February 8, 2002

Remembrance of things past

What is it that makes people think Homer had the memory of an amnesiac? I mean, he was blind, not the guy from Memento. For some reason, every time the merits of the Greek oral tradition are discussed, some disbelieving soul objects to the widely accepted fact that poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey were originally created and preserved through memory and recitation. Now I guess it makes sense that people who probably couldn't even bring themselves to read the entire 24 books of the Iliad (generally, those with the most adamant objections are those who stopped reading after finding out that the Homer who authored it doesn't have a son named Bart) might be a bit skeptical of anyone claiming to have memorized them. Still sometimes I just want to speed dial Robert Fagles or exhume Richmond Lattimore to browbeat some historical sense into these people more uninformed than truly "skeptical" (I think David Hume might have some objection to the latter classification; something tells me even Philo doesn't need a priori arguments to be convinced of that these epics were told from memory).

I mean, what do these people think — that Homer carried around his epics on disk, giving a pyrotechnic PowerPoint presentation at every village he visited? Since I am, however, about as likely to reach Fagles as I am to reach Homer himself (Princeton was barely kind enough to send me a rejection letter, do you think they are going to give me the home phone number of one of their most famous professors?) and my necromancy skills are not quite up to par with those of the Witch of Endor, I have had to find an alternate way to refute the oh-so-scholarly "That's just a lot to remember" arguments of non-believers.

Now any time I come across people who doubt the Greeks' memory capacity, I ask them to think about their own. I ask them to think about all the things they remember: all the phone numbers, PIN numbers, lottery numbers, and Broadway numbers, all the birthdays, weekdays, holidays, and recipes for egg hollandaise, all the clothes brands, cereal brands, computer brands, and Elton "brands," all the movie quotes, song quotes, and stock quotes; all the passwords, code words, and swear words; all the TV channels, web channels, and English Channels. I ask them to think about how they remember that E=MC2 (even if they don't understand why) and that 867-5309 is the phone number for "Jenny," how they remember that Istanbul is Constantinople, and that Clark Kent is Superman. I ask them to think about how normal, non-Mega-Memory people like myself can remember things like the movie theater that Saved by the Bell's A.C. Slater took his first girlfriend to while they were in Germany together (The Berlin-o-plex), the name of Don Quixote's horse (Rozinante), the Indiana guard who ended Syracuse's 1987 NCAA title hopes (Keith Smart), the Major League Baseball team for which the young MC Hammer was a bat boy (the Oakland Athletics) and even James Joyce's birthday (February 2). I ask them to think about how even people like my mom, who should be on an IV of ginkgo biloba because she forgets so many things, can remember things like birthday lists, grocery lists, mailing lists, and laundry lists without ever consulting a notepad.

Non-believers are persistent though and frequently maintain that "there is only so much memory space available and learning a 15,000 line poem would just take up too much of it." Humoring them, I even try to prove my point by using their own faulty reasoning. I tell them to think about all the things people remember now that they would not have to remember back then and how much memory space that would free up. The ancients did not have VCRs to remember how to use or alarm clocks to remember to set; not having TVs eliminated the former and the good ole reliable sun usually took care of the latter. They did not have student ID numbers or social security numbers to remember, for the only "social security" back then was that you were "Higher, Stronger, Faster" than your neighbor — I mean, where do you think the Olympic motto came from anyway? Nor did people have to remember train schedules, bus schedules, or even traffic schedules since the "heel-toe express" pretty much left at every time and anytime. Remembering special occasions such as Christmas, Mothers' Day, and Valentine's Day didn't take up much space either, since quite frankly, those holidays didn't exist (and while it is almost a cliché that modern men frequently forget these last two days, in my opinion, that stores like Flowers.com and Victoria's Secret actually exist proves otherwise). Along these same lines, the ancients didn't even have to "Remember the Alamo!"

I also like to remind non-believers that the travelling poets who memorized these epics did not just happen to memorize them. It was not as if after attending a few festivals these rhapsodoi found themselves unwittingly humming the description of Achilles' shield in the same way that after a few turns listening to Bobby McFerrin you can't help but whistle "Don't Worry, Be Happy." No, these people wanted to memorize these poems; they needed to memorize these poems as they made their living memorizing these poems. Lyres in hand, they traveled all over Greece reciting these 24 books of dactylic hexameter "like it was their job" because, well, it was. Leaving out one of leaders of the "Boiotians" or forgetting that Hector's dad was Priam and not Peleus was just not an option. It would be like a cop forgetting the Miranda rights or a flight attendant failing to mention to put your seats and tray tables in a locked and upright position

And if even after all this, non-believers are still not convinced that it was and is possible to memorize and recite something as long as the Iliad or Odyssey, I tell them to call Dominic O'Brien. Dominic has been World Memory Champion seven times since the competition started 10 years ago and is more than happy to tell people that determination, not genius, is the secret to a good memory. In 1999 he beat out contestants from nine different countries (including one who memorized 2475 binary numbers in 30 minutes) to re-claim his fifth world championship. In the 2000 championships — which he also won — he set a world record by memorizing 316 digits in 5 minutes. He has trained himself to memorize, among other things, 52 packs of cards shuffled together after only seeing each card once. You want to remember where your keys are — this guy could probably remind you where you had them last. And it's not as if he is some John Travolta-like phenomenon or has some beautiful mind like John Nash either. If he were in Good Will Hunting, he probably would be more like Ben Affleck's character than Matt Damon's. He was an average student in school and decided to drop out of college before he could complete that part of his education. He just can, like the rhapsodoi, remember what he needs to when he needs to. Oh, and did I mention that he is dyslexic? Sorry, I never remember that part.