Thursday, October 27, 2011


Qui Scribit, Obliviscitur

From Ian Jackson, in response to Qui Scribit, Bis Legit:
I was reading this afternoon Poe's Marginalia, in which I came across this rejection of the value of writing it down:
This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. "Ce que je mets sur papier," says Bernardin de St. Pierre, "je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l'oublie;" — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.
— from the United States Magazine, and Democratic Review for November 1844, p.484, as printed in John Carl Miller's edition of Edgar Allan Poe's Marginalia, University Press of Virginia 1981, p.1.
See Bernardin de St. Pierre, The Studies of Nature, tr. E. Clarke, Vol. III (London: W. Emans, 1836), p. 146:
In the national schools every thing should be conducted after the academic manner of the Greek philosophers. The pupils should study sometimes sitting, sometimes standing; at one time in the fields, at another in the amphitheatre, or in the park surrounding it. They would have no occasion for pens, paper, or ink; each should only carry with him the classic that was to be the subject of his lesson. I have frequently found from experience that we forget what we write. What I consign to paper, I wipe from my memory, and very soon from my recollection; this I have perceived in the case of whole works which I had written out fair, and which appeared as strange to me as if they had been executed by another hand. This is not the case with the impressions left upon our minds by the discourse of another, especially if it be accompanied with something striking. The tone of the voice, the gesture, the respect due to the speaker, the reflections of our neighbors, concur to engrave the words of a discourse much deeper than writing.
Original French from Bernardin de St. Pierre, Oeuvres, ed. L. Aimé-Martin (Paris: Lefèvre, 1833), p. 469:
Dans les écoles de la patrie, tout se passerait à la manière académique des philosophes grecs. Les élèves y étudieraient tantôt assis, tantôt debout; tantôt à la campagne, tantôt dans l'amphithéâtre ou dans le parc qui l'environnerait. Il n'y serait besoin ni de plumes, ni de papier, ni d'encre; chacun apporterait seulement avec lui le livre classique qui serait le sujet de la leçon. J'ai éprouvé bien des fois que l'on oublie ce qu'on écrit. Ce que je mets sur le papier, je l'ôte de ma mémoire, et bientôt de mon souvenir; je m'en suis aperçu à des ouvrages entiers que j'avais mis au net, et qui me paraissaient aussi étrangers que s'ils eussent été faits d'une autre main que de la mienne. Il n'en est pas de même des impressions que nous laisse la conversation d'autrui, surtout quand elle est accompagnée d'un grand appareil. Le ton de voix, le geste, le respect dû à l'orateur, les réflexions de nos voisins, concourent à nous graver les paroles d'un discours bien mieux que l'écriture.
It's clear that Poe didn't write down Bernardin de St. Pierre's words after reading them, but instead relied on his memory, which proved inexact!

The controversy is an old one, according to Plato, Phaedrus 274 e-275 a (supposed conversation between Theuth, inventor of writing, and Thamus, tr. R. Hackforth):
But when it came to writing Theuth said, 'Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.' But the king answered and said, 'O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reasons of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.'
Lionello Spada (1576-1622), St. Jerome

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