Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Revisionist's Art of Memory

Well, it's time to do a little experiment. Over the years, I read a lot about the Art of Memory and it's relationship to both Hermetics in general and Freemasonry in particular. The recent acquisition of a gift copy of Dame Frances Yates' book, "The Art of Memory," dredged the topic out from where it was buried, somewhere in my brainstem.

I have a big confession to make. I am one of those lazy Freemasons who never really mastered the classical art of memory. In my misspent youth, I never really needed it. I was blessed with the ability to memorize a fair bit of material using the crude method of repetition. I usually got away with 15 to 20 repetitions to memorize a reasonable number of pages, and so it was simply not worth the investment of time. I memorized the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in a sitting and can still recall a fair bit of it some 40 years later. I was also able to slog my way through a couple of languages using the same crude methodology. So, although I read the classic works on memorization and even the more recent additions such as Harry Lorayne's "The Memory Book," I never really attempted to master the technique. 

Well, it's 2012, and I am fast approaching 60. I have a whole cartload of new things I wish to commit to memory and I have come to the realization that the brain is balking. It still works, but it is slower to store all those new bits and pieces and I have to put more time and sweat equity into the project than I recall it taking a decade or two ago. 

So, I thought, this might make an interesting experiment. Let me dust off the old books, take a fresh look at both the theory and the techniques, and see what a new generation is bringing to the table. In fact, why not use this as the basis for a couple of blog entries? And so an idea was born for the first Hedge Mason experiment. As experiments go, it is a fairly unscientific one. In fact, it is totally unscientific. I have never been impressed by statistics, so they were out the window from the get -go. However, it seemed perfectly reasonable as a sort of survey to read Frances Yates' "Art of Memory" as a foundation of my study, throw in a few recent updates in publication, and I am going to take a brief on-line course on memory which is supposed to be based upon classical and hermetic traditions. 

According to classical tradition, the Art of memory was born as an act of divine retribution. According to the account, the Poet Simonides of Ceos gave an ode in honor of his host, Scopas of Thessaly, which included a passage in honor of Castor and Pollux. As Yates recounts the story, when the performance was complete, "Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realized that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory."(Yates. The Art of Memory. 1999. pp. 1-2)

Once I have read the books I will offer my views on them, and once I have taken the course, I will provide my reactions. Then, I will revisit the topic in about a month to see how I have progressed with my selected "tests" of effective memorization. I have a few big tasks coming up. I need to gain at least a minimum amount of fluency in another language - enough to facilitate very basic conversations and provide some ease in reading short texts. That is certainly not a giant task, but it can be time consuming. For the rest, I want to memorize a number of texts, amounting to a total of perhaps 80 pages. They are in a couple of languages, both of which I speak. 

I have purchased several books and have begun reading, and am scheduled for the course. If, in the meantime, anyone wishes to make suggestions concerning reading materials, I am happy to entertain them, although I make no promises in advance, as funds for this are limited.

Stay tuned! It should be interesting, and may serve as an introduction to further discussion of the traditional arts and sciences associated of old with Freemasonry.


Fernando Magalhães said...

Respeitável Irm.'. Ballard;
Saudações maçônicas!
Sobre o tema "memória", recomendo a leitura do livro e a observação do filme "Kim", de Rudyard Kipling. Ele descreve como maçons ingleses ensinam ao personagem-título a Arte da Memória.
Espero ter ajudado!
Fernando Magalhães
ARLS União e Tranquilidade 0002
Grande Oriente do Brasil
Rio de Janeiro - Brasil

E C Ballard ஃ said...

Respeitável Irmão Magalhães,

Muito obrigado pela sua recomendação. Eu fui um fanático da obra do irmão de Kipling desde a infância. Devo tê-lo em casa, e vai lê-lo de novo.


Eoghan Ballard
Philadelphia, PA USA