08 February 2012

New Old Memory and Fanny Price

Fanny Price, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park says “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every waybut our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” Of course, Freud did a great deal to explain the workings and misworkings of memory, and Spinoza might suggest that memory always starts in the body, that the mind is, in fact, the idea of the body. Neurophysiologists like Antonio Damasio give scientific credence to Spinoza’s position.
My memory this morning started in the body. I was driving home from an early morning run with Gary. Today he celebrates his 62nd birthday. Tomorrow he enters his 63rd  year. I rounded a slight bend in the road and there, just to my East, was the local elementary school and the parking lot was filled with the cars of school personnelteachers, administrators, maintenance and custodial staff. And I suddenly experienced a great pressure localized mostly throughout my stomach and chest, a pressure such as I might feel when I arrive too late at the station only to watch the train pull away, or when I watch my child go through the security gate at the airport. And then I attached some idea to the feeling, and I recalled all of the mornings that I had arrived at the school parking lot in the early morning hour, before any students had yet arrived, and added my warmth and movement to the awakening life of the building. In my memory I experienced what the cliché refers to as a flood of emotions, but in fact it wasn’t emotion at all—the sensations were all visceral and I searched about quickly to locate the source and then I remembered. I have in my life learned so much about school: all those cars and all those years. Like just missing the train.
To have a good mind, Spinoza reminds us, we need a good body; the more complex the body, then the more complex the mind. So it must be that the memory demands an active life. This morning the source of memory appeared clear: it started in the body and soon consumed the mind. And though the memory faded the feeling of the body remains. And I can call up my life at school at the provocation of the body.
Fanny is correct that memory is most wonderful, and I think she would be amazed what we have found out about memory.


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