Friday, December 11, 2009

considering memory

Every so often I find a song stuck in my mind. It might be one I haven't heard for years but all at once the whole thing is there - music, phrasing, lyrics, everything. I know it's not an unusual experience, lots of people mention such things and if they tell you which song has been haunting them you'll find yourself singing it to yourself hours later. It can be annoying but if you think about it for a minute it's also very interesting.

For most of human existence on Earth people didn't have written languages. A large part in our pride of modern culture is the fact we are literate and there's hardly any worse insult than to call someone illiterate. Nevertheless, even up until fairly recently the larger part of humanity was illiterate since only the wealthy, the monastics or the very determined had access to any books at all. Yet it's inarguable that architecture and shipbuilding thrived as did every aspect of a growing civilized culture long before people were able to read a morning paper before they headed off to work on the building site of the local cathedral.

It's generally understood among archeologists that the first forms of written language were the hieroglyphs developed in Egypt around 2500BC. Socrates reported the ancient Egyptians said that writing had been invented by the mythical god-man Thoth who took his new system to Amon 'the god-King of all Egypt' and urged him to introduce it to the populace saying: 'Oh King, here is something that once learned, will make Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory'. It's said that Amon replied:

'Oh, most expert Thoth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who use them. And now since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they they will know nothing.'

From what I can understand there was an even more ancient tradition that was adamant that certain things not be written down. Even now archeologists have been unable to decipher the Indus Valley script in spite of having found thousands of small tablets, all of which appear to be in reference to trade goods. Lengthy works of Indus cuneiform might allow the texts to be deciphered but none have ever been discovered, a fact that might lead one to think they didn't trust the medium of writing for anything more important that the strictly mercantile.

The oldest elements of the ancient world's oral traditions are the Hindu Vedas, essentially hymns and very very long ones at that - the Rig Veda has 1028 hymns made up of more than 10,580 verses (and there are three other Vedas). The interesting thing is that they're in a very old form of the Sanskrit language and weren't written down until about 1200 years ago. Before that, for thousands of years they were memorized in their entirety. Really. It's hard to imagine, isn't it? But then I come back to those songs that stick in my head from time to time - the silly ones mostly - and I wonder if that penchant we all have might just be a little reminder of just how powerful our minds might be.

The Australian Aboriginals have a recognized 60,000 year history in Australia (although they say it's much longer). When groups met one another in the vast landscape they would sing the story of the path they'd travelled to each other, a memorized history known as the Song Lines. That story goes all the way back to their memory of walking the unfinished landscape with the gods singing the world we know into existence.

But obviously things are better now that we have the Google. I think I'll go find that song that keeps returning:


  1. I couldn't hear the sound but I could see the pictures on the youtube video. Will have to return when I go back to work and listen to it there. Yes, I'm still at home, have been at home all week. That's why I've been visiting all the blogs. I'm going stir crazy here in this room.

    My computer was purchased in 2001. I found the paper work in the files. Hell, I thought it was 5-6 years old at best, so no wonder the computer is giving me fits.

  2. i think even today there are more illiterate or at least under-educated people than literate ones. we still have a long way to go.
    and having a song in your heart can't be too unpleasant. it may even be a symptom unique to happy people.

  3. Memory feat amaze. I am lucky to remember my name!

  4. We gain one thing, only to lose another. I can't imagine my modern mind being able to bust out The Odyssey, but luckily, I don't have to. Of course, the flip side is that the memory is then being used to remember often-terrible songs.

  5. Great song, reminding us of how tiny we are in the whole scope of things - or maybe we're an integral part of that ever-expanding universe.

  6. liberality - Unfortunately, the problem with older computers is they eventually can't be updated for online interfaces. That was happening with my G4 Powerbook long before last summer when it began overheating. Hope you enjoy the video when you get to hear it too.

    sera - Funny you should mention that since this article about our continuing evolution was a bit worrisome.
    Oh well, I'm going to sit down and try to remember the words to Jingle Bells :-)

    jams - You do much better than that :-)

    randal - Yes, now we have inbuilt search engines - not such a bad thing so long as the hard copies are preserved.

    nancy - I think I've remembered all the words to that one since I first heard it. I find it very uplifting too.

  7. Good to see your computer woes are satisfactorily resolved as being without your Mac must be like having your drawing fingers and paints out of action!

    I never cease enjoying the lyrics of the galaxy song.

    An interesting post and it seems we have been communicating very effectively for a long period before the advent of modern day communications transformed the world.

    Recent discoveries of geometric carvings have certainly given cause for us to reconsider the idea Egyptian hieroglyphics first preceded early writing some 2500 years BC.

    World migration some 50,000 and 100,0000 years ago - after we fist gained ‘self consciousness'- no doubt led to a marked behavioral revolution with the creation of rich symbols to tell of our human experiences including the beginning of widespread life stories and religious experiences depicted in art, heralding in some cultures much later contextual written language.

    Best wishes

  8. fascinating as always, dear woman that you are....can you imagine if everyone sang to each other when they spoke the news of the day or something they had heard in someone else's song? can you imagine starbucks in the morning...maybe people would stop drinking so much, probably not, come to think...

    thanks for a little more light in the dark...and glad your computer is fixed-I think ;)

  9. I love that Python song. I've even Googled the lyrics so I could learn and remember them, but I only get out the first two lines, then forget the rest. This song I sing to/with the Grandkids.
    The Native American teachings and spiritual path I follow is based on an unwritten language and oral tradition. Many of the songs are not written anywhere. To learn them, you must listen. (For me, that is over and over and over again.) Some of the creation stories are not yet written, and teaching lessons are told, not read.
    I am always awed by the idea of languages and when they started. I mean, who said "King me" during a game of checkers? Why wasn't it, "Smear a booger on my cheek"


  10. lindsay - I found it really interesting that older cultures only used written symbols for the mundane purpose of trade. Materialism was acknowledged but not given undue importance.

    linda - The singing to each other in Australia worked for thousands of generations of Aboriginals.. until white people 'discovered' the place. I love your image of all the customers at Starbucks singing the news to one another :-)

    I'm glad you like the new drawing. The idea of the totality of ourselves seems best expressed by what we see in our children.

    spadoman - The excuse long used by Europeans for driving out and slaughtering Native Americans was the fact they had no written language. I've been very glad to come to understand through your posts and comments that the traditions haven't been completely lost. I've ordered a book calledFools Crow: Wisdom and Power that I hope will help me understand more directly. You have been blessed to find real teachers and a tradition you can continue learning and teaching.

  11. this is a song i've been meaning to learn.... don't you think it'd be fun with harp accompaniment!? people take the harp so SERIOUSLY. it's all about balance!!!

    as i tap away @ my beloved little macbook, i'm feeling your technopain. i really need to learn to do more than compose a sentence and post a picture on mine. i have this fab songwriter program the kids gave me. new year's resolution.... learn how to use it.....

    blessings on mac. and family.

  12. I was going to write a comment about this post but I can't remember what it was about. Damn. ;-)

  13. gfid - I think the Galaxy Song would be great on a harp. Did I ever tell you my favorite harpist (other than you) is Harpo Marx? The solo he played in Go West is one of the coolest and most balanced things ever :-)

    Mac is back. I hope you have fun with the music program.

    nunly - What did you say? I can't remember ;-)

  14. interesting article, susan. maybe size doesn't count after all. :P

    jiggle bells
    shotgun shells
    santa got away

    something like that.

    oh what fun it is to hide
    in grandma's chevrolet???

  15. after reading your response to my comment, that night, i sat up for another couple of hours watching Harpo on youtube. i'd forgotten! big fun.... almost as good as a bedtime story :0)