We’re all fascinated to read interesting quotes by people who are (supposedly) smarter than we are. We like to bask in the brilliance of their clever wordplay, repeating the quotes to ourselves (as though we’d just thought of them!) and revelling in the cleverness and wit that we wish had been ours.
When you’re looking into a particular subject, it makes sense that you’d be interested in selected quotes on that subject. You can gain insights from them, see things from a different perspective, you can be left wide-eyed at their profound knowledge of it (uh?), and smile at their wry little comments.
We like to see how they can state something neatly, concisely, using only a few choice words, and in a satisfyingly memorable way. And we wonder why we can’t do it – they use the same words we do, they have access to the same building blocks … how come their quotes are so clever, so wise?
We’d love to be able to come up with a pithy comment of the same level of skill and as cutting, or as humorous, or as heart wrenching. But we know we can’t. We’d settle for being able to remember their quotes … yes, even just that … to at least be able to repeat them casually to an admiring audience of friends in the course of a chatty conversation over drinks, additionally quoting their source, the circumstances in which they were first said, and all the attendant details … oh, and the dates, of course. Don’t forget the dates!
– Cato the Elder, statesman, soldier, and writer (234-149 BCE)
The quotes in this section aren’t, strictly speaking, about memory studies (are there any?) – instead they’re concerned with the subject of memory in a wider sense. Many of them muse on the frailties of memory, how it can trick you and lead you down blind alleys, how it can spark up from nowhere with long-forgotten flashes of something half-remembered that were filed away studiously in the dead of night, the file drawer negligently slammed shut … only to spring open, often years later, for no apparent reason, and spill its contents out, to your slack-jawed amazement.
Sometimes a memory can be triggered by an event we (perhaps unconsciously) link to it, sometimes by something as ‘innocent’ as a smell, an unusual word, a song you haven’t heard for years, or some other incidental and apparently unconnected thing. Such is the frailty of memory, a largely untamed faculty that goes about its business from the day you’re born, silently and generally of its own volition.
To read is to voyage through time.
– Carl Sagan, astronomer and writer (1934 -1996)
Yes, memory truly is a strange beast. We try to use it to the best of our ability, and we try to tame it (those of us who dare enter its cage), but it’s essentially feral, at best. It’s operating all the time, ceaselessly, and mostly without our consent, and it gathers its handfuls of specimens with never a thought for our concerns in the matter. It files them all away, blindly, in its bulging filing cabinets in that monstrous depository in the darker regions of our mind, where the lights are permanently on the blink.
Although it does its work (its endless work) with an almost religious fanaticism, it doesn’t necessarily do it in a very structured way (or, at least, not in a way that’s easily fathomed). Specimens and evidence and stray, tattered bits of paper of all kinds are left all over the floor around the filing cabinets, knee-deep in places . The drawers are stuffed to overflowing, and often with the most inappropriate contents, and individual files, often ignored for years, lie, yellowed and brittle, and half the pages are missing when we come to inspect them, if ever.
– Chief Joseph, native American leader (1840-1904)
Is it really any wonder we’re fascinated by how it works, this strange, voracious beast that gobbles up everything that happens to us and then, often with no discernible pattern to its actions, ferrets it all away in secret? We’re all fascinated by it, and a bit scared. What’s it going to show us next? What has it secreted in its voluminous storehouses, patiently waiting to surprise and shock us, perhaps years later? Wouldn’t we just love to know exactly how it works, and how it can be tamed (if such a thing is actually possible).
Maybe all we can do is read through things like these memory quotes in order to find clues, and to catch a better glimpse of the shy beast, that ever-hungry and contrary animal that snaps everything up and clings onto most of it, reluctant to let go or share its prize.
It sometimes seems the more we want something from it, the tighter it clings to its scattered and jumbled files and dossiers. Let’s settle for a glimpse then … it’s probably all we’ll ever see of it, and even then it’ll probably only be from the back as it scampers away into the murky depths of our mind, on gloomy, untrodden levels generally unreachable by the uninitiated.
A word’s enough to raise mankind to kill.
– Lord Byron, poet (1788-1824)