Self-Reflection: On the Problem of Memory and Memoir

Even the finest memories are incomplete. Fittingly, in this class we will examine the attempts of various authors to fathom memory and self-reflection by reviewing those attempts in bits and pieces. Readings will include short selections from Plato’s Republic, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Wordsworth’s The Prelude (and Dorothy’s journals), Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in the Nonmoral Sense,” Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Borges’ Ficciones, and Proust’s À la r echerche du temps perdu. Alongside these authors, or what they left of themselves on the page, we will explore the nature of individual and shared memory and its representation—a problem that sits at the center of all literary writing.

Meets: Saturday, October 09, 2010 – Saturday, November 13, 2010
Saturday, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM at Richard Hugo House

General: $230.00 
Members of Hugo House: $207.00  

Click here for information on registration and financial aid.

Required Readings

Week 1

Plato, Phaedrus and Book VII of The Republic

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3, “The Story of Echo and Narcissus”

Week 2

William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Books I, II, and XI)

Week 3

Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memorious,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Secret Miracle”

Week 4

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, selection from Swann’s Way (pages 1-64 in the Modern Library edition)

Week 5

Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in the Nonmoral Sense”

John Ashbery, “The Painter” and “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Week 6

Selections from Memory, Brain, and Belief, including “Introduction” (Daniel L. Schacter and Elaine Scarry), “Mining the Past to Construct the Future” (Chris Westbury and Daniel C. Dennett), and “Autobiography, Identity, and the Fictions of Memory” (Paul John Eakin)

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture

Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained

Joshua Foer, “Caveman: An Interview with Michel Siffre

George Johnson, In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the Worlds Inside Our Heads

Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting

Frances Yates, The Art of Memory

Week 1

  • Socrates describes the human capacity to comprehend forms (i.e., to reason) as a “recollection of those things our souls beheld before when they journeyed with their god, looking down upon the things which we now suppose to be, and gazing up to that which truly is” (Phaedrus, 496). What role does memory play in his defense of love, particularly as it relates to virtue, truth, and divine madness?
  • How does Socrates distinguish speech from writing? Which mode of discourse is superior and why?
  • What ramifications does the allegory of the cave have for the epistemological (and ethical) status of writing? In what sense are written words shadows, in what sense three-dimensional representations, and in what sense real?
  • Can you imagine what moral Plato would take away from the story of Echo and Narcissus? Would you agree with that interpretation?

    Week 2

  • “The mind of Man is framed even like the breath / And harmony of music,” Wordsworth writes. “There is a dark / Invisible workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements, and makes them move / In one society.” What are the musical qualities of thought and memory? Does Wordsworth mean this literally?
  • Wordsworth depicts two rival tendencies in a poet’s thought and perception: one that analyzes and distinguishes, another that coalesces and unifies. How do these work with and against each other? What dangers does analytic thinking present for the poetic soul?
  • The Prelude expresses anxiety about not only the self-alienating effect of time’s passage (“so wide appears / The vacancy between me and those days”), but the difficulty of even analyzing one’s self in the present (“Who that shall point, as with a wand, and say, / ‘This portion of the river of my mind / Came from yon foundation?’”). What truth does the autobiography hold if the autobiographer cannot reliably trace the source of his feelings? What implications does this unreliability have for the genre?
  • Wordsworth makes the case that certain memories have a rejuvenating potential. What distinguishes these memories, or what he calls “spots of time”?

    Week 3

  • Life in the Library of Babel inflicts a psychological stress that leaves its inhabitants suicidal and hypertensive: “A memory of unspeakable melancholy: at times I have traveled for many nights through corridors and along polished stairways without finding a single librarian.” What makes life in the library stressful?
  • The narrator in “Funes the Memorious” comments at one point that Funes was probably incapable of thought, which requires, among other things, the ability to forget. Was Funes’ infallible memory a disability?
  • In “The Secret Miracle,” in the last second of his life, Hladik “had no document but his memory.” What are the risks of written versus memorized knowledge? How does memory endure where writing cannot? What consequences does written memory (history, criticism) have for the protagonist?
  • What implications does the compression of time (e.g., a year lived in a single second) have for theories of perception and memory? It takes Funes a day to recount fully the details of a day. How long would it take Hladik?
    Week 4

  • How does sleep trigger recollection? Do the memories one encounters while falling asleep differ from those one encounters upon waking?
  • The narrator’s grandmother finds photographs and other mechanically produced modern objects distasteful. What types of objects does she prefer and why?
  • How does the tea-soaked madeleine prompt the narrator’s memory? What happens, phenomenologically speaking, when the narrator tastes the madeleine?
  • Toward the end of Part I, the narrator speculates on the nature of voluntary and involuntary memory, specifically on what happens to buried (or “dead”) memories and how certain experiences resurrect them. How does he employ the metaphors of desiccation and rehydration (or decoction) to describe the compression and expansion of remembered experiences?  Do these transformations of the substance of memories change them?
    Week 5

  • Nietzsche claims that “only through forgetfulness can man ever achieve the illusion of possessing a ‘truth’…” Where does language stand in relation to truth and the empirical world? What must Nietzsche have forgotten to manufacture the truths he sets forth in this essay?
  • According to Nietzsche, words are abstractions that operate as metaphors, erasing differences between similar but unequal referents: “No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept ‘leaf’ is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions.” How does this perspective differ from Platonic idealism? Are the two perspectives compatible?
  • Ashbery’s sestina “The Painter” depicts an artist who expects (or hopes) the subject of his portrait (the sea) will “rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush, / Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.” Where does artistic will or intention reside in this poem? Who or what is ultimately responsible for creating the work of art?
  • Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is full of analogous reflective surfaces—windows, oceans, puddles, gibbous eyes of insects: “The surface is what’s there / And nothing can exist except what’s there.” Do Ashbery’s surfaces ever reveal more than reflections of the self? If so, where does the self end and the various subjects of speculation (“From the Latin speculum, mirror”) begin?

    Week 6

  • In their introduction to the volume, Schacter and Scarry comment that “without memory, our awareness would be confined to an eternal present and our lives would be virtually devoid of meaning.” How are memory and meaning related? Can you imagine a state of awareness without memory?
  • Most of the authors in the volume assume a vital and instrumental relationship between belief and memory. How are the two different? How do they influence one another? Consider these questions in terms of the other readings we’ve done.
  • Westbury and Dennett maintain a utilitarian view of memory: “Memory in the fundamental sense is the ability to store useful information and to retrieve it in precisely those circumstances and that form which allow it to be useful.” Do you agree with that claim? If so, in what sense are autobiographies useful to their authors and readers?
  • Eakin describes autobiography as a species of fiction, one dependent on a “concept of continuous identity” and rife with “epiphanies of recall,” as though past perceptions have been preserved in unaltered form in the brain, ready to be re-experienced by the author. What is it about this fiction of the autobiographical self that appeals to readers?