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Florence in Words

Memory #3:Back to the Greeks and Romans

When I was a junior at Hunter College—in 1948—I took an elective Classics course with Professor Pearl Wilson. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and a group of plays, including the Orestia. ( I don’t remember the Romans.) Professor Robert White opened this third class on Thursday night by reminding us that the Greeks and Romans were “his” professorial focus, and he was going to talk about the importance of memory for all of them.

First he noted that the transmission of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been oral, that at one point in history one person with a prodigious memory could recite all 12 books of the Iliad, all the books of the Bible, all of Canon Law, 200 speeches of Cicero, and more besides. Such ability, he countered, may clearly not be important in an age of computers. Still, memory had to be essential for the creators of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who probably could not read or write; their talents were oral. Later, the texts of these epics were written down by people who were retelling what they had heard. Would this result in a loss of that prodigious memory?

Then he went on to talk about Plato’s Dialogues, and the relationships between memory and the concepts of truth and beauty and honesty. From Plato’s point of view, one needed to recall what once one knew before birth. I liked especially the idea of memory as writing on a wax tablet inside the mind—is it clear, muddy, hard, soft? Can we hold on to it, or will it disappear?

Aristotle, on the other hand, was interested in memory’s retrieval, in enabling the recall of memory. He thought that the young and the old both have poor memories: As Professor White announced that he disagreed here, he moved quickly on to the Romans, who, like Aristotle, were interested in the kinds of memory that enhanced public speaking, law, oratory. In particular, lawyers needed to remember their opponents’ main points so as to oppose them.

The class was only half over by this point and the rest was as interesting, sometimes funnier, and always memorable. I left with a smile not only on my face but in my being. For whatever complex of reasons, I left feeling almost happy, certainly cheerier than I have been in years. And it was not only the wonderful anecdote about his college friend assumed dead one day, and the next a co-winner of the Nobel for work on the hippocampus (which I knew meant work on memory). It was not only more anecdotes about prodigious memories (I had one of those once). Perhaps it was all of that, and some other essence having to do with taking notes, and, yes, remembering.
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