Forget Me Not

Forget Me Not

Memory is powerful. As a historian and novelist, I have devoted a lot of my career to memory. Moreover, when I was a journalist, I must have interviewed 15,000 people. I recorded countless memories, both public and private.

As a film-maker about to complete a feature-length historical documentary, I am busy retrieving lost memories of the age of polar exploration a hundred and more years ago.

The 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke describes the work of the historian as reconstructing a period “wie es eigentlich gewesen” – telling it like it really was.

Language helps us to hold onto memory, to shape the chaos of our perceptions into a coherent whole. Goethe talks about “sehen mit Geistes Augen” – seeing with the eyes of the mind. In discussing this statement, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer adds: “The moment we pass from one form of vision to another, it is not only a single factor in the intuition, its unbroken unity, that undergoes a characteristic metamorphosis. There is creation in the very act of seeing, said Goethe, and though scientists do their utmost to exorcise it, they are driven before they know it, to invoke the help of the productive imagination.”

Do we only see what we imagine, what we create in the mind? But then, we humans have many memory aids at our disposal. Written notes on tablets, papyrus, parchment and paper; visual notes whether sketches, paintings, photographs or sculpture; sound notes like melodies, imitations of noise, recordings…

Seif al Islam, a Sufi librarian in Chinguetti

I remember interviewing Seif al Islam fifteen years ago, in Chinguetti, Mauritania. He is curator of the Ahmed Mahmoud Library there, and a Sufi scholar. He showed me a 1000-year-old copy of the Koran on gazelle skin and many other precious manuscripts. The dryness of the climate and careful conservation in the family have certainly helped. A few months later, I visited the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali. Here I saw yet more thousand-year-old manuscripts, in Arabic and Zarma (the language spoken by the Songhai people), on theology, jurisprudence, governance, botany, medicine, astronomy and other subjects.

Jihadists later tried to destroy all the manuscripts they could find in Timbuktu, because the classical literature of Mali was like a breath of intellectual freedom, which flatly contradicted the mindlessly destructive tenets of jihadism. They saw controlling memory as a way of controlling minds. Fortunately, the Ford Foundation digitized many of the manuscripts before it was too late.

The jihadist campaign against memory reminds me of what George Orwell writes in 1984 about memory holes, designed by a totalitarian state to destroy public memory: “In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”

Dreams consolidate memory. For example, rapid eye movement sleep seems to consolidate nondeclarative (implicit or unconscious or automatic) memories, while slow-wave or non-rapid eye movement sleep seems to consolidate declarative (explicit or intentionally recalled) memories.

There are many kinds of memory, from short-term and long-term memory to knowledge-memory and even, immunological memory, according to which our immune system remembers and recognizes antigens it has encountered before, before organizing a specific immune response. Does the body itself have the faculty of memory? That’s an open question…

People have long drawn a distinction between humans and other creatures, as if we alone had intelligence, whereas other creatures had only instinct and habit. This is an old, familiar, self-serving, circular discourse: we argue we are unique, then we forget our place in Nature, then we are blinded to what other creatures actually experience, then we disbelieve the evidence about other species staring at us in the face, then we argue we are unique again…

Plants may be able to develop memories based on calcium-based signaling networks in their cells. Slime mold – like the “blob” currently on exhibit at the Zoological Park in Paris – is able to generate memory and solve problems. Despite the absence of a brain. Slime mold is not considered to be a plant. According to a recent article about slime mold in Quanta magazine, “evidence mounts that organisms without nervous systems can in some sense learn and solve problems, but researchers disagree about whether this is ‘primitive cognition.’”

Other animals than humans certainly remember; I don’t believe they just have habit-memory; they too must be able to see with the eyes of the mind, since they have imaginations. Consider the way cats and dogs whimper in their sleep, while dreaming…

Think of American robins, with their melodies, calls, trills, chirps. If they can repeat these sounds and make variations on them, then surely robins can also recognize sounds and interpret them. Mockingbirds are famous for recognizing, interpreting and reproducing sounds too. The same goes for humpback whales, whose grunts, clicks and moans travel long distances underwater, who learn new songs each year, and who communicate them so that other whales can share the memory.

In the behaviour of animals other than humans, it is clear that all animals learn, recognize and remember fellow creatures, behaviours, places and problems. “Finding” often comes down to locating something one recognizes and remembers from the time before.

One of the best things I enjoy about horses is the way they remember people from years before, like these ponies I photographed near the Langjökull glacier in Iceland. Horses can recall how to solve particular problems and meet challenges. All of which takes a strong memory.



songs,, “to invoke the help

says , and

Habits of Mind

October 31, 2019

The Arrow of Time – 2

October 31, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *