these colors are white, green or black; imagining over the places white curtains, green sheets or black cloths; and going over the places a number of times with these veils of colors. And one can also imagine the places stuffed with straw, hay, firewood, merchandise, etc.
I consider it an excellent rule to put in place new figures; because just as one nail drives out another, so forming new images and putting them in the places already imagined, cancels the first images from our memory.
Imagine a great storm of winds, hail, dust, ruined buildings and places and temples, a flood that leaves everything in a state of confusion. And when this noxious thought has continued for a while and been repeated several times, finally go walking among the places with your mind, imagining the weather bright and calm and peaceful, and seeing the places empty and bare as they were formed for the first time.
Imagine a Man who is hostile, terrible and fearsome (the more cruel and bestial and belligerent the better) who with a troop of armed companions enters and passes impetuously among the places and with scourges, staves and other weapons drives out the likenesses, assaults the people, shatters the images, puts to flight through doors and windows all of the animals and animate persons who were in the places. Until, after the tumult has passed and the ruin, seeing the places with a mind recovered from its terror, they will be seen bare and vacant as before.
We do not know whether anyone ever put into practice the arti?ces Gesualdo recommended but we are entitled to suspect that all these stratagems made it possible, not to forget but to remember what was the practitioner wanted to forget, – as occurs when lovers try to blot out the image of the person who has abandoned them, and the more they cancel the more the countenance of the beloved vividly resurface.
Another author that four centuries later cried havoc against an excess of memory was Nietzsche in his second Untimely Meditation, on the advantages and disadvantages of historical studies for life, He wrote about the capacity to sense things unhistorically. “The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness or fear, will never know what happiness is. Even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy. Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being (and let me suppose that Borges, when inventing Funes, was thinking of these pages of Nietzsche). Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points ?owing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming… A person who wanted to feel utterly and only historically would be like someone who was forced to abstain from sleep, or like the beast that is to continue its life only from rumination to constantly repeated rumination. For this reason, if it is possible to live almost without remembering… it is generally completely impossible to live without forgetting. Or, to explain myself more clearly concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia. of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and ?nally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture.”
One of the interesting things about this text is that, while these remarks seem to address the individual’s need for survival, the emphasis changes to the need for a systematic forgetting on the part of cultures in general. This switch is of capital importance because, once the impossibility of voluntarily forgetting what the individual memory has recorded has been demonstrated. then cultures present themselves as systems that function, not only to preserve and hand down information useful to their survival as cultures, but also to cancel the information judged to be in excess.
In order to preserve its identity a culture must not only act as a stock of information but also as a ?lter. The history of civilizations is a sequence of abysses into which tons of knowledge went missing. The Greeks were already incapable of recovering the mathematical knowledge of the Egyptians; the Middle Ages lost Greek science, all of Plato (except for one dialogue) and half of Aristotle. Some of these losses were merely accidental (it was a pity to have lost, let us say, Mesopotamian mathematics, if there was such a thing), some were due to censorship, some parts of the lost wisdom was in some way rediscovered late, but in general the function of social and cultural memory is to act as a filter; it’s not to preserve everything.
It would be mad if a book of Roman history had recorded what happened to Cesar’s wife Calpurnia after the death of her husband. Which by the way was not an male chauvinist conspiracy because history records what happened to Clara Schuman after the death of Robert, since Clara during her widowhood was still famous as a distinguished pianist and, moreover, there were many gossips about an affair with Brahms – so that her life belong to the events that a culture judge important to record.
My life was and certainly will be not long enough to give me the opportunity of discovering the structure of the Solar system, Mendeleev table, Pythagoras’ theorem. English history and grammar. and to decide if Darwin was right and Lamarck was wrong. That’s why I needed institutions which filtered essential information for me, so that the core of my information about the Solar system is more or less similar (if not equal in size) to yours. In order to achieve such a goal a degree of cultural gregariousness is necessary. That’s why we accept the ?lter that collective memory. history and tradition, provide.
To filter does not mean to cancel. As a matter of fact frequently societies do not make us forget what we know or knew, but they also keep us from ?nding out what we do not know yet. Thus it happens that a culture can perform various kinds of cancellation. which can range from out and out censure (the erasure of manuscripts, bon?res of books, damrzatio memoriae. forgery of documentary sources, negationism) to forgetfulness out of shame, inertia, and remorse.
How to react to both losses of memory and excesses of cancellation? How to decide when a percolation was necessary and when we should retrieve what was illicitly deleted?
If we read Aristotle’s Poetics we find the mention of many tragedies which have not survived until our times. We do not know why these tragedies got lost, as well as the names of their authors. A naive hypothesis is that Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides survived because they were the best ones. The best ones according to which criteria? By which inscrutable raisons they were selected and entered the canon? Maybe marvelous lost tragedies were censured. perhaps because of corruption and bribery some Athenian authority ordered that Sophocles was performed more frequently than some of its unfortunate companions?
I do not know if these lost tragedies can be found again in some place, as it happened with the Dead Sea scrolls. But I know that there are specialized individuals (such as historians or archeologists) capable of bringing many cancelled data to light. In such cases, the collective memory retrieves these data, and restore them to our standard encyclopedia. Sometimes on the contrary a culture decides that these data can be useful for speci?c researches but are irrelevant for common people and leave them in some specialized “Indian reservation”, that is, in specialized encyclopedias.
In this way a mature culture decides to put some information in a latency state. Exceeding information is or was. so to speak, deeply-froozen so that when it is necessary experts can put them in an ideal microwave oven to revive it again, for instance in order to decipher an old document newly discovered.
The latency places are represented by the model of a library or of the archive as the indispensable containers of a wisdom that can be revisited even though it was not revisited for centuries.
Up to now no encyclopedia and no library keep notes of all the soldiers who took part in the Waterloo battle (and imagine what a tragedy would be to oblige young students to remember by hearth all these names as they are obliged to remember the date of Waterloo’s battle and the names of Wellington or Cambronne… Let us now suppose that a scholar succeeds in putting his hands on as yet unknown archives and finds the list of all the persons ?ghting at Waterloo. I do not know how useful can be to have all those names, but we could then move these data into a hyper specialized encyclopedia. Thus we can go on having easily forgotten these names and at the same time to be certain that, if we need it, we can find them in some latent repository.
To which Encyclopedia belong the texts of the lost tragedies mentioned by Aristotle? Until now a specialized literary encyclopedia can simply record the datum that of these texts we know only the titles. What will happen if these texts will never be retrieved? For the very fact that there are good reasons to believe that they once existed (if Aristotle was not a damned liar) we will keep going in thinking that they could belong to a sort of Maximal Encyclopedia, even though belong to it only virtually in an optative way.
Thus the Maximal Encyclopedia, if the term only lets us to think of something cujus nihil majus cogitari possit, something of which nothing greater can be thought of, like the God of Anselm of Canterbury, is a structure virtually accordion-like, which can one day or another be stretched ad in?nitum. And this is not a little encouragement for the advancement of learning.
Squashed between a weak memory and its maximal excess in the labyrinth of a purely virtual maximal encyclopedia. what could we suggest to our children who do not know what happened few decades ago?
The only solution for enriching (inriching) our memory is to read. Reading not only enrich our memory but also make our personal life a little longer.
Let think of a day or a week in which you have lived many many events, all exciting (independently whether they were joyful or distressing). You will remember these hours or days as full of experiences, and you will have the impression of having had an abundant life. On the contrary if you had hours or days when nothing remarkable happened, these days deprived of significant events will disappear from you memory. You will have the impression of not having lived during that span of time.
I think that this is one of the reasons why men spent a lot of energy in order to retrieve the past things. If, together with our personal reminiscences. We also have the memory of the day in which Julius Cesar was assassinated, of the Waterloo’s battle, and even of the fictional day