Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Remembered Text

The text is too much with us. We are all much too bookish. I am, anyway. After long years teaching University courses, I'm saturated in text. I've read enough books to sink a ship. In all likelihood, I'd read more books by the time I was twenty years old than Saint Augustine read in his entire life, and now, decades later, it is just ridiculous. This is not a boast, it's a confession of a sin, and it's a sign of the times in which we live. Too much text. Too many books.

I recall the first time I experienced the horror of books. I was a new employee in a city bookstore. The boss delegated me to 'General Fiction' and my task all day was to clean and dust and alphabetize. I stood before the 'General Fiction' section and beheld the rows and rows of shelves jam-packed with endless novels. It suddenly struck me that there were more books in the world than the world could ever possibly need, and I wondered why anyone would spend their lives reading such a mountain of fiction or even more why anyone would spend their lives writing this stuff. It was my first sense of living in a text flood. All the same, I've loved books and devoted my life to books in one way or another.

After a while, though, the mere textuality of text is deadening. I go looking for ways to bring the text alive. One of the best ways - the most obvious really - is simply to put the text aside. Stop reading it. Only think about what you remember of the text. Because, I realise, the remembered text is that version of the text that is alive. The words on the page are dead. When we read, we internalise the book and so we weave it into ourselves. This internal book is a living thing. I've come to appreciate the remembered text and come to dislike and have an aversion to the textual text.

By the Remembered Text,  I don't mean the memorized text. The memorized text is a different thing again, although it might be considered a type of Remembered Text. Muslims have the Koran as a memorized text. I don't mean that. The Remembered Text is the text as the reader remembers it and with all the deficiencies and quirks of our puny faculties. The Remembered Text is a mottled and variegated thing.

We can identify many diverse things of which it will ordinarily consist:

(a) aspects of the text remembered correctly,
(b) aspects of the text mis-remembered to a greater or lesser degree,
(c) impressions (that join the gaps between facts)
(d) completely erroneous memories
(e) accidental importations from other texts
(f) related memories

Every text points to a lived truth beyond itself. The valuable part of a text is what you can carry with you.

The Remembered Text is an excellent teaching device. Here is a strategy for teaching philosophy to undergrads. The text in question, let us say, is the Apology of Socrates.

1. All students acquire a copy of the text and read it. If they read different translations, so much the better. We avoid the textual tyranny of everyone having the same translation.

2. Students are lectured briefly on the structure and technical characteristics of the text, but not on its themes or content.

3. Books away. Students must not bring the text to class, cannot have any notes and cannot access the text from laptops or iphones. No text.

4. Students discuss and debate the text from memory.

5. Students can consult the text after class, and can reread, but in all subsequent classes discussion and debate is from memory of the text. The text we use for philosophizing is the Remembered Text.

One of the peculiar joys of conducting classes like this is when the entire class, and the teacher, agree on a fabricated or mistaken reading. Someone says, "Socrates says..." and everyone either explicitly or tacitly agrees even though, as we find out later, Socrates said no such thing. A whole group of people, that is, can have a false memory, even of a very familiar text. In other cases, the Remembered Text is negotiated.

Better still, this is a method that completely cuts the grammarians among us off at the knees. Where students have a copy of the text there is always some bastard who says, "But Socrates uses the past participle in that sentence..." Not in the Remembered Text he doesn't. The grammar of the Remembered Text is fluid. Similarly, this method pulls the rug from under the budding lawyers among us. It puts an end to hair-splitting and finnicky textuality. Instead, it promotes living debate. You can't hide behind the text. You can't play games of "Plato says..." You can't trip people up with a destructive textual exactitude. There is more commerce in ideas.

I suspect this method would be useful in teaching or studying novels and fiction too. Students should be taught to identify and appreciate the Remembered Text, namely the text they have appropriated through reading and that they carry inside them. That, surely, is always the real treasure we extract from a book.

Living as we do in a flood of text, it is important - and vitally refreshing - to revisit earlier modes of life when the text was not so much with us. Once, the Remembered Text played a more important role for readers. You couldn't afford to own a book. you read it - devoured it - and acquired it through memory. Some people could memorize large amounts of text verbatim, but most readers had a highly polished and carefully acquired Remembered Text. We see a case of how formal this art could be in the early passages of Plato's Symposium where there is a discussion of various and contrasting rememberings of speeches which are carefully compared and that render the text of the Symposium as we have it related.

I'm inclined to think the Remembered Text is a healthy thing in religion too. I'm in rebellion against Protestant textuality and Rabbinical hermeneutics. The idea of putting a Bible in every hand and studying it in its every grammatical detail is horrifying. Far better if there was only a few Bibles here and there, and everyone was only allowed to read the text just once. For the most part, the text is inscribed in living memory, not marks upon a page.

An important instance of the Remembered Text is the synthetic "gospel" readers of the New Testament construct from the four parallel gospels. The reader collapses the four texts into a single Remembered Text which is at once all and none of them.

- Harper McAlpine Black

1 comment:

  1. Very good Rod. This article puts me in mind of the essay 'Why Read the Classics?' by Italo Calvino. He identifies the key characteristics that have come to define a 'classic' text. In part, he examines how memory plays a key role in our experience of texts. Check it out.