memory and invention

In her book The Craft of Thought, Mary Carruthers identifies the purpose of memorization in medieval intellectual culture:

The orator’s “art of memory” was not an art of recitation and reiteration but an art of invention, an art that made it possible for a person to act competently within the “arena” of debate (a favorite commonplace), to respond to interruptions and questions, or to dilate upon the ideas that momentarily occurred to him, without becoming hopelessly distracted, or losing his place in the scheme of his basic speech. That was the elementary good of having an “artificial memory.” …

I repeat: the goal of rhetorical mnemotechnical craft was not to give students a prodigious memory for all the information they might be asked to repeat in an examination, but to give an orator the means and wherewithal to invent his material, both beforehand and — crucially — on the spot. Memoria is most usefully thought of as a compositional art. The arts of memory are among the arts of thinking, especially involved with fostering the qualities we now revere as “imagination” and “creativity.”

Today people will tell you that memorization is the enemy of creativity; these medieval thinkers understood that precisely the opposite is true: the more you have memorized the greater will be your powers of invention.

Illustration from an article on how to tell if you’re a jerk. When I saw that image I had a sudden vivid memory from my teenage years, when I worked for a B. Dalton Bookseller in my home town of Birmingham — an experience I wrote about here. One very busy, but also rainy, Saturday at the height of the Christmas rush, my co-worker Morris Styles and I left the mall for lunch and went to a nearby Mexican restaurant. When we returned we couldn’t find a decent parking place and had to park in an auxiliary lot a long, long walk from the mall. As we trudged back in the rain we came across a car — I believe it was a pimped-out Camaro — parked like the one above, except it covered at least three spots. Morris paused to contemplate it. Then he bent down to unscrew the caps on the valve stems of the car’s tires, furled his umbrella so he could clearly see its pointed tip, and employed this improvised instrument to let every bit of air out of all four tires. Then he opened his umbrella again and we silently returned to the bookstore.