Monday, October 27, 2008

Stop Forgetting

This book fell into my lap at the Wellington Downtown Community Ministry book last year. It's a book about memory, one of the first complete modern memory systems in fact. Think Mega Memory, but without the insufferable infomercials and the tapes. It is the work of a Dr. Bruno Furst, although it is quite possible that he was a doctor of law, rather than medicine or psychology - what little information one can find about him is rather sketchy on that point. We know that he used to lecture law in Czechoslovakia before the second world war and that he is credited as founder and director School of the Memory and Concentration, an international organisation devoted to the improvement of memory "with some twenty branches in the U.S.A., Great Britain and many other English-speaking countries" as of 1949, the date of publication of the book. At least one of these branches still operates at a place called Bowden Hall College, in the United Kingdom, and retains the publishing rights of Furst's courses.

A forerunner of the self-help books that infest our shops, Stop Forgetting is nonetheless in many respects a fascinating and sympathetic book. I might be inclined to quibble with the title - and I will - but I find nothing wrong whatsoever with the overarching goal, which is to help readers improve their capacity to remember stuff. To this end Furst develops a system that leverages the mind's ability to associate and categorise. Part of this system involves translating numbers into words - for instance 91 into the word bat, 92 into bean and 93 into beam - then associates these word-number pairs with pictures, and makes the keyword table thus created the springboard for memorising more complex words and sentences: anything that can be expressed through language, in fact. One of the most interesting aspects of the book are the testimonials of people from several walks of life - the musician, the theological student, the film critic - applying the system in order to memorise information specific to their particular field. And then there are the passages that would make a more contemporary reader smile, such as when we are invited to study and remember a series of magazine ads (aren't we supposed to forget those?), or some fantastic photographic galleries of post-war faces; but those too are part of the colour and the appeal: it is a book of its time, meant to be of practical use, and again I find its broad objectives entirely laudable.

As to whether or not the system works, I have little doubt that it does. It is well thought out and designed, not afraid to incorporate favourite aspects of previous systems and besides, the history of culture is punctuated with similar attempts to improve memory and most of them work because in the end it might just be the (systematic) thought that counts: making a conscious effort to associate and categorise, deploying an ingenious array of mental tricks, running through lists, populating palaces of memory in one's head. It all focuses the mind, it all helps.

But... why do we do it? And I mean especially why nowadays, when so many technologies and gadgets vie for the privilege of helping us to remember stuff, freeing up the mind from the clutter of names and addresses and lists of Academy Award-winning directors so that it can finally attend to some higher level thinking? I think the answer is reasonably complex, but in marketing the book Furst seems to have anticipated in 1949 the reasons that the purveyors of memory books and courses invariably go through today, most often by putting them in the mouth of exasperated punters wishing that they could put names to faces, remember their appointments, study more effectively. In other words, the aspirations of the prospective reader are always perceived to be as follows, and pretty much always in this order: to function better in social situations, to be better at one's work, and to improve oneself beyond memory alone, through memory. The infomercials and the testimonials will bear me out.

Whether this tells the whole story, I'm not so sure. Without aiming to over-analyse a book cover that urges us to stop forgetting a mere four years after the most destructive and genocidal conflict in the history of humanity, the will to protect and improve one's memory has to be seated a little deeper than the wish to avoid social embarrassment ("Frank, so good to see you, have you met... thingy?") or to be more efficient at work. Memory is, quite simply, the glue that holds the self together. Lose that, you lose yourself, as those of us who have had the misfortune of seeing a loved one fall prey to Alzheimer's disease know all too well. Which explains I think why holding on to one's own memory is seen by most as crucial to one's identity. What matters is not just what is remembered - much of which could be externalised in any number of forms and media - but also, and in fact primarily, that you yourself remember it. It is your life story, it is who you are: not a sum of photos and recorded conversations and written documents, but a narrative infused with personal meaning.

The technologist retorts: we can remember it for you wholesale. But the supplement is no substitute, as I hope to show next week when I turn to the film Memento. It is Plato's lesson some twenty-four centuries later, and a struggle that is replayed incessantly in literature and the arts, reflecting a defining trope of our times - that we are in caught in a love/hate relationship with technology - as well as a pervasive unease concerning the ever-increasing mediation and remediation of our lives.

Which leads me to the afore-hinted at quibble with Furst's title. The injunction to Stop Forgetting is at the very crest of our zeitgeist, a defining aspect of the information age and of Internet culture especially, and one deserving of some serious critique. As I suggested a few posts back, working towards an ecology of memory involves reclaiming the very economy of expression that digital technology has made obsolete, and rescuing forgetting from the rhetoric of those who regard loss of information as the ultimate sin of our age. But perhaps Furst anticipated this, and in the opening of the book he abandons the attention-grabbing imperative mood of the cover in favour of a softer, gentler declarative: You Can Remember. In the space between those two phrases lies the work that I hope to accomplish with this blog.

Bruno Furst. Stop Forgetting: How to Develop Your Memory and Put it to Practical Use. New York: Greenberg, 1949. Reprinted in the UK by Psychology Publishing Ltd., 1963.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Curtained Wall

I've been back in New Zealand for less than thirty-six hours and already the trip back home seems buried in the distant past. Am I the only person to be struck by amnesia after a long-haul flight? I understand how a sudden change of routine - such as when one leaves work and abode to go on vacation - can have such effects on the psyche, and it stands to reason that travelling halfway around the world in such a (relatively) short space of time should make it a lot more so. And yet, whilst I'm always prepared for this occurrence, I'm also always surprised by its intensity, when all is said and flown.

It's impossible to look outside the window at the landmass and the clouds and the oceans so ludicrously far below, or to gaze at the nausea-inducing screen with the plane's trajectory and the mindless stats (it's minus forty degrees outside, you say?) without getting a fairly vivid sense of how surreal the experience is. And perhaps it's that very surreality, the sense of being without time and place, that focuses the mind so urgently on the now, at the expense of yesterday's experience. Even just the task of conceptualising why you're having breakfast for the third time today (whatever today might mean at this point) must engage quite a few brain cells. And then there are the lack of oxygen, the artificial night of drawn curtains enforced with polite severity by the crew, the procession of identical meals with the frozen fruit salads, and the films, ah, always the films... this month the line-up on Singapore Airlines included Groundhog Day, I trust it was chosen by the airline's irony department. And I'm sure it's all designed to help you cope, but there's always a point when it starts to unravel and you feel like a character in a Philip Dick novel. This time for me the cake was taken by our room in the transit hotel at Singapore airport, 'where people go to crash (in the good sense)'. Take a look at the far wall.

Unremarkable, you say? Yes, but allow me to pull the curtain:

It was all a gentle ruse, a simulation, a wall posing as a window that of course couldn't be there, and even if it could, what would you need it for, since you're there to sleep as hard and as fast as you can between flights? Meanwhile, isn't the airport too a simulation of anywhere, a place without culture, with the same procession of Tie Rack and BVLGARI and (overpriced) Duty Free shops you would encounter in identical airports around the world? And yet you do meander and sample the wares, if only to keep the circulation going in your automaton-like body, soon to be strapped onto another cramped seat for twelve more hours of jet-propelled fun.

I shouldn't complain, I really shouldn't, seeing as it is this extraordinary machinery of enterprise and steel that allows me to lead two more or less simultaneous lives at the antipodes, instead of having to choose one place or the other - a situation that has no historical precedent before my parents' generation. But that particular rite of travel, with its mind-warping and amnesia-inducing effects, is also a reminder that the geographical distance that we cover at fantastic speeds is oh so very real, that there is a whole world betwixt, and there is no fooling the mind that it might be otherwise. Curtain or no curtain.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Recipes (2): Pane Ferrarese

Week three, and the last, of my trip to Italy with Joseph. Things are winding down and the boy persists in coping admirably with the high levels of stimulation and the extraordinary levels of cheek-pinching (the dreaded ganascino). The trip was engineered as a chance for him to spend some time with his grandmother and experience his other home country, at an age when he could form a lasting memory of both, so only time will tell whether it was a complete success. For mum we know the time has been precious, so that's a job well done.

And Venice was glorious. Although quite possibly the most tired cliché in Italy is the one that goes "Venice is beautiful, but I wouldn't want to live there", on the evidence of a one-night stay Joseph would strongly beg to differ. We were unstoppable. We saw the sights and we smelt the smells. We crossed the bridges and walked a walked and walked. We jumped on and off boats (except the gondolas. 80 euros? you've got to be kidding me). We had the bizarre, moment-frozen-in-time experience of boarding the Amerigo Vespucci, a magnificent school ship that usually operates out of Livorno but that Joseph knew from its visit to New Zealand a couple of years ago. And we even caught a glimpse of the extraordinary work that goes along and underneath the waterline to keep the city afloat. As a local work in progress sign eloquently put it,
because of its extremely delicate environmental and urban fabric, Venice requires assiduous, unrelenting care.
It seems to me that you could say the same of the work that goes into maintaining a family's fabric of memory, that same fabric that we're trying so earnestly to weave Joseph into. It pains me a great deal that he'll never meet my father, talking about him is all I've got. But I have to do it, and in a way that makes sense to a little boy. I know the stakes quite well: for what were probably entirely justified reasons, my father never spoke to me about his own, who died over fifty years ago, and that's a connection that is forever severed. A generation's silence is all it takes.

I touched in my two previous posts on the role of food and objects, and a lot more could be said of rituals and symbols and language, but of course memory travels primarily via people. That's why every family or group, it seems to me, needs at least one dedicated custodian of the past, somebody who keeps track and helps makes sense of those other things, the raw materials of memory, as it were. On my paternal side, unfortunately, there is no such person. I could name a few of the people in the old photographs and reconstruct that half of the family tree going back a few generations by studying the appropriate documents, helped by the fact that many of those ancestors lived in a big city, but there is no longer a living connection there, no meaningful sense of family holding those documentary traces together.

On my mother's side we're considerably more fortunate. There was my grandfather, the local tailor, of whom they used to say that if the land register had been destroyed in a fire, he would be able to recreate it from memory without breaking a sweat; there was my cousin Mario, last of the storytellers and amateur historian with a passion for the local fables and the monsters evoked to scare the children into not exploring the wells or straying from home at nigh time. And now we have his sister Maria, his younger brother Bruno and my mother, plus others in less of a full-time capacity. They're not only the people who can tell you who's related to you and how - last week Bruno stopped a passing tractor just so he could introduce me to the driver, who happened to be the grandson of one of my grandmother's sisters - but also, and more importantly, the ones who know how things used to work and who bother to retell the family stories, allowing us to feel that there is a debt of affection that rests on something older than each of us. Which helps I think to explain why, while there are many aspects of the culture that I have struggled to comprehend since moving to New Zealand, the concept of whanau isn't one of them.

Speaking of debts, I promised to update you on my attempt to master the art of pane ferrarese, the miracle bread that keeps on giving by turning over time into breadsticks. It is fitting, too, that I should return to the food, because it is around the table that those family memories are more easily shared: if you want a captive audience for the fifteenth retelling of a particular yarn, you had better set the table first, and set it well. On to the recipe, then.

First of all, by way of enticement: I met an old Italian gentleman in Hastings who hails from Veneto and in his youth used to travel to Ferrara to swap his wine with bread - that's how good the stuff is. And secondly, a disclaimer: I have been far from successful thus far. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the local water is a key ingredient to this bread, so it is entirely possible that it is a product of the land, just like the famously inimitable Parmigiano Reggiano. But I'm not giving up quite yet, and neither should you.

Ingredients (for four loaves, or "ciope")

500 grams high grade flour. Ideally you'd want the double zero type, an extremely fine grind, but it's hard to come by outside of Italy.
50 ml extra virgin olive oil. The recipe actually calls for 50 grams of lard, but it's okay to make the switch for the sake of our vegetarian and vegan friends.
Salt to taste, let's say a teaspoon and a half.
20 grams of fresh yeast.
150 ml of water.

The preparation calls for an inordinate amount of kneading, which is possibly where my first attempt fell short - I simply didn't have the time. So set the breadmaker to its heaviest workload or set aside twenty or so minutes of patient manual work, until the dough is nice and soft and elastic. My mother tells me they used to do this on Sunday nights, leave the dough to rise overnight then shape to the loaves in the morning before taking them to the baker's to cook. But a couple of hours of rest in a dark and dry place ought to suffice. Once the dough has risen, split it into 8 portions of equal size. Each of them needs to be flattened into a long, thin strip, which then needs to be worked starting at the top of the short side using the palm of the hand, in short back-and-forth motions so as to roll it at each end and at the same time flatten it in the middle. There are some really helpful pictures on this here forum, scrolling down to the middle of the page. Except it's far easier to create two halves separately from two separate strips rather than using the same strip, then what you do is pinch the halves in the middle instead of doing the flippy thing shown. Bearing in mind that what you want to achieve post cooking (20-25 minutes on a hot oven at 220 degrees Celsius) is this:

My mother enjoyed giving me the demonstration; the bossing me around part, sure, plus she hadn't tried her hand at it for close to seventy years, so it was a trip back in time in and of itself. As it turns out, it's like riding a bicycle - it all came back to her. I'm quite determined to be that person some day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Objects to Remember With

When Justine and I left Italy to come to New Zealand, my parents gave us a little bundle of heirlooms, including one that had nothing to do with the family or its history in a direct sense: a small ancient Roman oil-lamp. Its value isn't monetary, nor aesthetic - it is dirt-encrusted and the handle is broken, the little spout chipped, in parts of the country you could find dozens just like it if you knew where to dig - but to me it has come to symbolise continuity and family and home in a way that few other things could. Nowadays we keep it next to a photo of my father in the closest thing we have to a little shrine.

Now that I'm back as always I am forced to ask myself what it is that makes me miss the old, very old and downright ancient stuff that one finds more or less lying around the place. All the more so since Milan lacks the obvious charm of so many other Italian cities, and a good deal of our old stuff isn't of the variety that makes the tourists flock and the cash register ring. Our most iconic building, the Duomo, is a hodge-podge of styles and took centuries to complete - apparently the good people of the city, fond as they have always been of enterprise and commerce, harboured some reservations about the value of its chief monument. The other star attraction, Leonardo's Last Supper, started to peel off the wall when it was barely finished, and the monks who had commissioned it duly proceeded to cut a door through it, just so they could get from the dining hall to the kitchen more quickly. All for the sake of open plan living, you see.

So the city has a less than enthusiastic relationship with its heritage, and perhaps ten years ago I did too. But now I find myself far more attached to the urban landscape than I was, smog-covered warts and all. One could blame the nostalgic sentimentality of a migrant, and I'm sure that it's at least partly the case. But being away also means looking for ways to remain connected, and not just through the magic of Skype, indispensable as that is; one also longs for a sense of place, and for the aura and physical touch of objects that have been around for some time, enough to see the local history unfold around them, as it were. Me, I especially like these eight dudes:

The Omenoni, or big men, have been around since 1565, tucked away in a little street behind Piazza della Scala, quietly observing the human traffic, their porous stone getting impregnated with the sooty dust that we've all been breathing. Like so many of my favourite corners of Milan, they are quirkier than they are charming or beautiful in the traditional sense. They are also solid and hard working, so they fit in well with the local ethos. And one cannot help feeling sorry for them. Joseph wanted to take a picture of the one that seemed the saddest:

Not surprisingly, the young fella is fascinated by the surroundings, and has been full of questions that I've been somewhat over-zealously attempting to answer - having the whole "the Romanesque comes before the Gothic period" conversation with a seven year old ought probably to be regarded as a form of abuse. So oftentimes he lets me drone on while he busies himself taking pictures. I don't think he necessarily does it in order to look at them again in the future - it is simply part of his way of looking. And, like most children his age, he likes to focus on the unlikely details, such as cobblestones or the embossed coat of arms of the city on a cast iron post.

Naturally his pictures, far more than mine, are the ones that capture that ineffable essence of place that makes my memory tingle; shots that I wouldn’t have bothered to frame because their individual parts are unremarkable if not downright ugly, but that taken together make up postcards of the Milan that I know - a city that hasn’t aged as gloriously as some others, and is more well-worn than it is pretty. Not unlike our humble oil-lamp, encrusted with a past that is not ours, but that speaks to us, and becomes an object to remember with, to think of the people and the ways of being and doing that came before.

Mum’s house is full of such objects, thanks in part to the heroic frugality of past generations: I’m thinking especially of the square knife that my grandmother used to cut tagliatelle with, made from the recycled blade of an old scythe, and at least two packs of cards that my parents shuffled into oblivion playing patience in the evening, and that my mother uses to this day, insisting that she has no trouble at all counting the seven diamonds on the settebello through her cataracts. And good on her, perhaps some day I’ll do the same.

Cross-posted at Public Address, with thanks to Russell Brown.