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Mnemonic Plague

THE FUTURE OF THE PAST, By Alexander Stille, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 342 pp., $25

June 30, 2002|ADAM BRESNICK | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

Several decades ago, in her magisterial "Art of Memory," Frances Yates described the constitutive paradox of the post-Gutenberg era. Once human beings have the capacity to store and retrieve information easily in books, the techniques of memory that ensured the transmission of oral tradition start to wither, and humanity begins to lose touch with its ritual past. Why bother consigning, say, "The Iliad" to memory when one can buy the book, store it on the shelves of one's library and read it at one's leisure when one hankers to hear tell of the wrath of Achilles?

In the manner of the best modern technologies, the mid-15th century printing press was first and foremost a labor-saving device that allowed the men and women of the Renaissance to circumvent the painstaking and costly process of copying out the great books by hand. So it was that the printing press enabled a staggering explosion of knowledge during the subsequent five centuries of our history: Whereas in the 14th century, the Sorbonne's paltry collection of 1,700 books was the largest library in Europe, in the early 21st century, the U.S. Library of Congress harbors a collection of 119 million items.

With this explosion comes a corresponding diminution: While a Renaissance man in France could well be presumed to have read a good portion of the volumes in the Sorbonne's collection, no modern person could peruse a similar fraction of the books available today. No doubt Leonardo da Vinci was a genius the likes of which are very rarely seen, but he also had the good fortune to live in an era when a mind like his could assimilate most of what was known in the West. The omnivorous Harold Bloom hasn't read even a million books, and by all accounts he is one of the great speed-readers of the current era. So it is that we postmoderns must resign ourselves either to the ghettos of hyper-specialization (think of a plastic surgeon who only operates on hands or a French medievalist who only writes on "Le Roman de la Rose") or to the dilettantism of the generalist (think of any number of newspaper columnists whose musings are out of date by the end of the morning on which they are published).

The problem has become more acute with the advent of the Internet, as anyone with a modem now has immediate access to a mind-boggling amount of information, yet, at the same time, this information has never appeared more difficult to maintain in our brains.

This dialectic of technological advancement and cultural loss is at the heart of Alexander Stille's "The Future of the Past," a fascinating compendium of essays, most of which are culled from the pages of the New Yorker. The topics range widely, from the dilemmas faced by species-saving conservationists in Madagascar to the problems of those who would preserve the Sphinx and Pyramids from being engulfed by Sahara sands to the vexations of an Indian mahant who is also a professor of hydraulic engineering trying his best to clean up the staggering pollution of the Ganges river. Stille is an unusually engaging, affable guide gifted with the novelist's ability to sketch characters and the scholar's capacity to explain ideas without reducing their complexity.

Although Stille's tone is never alarmist and his historical canvas is large, the book presents the cautionary claim that the future of our archives and monuments may well be less rosy than we wish. The very technologies that allow us to safeguard memory are producing a world that is at once homogenized and fragmented, a virtual world in which the past crumbles into endless sequences of bytes buried in the electronic crypts we call databases, just as the natural environment and cultural artifacts we would enshrine and preserve suffer from human depredation and temporal decay.

Stille's travelogue is filled with poignant tales of committed, at times quixotic, individuals who have become guardians of the past by virtue of their own arts of memory. Take for example the remarkable story of Giancarlo Scoditti, an Italian anthropologist trained at Cambridge who traveled in 1973 to Kitawa, a remote island off the coast of Papua New Guinea famous for its ceremonial carved canoes. Confronted by an initially insuperable language barrier and an onslaught of tropical illnesses, Scoditti nearly died during his first months on the island. Upon recovering his health, he managed to find his way into the Kitawan language and was eventually introduced to the islanders' most sacred rituals.

Using writing and tape machines, Scoditti becomes a living repository for the lore of the island he has adopted as his own. By the late 1990s, partially as a result of Scoditti's incursion, the Kitawans had made contact with the modern world, and Scoditti is saddened to find upon his return that many island youths now eschew wood for plastic and have abandoned most of the rituals that tie the island to its ancient past.

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