Sunday, January 03, 2010


The Mnemogogues?

One of Primo Levi's first stories is about an elderly physician, Dr. Montesanto, on the verge of retirement. Like many old people, Dr. Montesanto lives in a world of memories. Diaries and photographs help him to evoke the past, but his pharmacological training has allowed him to devise another way to arouse vivid memories of places, people, and times — by means of scents, concocted of chemicals and enclosed in vials. He has about fifty of these, five of which are described in the story. One recalls the scent of his primary school classroom, the second the breath of his diabetic father, the third a hospital in which he once worked, the fourth mountain heights, and the fifth a particular woman.

I haven't read the story in the original Italian. My knowledge of that language is slight. When I was in graduate school, I took a course in Latin palaeography, and one of the assigned textbooks was in Italian. A fellow student, bolder or more foolhardy than I, objected that he didn't read Italian. The professor responded that he had better learn the language quickly then. In my personal library the only Italian books are Grandgent's edition and commentary on Dante's Divine Comedy, another edition of the same with a facing English translation, Leopardi's Pensieri (also with a facing translation), and Leopardi's Zibaldone, this last the gift of a friend who studied in Italy. I own an Italian grammar but no Italian dictionary. So take what follows with a grain of salt.

The title of Primo Levi's story is I Mnemagoghi (the arousers of memory), a word which he apparently coined on the analogy of pedagoghi (pedagogues) and demagoghi (demagogues). The first part of the word comes from the Greek noun μνήμη (mnēmē = remembrance, memory), and the second part comes from the Greek adjective/noun ἀγωγός (agōgos = leading/guide), itself from the verb ἄγειν (agein = to lead).

In his English translation of Primo Levi's story, Raymond Rosenthal gave it the title The Mnemogogues, and English critics who discuss the story also use that spelling. The first -o- in mnemogogues apparently recalls, by analogy, the -o- in mnemonic, Mnemosyne, etc. But, in my opinion, the title should more properly be The Mnemagogues, with an -a-, which better reflects the derivation from ἀγωγός (agōgos), preserved in English pedagogues, demagogues, etc., and which is also closer to Levi's coinage.

Etymology fascinated Primo Levi, as is evident not only from his writings, but also from the following delightful anecdote about Levi the opsimath, told by Ian Thomson in Primo Levi: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003), p. 370:
At the end of 1978 Levi began to take German lessons at the Goethe Institut in Turin. He was the oldest in a class of seventeen women, whose company he enjoyed, and from the start he was a keen student. He had two teachers. The first, Jutta Pabst, found Levi dauntingly inquisitive and recalled his mania for wanting to know the precise etymology of German words: 'His hand was always going up in class: "Fräulein, excuse me, but what is the deeper—I mean the true—meaning of this word?" In some ways, Levi was the teacher, and I the student.'
Scents have the power to arouse our personal, individual memories. Etymologies have the power to arouse our shared, historical memories. Both, therefore, are mnemagogues.


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