Yates on the Art of Memory: The nonbeliever

Francis Yates

Francis Yates, the nonbeliever in the Art of Memory.
(Image downloaded from “labiancatorrediechtelion.wordpress.com” / Derivative work)

I will soon introduce Cicero and ascertain his great importance to the Art of Memory, but the purpose of the above passage is a single and curious one: to show that Frances A. Yates didn’t believe in the very subject of her own book.

This was probably the first surprise (of many I amass so far) I had when reading the first chapter of her book “The Art of Memory“, published by Random House UK. I am currently beginning Chapter IV, but I already feel the need to write about what I am learning, which I’ll probably do in a series of posts. This book is unofficially assumed to be the modern seminal work on “the Art” and is cited as an important source by anyone interested in mnemonics. Yet, it is so much more than a text on mnemotechnics that even using that word to describe it sounds “too shallow”, as Yates herself classifies the term when comparing it to a true Art of Memory. The book is a very well written treatise on the subject by a renowned historian who, to our delight, emanates through her writing style the freshness of scientific discovery and the youthful enthusiasm of uncovering the secrets of life. That is very far from the dull and boring historical account one could expect. However, as said above, the book was written by someone who, not only never tried the techniques involved in the art, but also didn’t seem to believe it was practical — or even possible.

Far from considering it a flaw, such fact heightens my interest in reading this work. It is diametrically opposed to many expository literature we see published nowadays –biased and forced towards a given standpoint in an attempt to justify its very existence to the buying public. In turn, Yates — the nonbeliever —  watches with amazement how such an “impossible” art travels the ages, influencing and being influenced by great men, and ultimately being transmitted to ordinary ones like us. In the process, she seems to be learning together with the reader — at times, I caught myself anxious to see what the next pages would unveil and the narrator seemed to share my feelings. It is much like reading a novel, but with the distinction that the protagonist is not a person, but the Art of Memory itself. In fact, I wonder if, somewhere towards the end of the book, Yates will change her mind and become herself a fervorous advocate of the art.

Apart from the surprisingly pleasant writing style, the book is already filling many holes I have in my understanding of the art. Virtually all I had learned so far was based on what I could extract from forum and blog posts, with occasional reading of excerpts from classical texts. My knowledge was at best a superficial and incomplete muddle, relying too much on what others think of the art or have apprehended on their own. At worse, since I had to parse a lot of “digital junk knowledge” purely by instinct, my knowledge of the subject was simply plain wrong. Now, I can finally drink from the source — Yates’ book did not, of course, establish the art, but it is an easy-to-follow roadmap that will guide me through all the ancient, medieval and renascentist texts I will have to research if I really yearn for a deep understanding of it.

The book already plays its role as a silent teacher and helps me to put everything I hear about memory palaces, loci, images, links, etc. into their proper contexts. It is one thing to read on the Web that to better remember we have to conjure extravagant images representing concepts or words and to place them on known locations. It is another, entirely different, experience to see these techniques being born out of legends and refined throughout the centuries by oral traditions until they are finally put in written form through the work of an anonymous teacher — work regarded as the basis for the rhetoric of Cicero and his contemporaries, as well as the one and only real treatise on the art. It is a different thing altogether to see memory regarded as one of the three powers of the soul by St. Augustine — seemingly, an avid practitioner of the art himself — later being rationalised by Albertus Magnus, supported by Aristotle‘s theory of reminiscence and theory of knowledge, and then turned into scholastic treatises on ethics by St. Thomas Aquinas, who went so far as to recommend the practice of “artificial memory” as part of the studies of the cardinal virtues. And this is just within the initial three chapters of the story.

I can only anticipate with excitement what else is to be revealed about the art, specially in the Renaissance with Ramon Llull, Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno and others. I am eager to know how these men envisaged the construction of memory systems that would hold the whole  knowledge of nature and men, systems that would serve as a means to memorising anything, that would even form the precursors of the idea of universal languages. There is so much to learn in the upcoming pages, that it is hard to stop reading and write this. Yet, as a “pleasure delayer” myself, it’s nice to postpone the end of such a book and slowly digest its contents.

Ironically, although it has been written by an nonbeliever who knew so much about the Art of Memory, the book has the ability to turn someone like me, who knows so little, into an instant believer.

Ignorance is bliss, they say…

(You might be interested in Forgotten rhetoric >>)

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