Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I think I have that written down somewhere

Since my graduation, new facets of my life have opened to interesting tasks I feel compelled to do. One is fight crime, but that post is for another day.

The other is memorizing important writings. This seems insane in a world where we have immediate access to just about anything we could think of to say that we need to remember anything. I certainly don’t remember phone numbers anymore because they’re all stored in my phone. Why would a person carry around a heavy sack of obsolete items, when there’s a perfectly good eighteen-wheeler following them around to carry whatever they wish?

This may be true for phone numbers, but what about words?

The biggest is that it shapes the way we think and speak. If you were to memorize the whole canon of Scripture, it would become a part of your language so much so that you would hardly notice it. Conversations would arise and proverbs or the sayings of Christ would roll off your tongue unconsciously. Read the works of saints like Bernard of Clairvaux or Augustine of Hippo and see how Scripture is woven throughout their work as if it were the underpinnings or foundational pillars of their thought, only peeking to show themselves every so often. So it goes with anything.

Winston Churchill copied the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by hand for the reason of developing a style as sophisticated as the one in that work. Immersion in the work of respectable author offers such a close association that it can be recited by memory is a lost art, and one that could benefit all of us.

Jews in biblical times would memorize the whole Old Testament. St. John Chrysostom memorized the whole New Testament.

Wouldn’t this dampen a person’s sense of style, their own voice? No, it would do the opposite, in fact. A person develops their own style through imitation of the great artists, then gives their own take on the subject. Influence coupled with honesty will do the job.

The genre I’ve been interested in memorizing is poetry, a form I believe was meant to be remembered and scrutinized (not necessarily analyzed, but scrutinized. Just take a phrase and ruminate on it, etc.) The first I took was “Bright Star” by John Keats, and once I learned it I would recite it to myself as I did ordinary, daily tasks. What I found is that the poem came to life and spoke to me in ways I never thought possible. What I also saw was that I couldn’t see those things after a superficial reading of the work. It would’ve been impossible. It’s like meeting a person and saying you know all there is to know about them. It can’t be done. And so it is with great art.

A few nights ago I had someone teach me twenty seconds of choreography for a performance. After repeating the moves for a while, my body memorized the motions and I could do the routine without thinking. It was nice, because at that point I could focus on other things like my facial expressions or adding feeling to my movement. This closely applies to words as well.

What I’ve come to realize in myself is that I not only skim most of what I read, but I usually only read things once and never return to it; even with books I love. It’s tragic.

I’ll venture a guess and say there are two things still memorized in our culture (besides things like words in order to speak. Come on). The first is song lyrics. I can sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on cue without the music and have been able to do this since my childhood. I can do this because I’ve heard it so much. Other people, I’m sure, have a similar experience with music. Such is the nature of the beast.

The other is in some church denominations there’s the Sunday school tradition of memorizing Scripture and doing Bible drills. From what I can tell, this only happens in strongly conservative Protestant denominations. But I’ll expand this and say religion itself promotes memorization, especially the more liturgical traditions. I recite the Nicene Creed, the Our Father, the Act of Contrition, and several snippet responses throughout Mass. I’ve known these prayers since I was a child.

Of course, the criticism is that memorization doesn’t necessarily lead to any connection as anyone who has been a part of a liturgical tradition can attest. They’ve gone to church for a while, known the prayers most of their life, but never felt any significance in it. In this case the problem is not with memorization, but it lies elsewhere, particularly with awareness and critical thinking. I would encourage someone in this situation to read the prayers on their own, and study their history and meaning.

The beauty of memorizing prayers is that they continue to speak to a person once they’ve entered and found permanent residence in a person’s psyche. The prayer stays the same, but the life circumstance has changed. Anyone who has read a great work of fiction twice with a sufficient gap between the readings can probably say the same, and the same applies to the constancy of poetry, speeches, or quotes when they’re held close. We bring our ever-changing selves to the words of those that came before use, and we let them condescend to bring understanding, comfort, or needed wisdom wherever we are in life.

I’ll ask the question that is the title of this post: does memorization have a place in our culture or will it increasingly become obsolete?


Stresspenguin said...

I think we're constantly memorizing new things, such as the Konomi Code, T9, and keyboard shortcuts.

Did you know that the domestication of dogs allowed our brains to grow? We could sleep through the night while dogs stayed alert. More sleep = bigger brains.

So what kind of impact do you think written language had on our cognitive abilities? And then again, mass produced media? And again, the interwebtubes?

I dunno....I'm thinking that it frees up our minds for other things. Just a theory.

I once heard that it used to be about what you know. Then it became about how you can find out what you need to know. Today, its about how do you use what you can find out. If this is true, what would be the next step?

Stresspenguin said...

This comment serves the purpose of letting me chose to be alerted of follow-up comments via email.

That is all.