“Order, Memory, and History”

Excerpts from the second chapter of Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, “Order, Memory, and History.”  Previous posts:  Introduction and first chapter.

From the first few excerpts, one gets a feel for a mental world which had not yet divorced the sign from the signifier and still regarded the cosmos as inherently meaningful, like a book to be read.  Most of what follows centers on the fascinating history of memory techniques and Hugh’s attempt to revive these techniques as the foundation of the search for wisdom.  What we end up with then is an effort to microcosmically represent the macrocosmic order of things in the mind.  The mind symbolically captures the order of the cosmos.  I hope the excerpts below convey the gist of this ambitious project.

(Read here for an excellent recent essay delving into the history of memory techniques and books.)

  • “The passage from childlike searching to adult reading is governed by something that Hugh calls ordo.  In many instances Hugh stresses the importance that the reader advance with order, ordinate procedere debet, or that one ought to stride forward with a harmonious gait.  Hugh does not create, he follows, observes, searches the order of things.  “To order” is the interiorization of that cosmic and symbolic harmony which God has established in the act of creation.  “To order” means neither to organize and systematize knowledge according to preconceived subjects, nor to manage it.  The reader’s order is not imposed on the story, but the story puts the reader into its order.  The search for wisdom is a search for the symbols of order that we encounter on the page.”  (31)
  • Quoting Gerhart Ladner:  “It was one of the fundamental character traits of the early Christian and medieval mentalities that the signifying, symbolizing and allegorizing function was anything but arbitrary or subjective; symbols were believed to represent objectively and to express faithfully various aspects of a universe that was perceived as widely and deeply meaningful.”  (31)
  • In the “somethings never change” category:  “Hugh expresses dissatisfaction with the students of his day who, ‘whether from ignorance or from unwillingness, fail to hold to a fit method of study, and therefore we find many who study but few who are wise” . . . . Hugh looks for students who read so well that without leafing they instantly have details ready in their heart.  Memory training, for Hugh, is a precondition for reading, and something which he treats in a manual that readers of the Didascalicon are supposed to know.” (35)
  • “The child’s mind was trained to build the memory mazes, and to establish the habit to dart and retrieve in them.  Remembrance was not conceived as an act of mapping but of psychomotor, morally charged activity.  As a modern youth, from childhood on I was trained to the Baedeker [popular German travel guide].  As a mountain guide I learned to decipher maps and photographs before venturing into the rock.  Decades later, when I first arrived in Japan I purchased a map of Tokyo.  But I was not allowed to use it.  My host’s wife simply refused to let me map my way through the city’s mazes by looking at them, mentally, from above.  Day after day she led me around this, and then that corner, until I could navigate the labyrinth and reach my destinations without ever knowing abstractly where I was.  Reference work before the table of contents and the index must have been much more like this kind of mapless orientation for which our modern schools disqualify us.” (37)
  • “For more advanced readers, Hugh proposed a much more complex, three-dimensional ark — a space-time matrix built within the mind of the student and modeled on Noah’s ark . . . [a] three-dimensional multicolored monster memory scheme.  The man who has best studied Hugh’s writings on the moral and mystical ark has come to the following conclusion:  220 square feet of paper would be needed for a still readable blueprint of Hugh’s ark-model of historical interrelationships.  Twentieth-century medievalists, who in the great majority have never had any training in mnemotechnics, can perhaps imagine a blueprint of Hugh’s ark, but they cannot recapture the experience of having such an ark in their own mind, or ‘be thoroughly at home with this thought and way of imagining.'”  (37-38)

Read here about a recent digital reconstruction of Hugh’s ark by Conrad Rudolph of the University of California and commissioned by the US National Gallery of Art.  Click on the image above for a more detailed representation.

  • “Some rudiments from the history of memory must be recalled to grasp Hugh’s unique place.  What anthropologists distinguish as ‘cultures’ the historian of mental spaces might distinguish as different ‘memories.’  The way to recall, to remember, has a history which is, to some degree, distinct from the history of the substance that is remembered.”  (39)
  • “We sometimes forget that words are creatures of the alphabet.” (39)
  • “In fact, the alphabet is an elegant technology for the visualization of sounds.  Its two dozen shapes trigger the memory of utterances that have been articulated by the mouth, the tongue, or the lips, and filter out what is said by gesture, mime, or the guts.  Unlike other writing systems, it records sounds, not ideas.”  (39)
  • “The one most common method used by the Greeks to achieve this purpose was the mental construction of a memory palace . . . . To become the student of a reputable teacher, the pupil had to prove that he was at home and at ease in some vast architecture that existed only in his mind, and within which he could move at an instant to the spot of his choice.”  (41)
  • “Early on it was found that the most effective way for locating and retrieving memories was that of randomly affixing to each one a mental label from a large set familiar to the student.  For example, to a goat or the sun, a branch or a knife, a sentence was attached for rote memorization.  The author who had thus equipped his palace for a speech or a dispute just moved to the appropriate imaginary room, took in at a glance the object placed on the labels, and had at his fingertips the memorized formulations that — for this particular occasion — he had associated with these emblems.”  (41-42)
  • “The art of memory as a symbolic labeling of memorized speech-acts was created in fourth-century Greece, taught by Sophists and used in politics.  In Rome, at least since Quintilian (35-100), its purpose and technique changed.  It was mainly used by lawyers.  Here memory training stresses the art of internalized reading.  The public speaker learned in late Roman antiquity how to ‘take notes’ in his mind and ‘read them off’ on the right occasion.”  (42)
  • “The rhetorical virtuoso was henceforth the one who could mentally register and label each sentence he intended to use, and promptly recover it from the appropriate architectonic feature in his own inner topology.  Today, in an age dazed by the feats of computers, this skill sounds like an impossible undertaking or freakish acrobatics for some academic circus.  But such memory training was part of the equipment expected by Hugh from the beginner.”  (42)
  • Reminding us that coping with information is not an entirely new challenge:  “By reviving ancient architectural memory training, Hugh hopes to prepare boys born around 1120 to read their way toward wisdom in an age in which the new collections could only too easily have scattered their brains and overwhelmed them.  He offers them a radically intimate technique of ordering this huge heritage in a personally created, inner spime [i.e., space time, taken from Einstein].” (45)
  • “Everything can make sense when it is related to this ordo of time; and noting is meaningful that is not placed by the reader into this ordo.  Hugh’s moral and spiritual Ark of Noah is more than a mnemotechnic palace with biblical features.  The Ark stands for a social entity, a process that begins with creation and continues to the end of time, what Hugh calls ‘the Church.’  The activity which Hugh calls ‘reading’ mediates between this macrocosmic Church and the microcosmos of the reader’s personal intimacy.  Each person, each place, each thing within this spatiotemporal cosmos must first be literally understood.  It then reveals itself as also something else:  as sign for something to come in the future, and as accomplishment of some other thing that, by analogy, has pointed toward its coming.”  (46-47)

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