Don’t forget the art of memory
By Janadas Devan

MY FAVOURITE students when I taught literature in American universities were often practising, even fundamentalist, Christians. This had little to do with shared belief. They were believers; I was a bumptious atheist. They looked to scripture for inspiration; I looked to it for material to stick pins in reverential bottoms. And yet I was drawn to them.

For one thing, ideas seemed to matter to them, especially ideas that challenged their beliefs. The average student could be directed to a text describing the abyss, and he would say ‘ah yes, the abyss’. The serious Christian student could be directed to the same text, and the abyss would strike him as an existential fact. In a culture where what is ‘depends on what is is’, to be confronted with people who actually believed in something was bracing. There was a there there to engage.

For another, unlike most students, the Christian student would have read at least one great book through and through – the Bible. Often, by dint of having read it repeatedly, he would have memorised whole chunks of it.

One could be looking in class at an obscure line in a John Donne sonnet – ‘And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire’ – and the student would know it alludes to the story in Genesis of how Jacob, disguised in the clothes of his brother Esau, gained his father Isaac’s blessings. Or one could be reading another obscure-seeming line in Donne – ‘Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die’ – and the student would be able to quote the exact line in Exodus to which it refers: ‘Thou canst not see my face: for there shall be no man see me, and live’.

But what impressed me most was not just their credentials as literary sleuths. After all, none of them had studied the Bible so as to be able to read Donne. Rather, what impressed me was the extent to which their minds had been formed by the sounds and rhythms, the melodies and harmonies, the images, metaphors and stories of the Bible. Just one book, but it was a tremendous book – and in the case of the King James Bible, the greatest work of English prose ever composed – and they knew it thoroughly.

There is, it seems to me, much to be said for not reading too much, but rather, reading the little that is valuable very often. Everything is worth reading, of course, even advertisements and bumper stickers. But there are very few things that one can read life with – and those one should re-read repeatedly and perhaps memorise. Indeed, that is precisely what people did for most of history, till recently. St Augustine, for instance, the single most influential theologian in Christendom, never read much, since there were precious few books to read in 4th century North Africa. But the little that he did read – Latin classics, chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid – he read thoroughly, committing huge chunks to memory. As a result, ‘every word, every turn of phrase of these few classics, was significant’ to him, observes Mr Peter Brown in his life of the saint.

Or take Shakespeare. He had ‘small Latin and less Greek’, his contemporary Ben Jonson tells us. But as Mr Michael Wood points out in his recent biography of Shakespeare, what would be ‘small Latin’ in Shakespeare’s day ‘was much more than is mastered by many a classics graduate now’, for Shakespeare would have committed most of his ‘small Latin’ to memory.

He ‘was the product of a memorising culture in which huge chunks of literature were learned off by heart’, notes Mr Wood. ‘Today we no longer live in such a culture, but learning by rote offers many rewards, not least a sense of poetry, rhythm and refinement – a feel for heightened language. It forms habits of mind too: what they called the ‘art of memory’ in the 17th century.

We, of course, think memorisation is a deadly mechanical exercise and learning by rote productive of nothing but uncreative minds. In Singapore, older Chinese teachers especially have been widely criticised for insisting their students memorise proverbs and sayings, and blamed for turning off young Singaporeans from the language. The criticism reflects more on the times than it does on the teachers. A technique of learning as old as civilisation itself cannot be without value.

Mr Michael Knox Beran, in a recent article, In Defence Of Memorisation, notes that the modern distaste for rote learning has resulted in ‘several generations of Americans who’ve never memorised much of anything. Even highly educated people in their 30s and 40s are often unable to recite half a dozen lines of classic poetry or prose’.

It is doubtful if that has made them clearer thinkers. Far from being incidental to thought, memory is its essence. As anyone with a relative who suffers from Alzheimer’s would know, to lose memory is to lose humanity. Not being able to recall even half a dozen lines of classic poetry is cultural Alzheimer’s.

How does one unlock a current human experience or situation without the aid of some yardstick or measure? St Augustine, Mr Beran writes, ‘found in Virgil’s epic picture of the multiple passions of human life – paternal, filial, pious, romantic, patriotic, heroic’, ‘a key to understanding his own heart’. My Christian students found a similar resource in the Bible. Older Singaporeans, schooled the old-fashioned way, found it in memorising the classics. For thousands of years, people have found it in the endlessly re-told and remembered myths and stories of various cultures.

What will the young – liberated from rote learning to be creative – have? Is it really possible to be creative in a vacuum?

Published in the Straits Times 8 August 2004

While fools despised the King James Bible, this person who is not a Christian thinks otherwise!

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. (Luke 16:8)