I wrote briefly about Mikhail Gronas in my account of the Brodsky symposium last month, and at greater length in this post about his article “Why Did Free Verse Catch on in the West, but not in Russia?” Well, that article is a chapter in his book Cognitive Poetics and Cultural Memory: Russian Literary Mnemonics, brand new from Routledge, which has been good enough to send me a review copy, and I’m happy to say the whole thing more than lives up to the free-verse article. In fact, it’s one of those rare works that gives me hope that literary theory still has the potential to say new and interesting things.
I realize the title sounds off-puttingly academic, so to balance that I will quote the first line of the introduction: “Have you ever thought about why lovemaking tends to be pleasurable?” The answer, of course, is that “a species whose mating happens to be boring and tiresome would die off quick as a wink.” This leads into memetic theory and the statement that “cultural evolution does not care about our joys, but is very keen on replication and perpetuation”; personally, I’ve never found the “meme” idea compelling except as an occasionally useful metaphor, but if it helped Gronas give his thoughts form, I’m all for it. As always, he displays his eye for the striking quote; here’s Walter J. Ong, from his Orality and Literacy (a book I’ll obviously have to read), on how to retain your thoughts if you’re preliterate:
The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.
We are, of course, no longer preliterate, but Gronas points out:
A written literary culture still faces a virtually boundless universe of cultural artifacts, all competing for the limited resources of society’s attention and memory. Just because a work is written down, printed, or posted online offers no guarantee that it will even be noticed, much less remembered. The only thing that it ensures is a longer (and possibly eternal) physical existence. In order to survive culturally, a text must still have certain mnemonic qualities, no less so than an ancient epos or a folksong: it must comply with the demands of individual readers’ memories and fit in with the mechanisms of institutionalized cultural memory, also known as the literary canon.
And his book is an exploration of those mnemonic qualities, which his own prose (most unusually for an academic) frequently displays, especially when he’s talking about poetry: “An internalized poem—frequently read and, ideally, memorized—provided names and patterns for fuzzy and formless internal events and thus anchored them in memory. A lyrical poem maps your soul.” He ends his introduction with a charmingly frank admission that he may have gone a bit overboard: “If some daring reader of this introduction had committed herself to having a drink every time she came across the word ‘mnemonic,’ I surely lost her quite a few pages ago.[…] And one needs no statistics to suspect that what has been presented here amounts to something like mnemonic reductionism.” But he has an apposite quote for this occasion as well, from Douglas Hofstadter:
I have observed that many good ideas start out by claiming too much territory for themselves, and eventually, when they have received their fair share of attention and respect, the air clears and it emerges that, though still grand, they are not quite so grand and all-encompassing as their proponents first thought. But that’s all right. As for me, I just hope that my view finds a few sympathetic readers. That would be a fine start.
The first of the four chapters is titled “Mnemonic Critics: Conceptual Metaphor in Literary Judgments”; it starts with an analysis of how the concept of “taste” developed historically, falling out of favor and then having a revival “initiated by the works of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu” (someone else I’ll have to read—I’ve seen his name in other interesting contexts recently), and moves on to a discussion of how the rhetoric of taste developed in Russia:
Thus, in the context of Russian literary history, and Pushkin studies in particular, the content of critical polemics in the first quarter of the nineteenth century has been studied extensively and in extreme detail, whereas its linguistic and rhetorical mechanisms have not attracted comparable attention. For a cognitive—and mnemonic—approach to the history of taste, the rhetoric deployed in a judgment of taste is no less important than its content. In order to make a judgment, or to develop a system of judgments, one has to structure the space of aesthetic phenomena, to organize them into meaningful and memorable patterns. One way to do this, common to many domains of cognition, is through conceptual metaphors.
He discusses a series of such metaphors, including “‘X is our Y / X is the Russian Y,’ where X is a Russian writer and Y is a canonical European author,” “‘stable pairs,’ a variant of the contest metaphor, pitting two writers against each other as rivals,” “‘poetic championship,’ another variant of the contest metaphor that presupposes awarding a title or rank among poets,” and others, with the usual well-chosen quotes (here’s Pushkin in scatological mode in an 1820 letter to Viazemsky: “I read . . . [to Katenin]—the several lines which you wrote me in your letter to Turgenev, and I congratulated him [Katenin] upon a happy defecation of the Homeric feasts. He answered that the shit is yours, and not his”). His summary: “The general premise is that judgments are not made from scratch: as is the case with other cognitive domains, we need to organize the space of works and authors into meaningful and memorable patterns. Conceptual metaphors serve just this need, by providing us with easily applicable models of judgment.”
Chapter 2, “Mnemonic Readers: The Literary Canon and Mnemonic Survival,” discusses canon formation, defining canonicity as “the measure of how often a text is read, reread, mentioned, cited, and analyzed over a historically significant slice of time: that is, as a measure of textual recurrence or reproducibility within a culture.[…] Such a statistical understanding of the canon is equally removed from both poles of the canon debate of the 1980s—the institutional (‘canon = the educational curriculum’) and the aesthetic (‘canon = the repository of the best that has been thought and said’), and affords a fresh perspective on this well-worn topic.” As a focus for the discussion, he uses an elegy by Konstantin Batiushkov titled “My Daimon [Moi Genii],” especially its first two lines and its opening phrase “the memory of the heart [память сердца].” The excursus on the source of the phrase is a joy in itself. Batiushkov got it from Sicard, “a French priest … most famous for his pioneering work in the education of the congenitally deaf-mute.” As the poet himself put it in an 1815 article:
When asked “What is gratitude?” Massieu, Sicard’s pupil, answered: “The memory of the heart.” A beautiful answer, which does even more honor to the heart than to the mind of the deaf-mute philosopher. This memory of the heart is the finest human virtue, and not so rare as some stringent observers suppose.
Gronas examines the history of Sicard and the quote and concludes,
Whereas in its original context, Massieu’s ‘memory of the heart defines the emotion of gratitude, this emotion is absent from Batiushkov’s “My Daimon.” To a reader unaware of Massieu’s bon mot, Batiushkov’s “memory of the heart” would undoubtedly be interpreted not as “gratitude” but as—the “memory of the heart.” And it is precisely this tautology that supports my thesis about why the phrase was canonized.
Gronas shows how the phrase went from sounding like an alien import to being a basic part of the cultural repertoire:
At the basis of my analysis lies the Wittgensteinian notion of a language game. Someone is always bringing new meanings into the language, and if some meaning is brought in often enough, then it becomes more convenient to give a name to it. As for the “memory of the heart,” this unnamed but recognizable meaning has been assimilated into the scientific discourse of cognitive science, and it is easier now to describe it without naming it, or to give it another name altogether.
The third chapter, “Mnemonic Lines: The Social Uses of Memorized Poetry,” is the article I discussed here, and all I need add is that I enjoyed it so much I read the whole thing again between hard covers. The fourth and final chapter, “Mnemonic Poets: The Tip-of-the-Tongue State, the Saussurean Anagram, and Mechanisms of Mnemonic Creativity,” is a complex blending of Saussure’s concept of the “anagram” (not the usual sense of the word but a putative ancient poetic practice in which sounds of a name “are dispersed within the text of the line, so that by adding together pieces of meaning and sound one can reconstruct the name that is never mentioned as such”) and Mandelstam’s poetic practice, specifically the great 1920 poem Ласточка, “Swallow,” which begins “Я слово позабыл, что я хотел сказать…” (I have forgotten the word that I wanted to say). As you can see from the translation, the first line is a perfect representation of the tip-of-the-tongue experience, and this is how Gronas analyzes it. His discussion is far too complex for any summary to do it justice; I’ll simply say that he manages to discuss the Saussure stuff (which struck me as pure crackpottery as soon as I heard about it—it brings to mind Dryden’s “Great wits are sure to madness near allied,/ And thin partitions do their bounds divide”) in a way that extracts the maximum possible use from it without taking it seriously in the way that the wild-eyed postmodernists of the French Tel Quel group did after Starobinski dug it out of the linguist’s notebooks and brought it to public attention in the early ’60s (Saussure himself, having found no actual evidence for it despite years of effort, commendably refrained from publishing it).
His brief “Conclusion” begins:
This book is an attempt to provide new—and of course only partial and tentative—answers to fairly old questions of literary scholarship and aesthetics. I have tried to make the case that our taste—professional or “naïve,” expressed in critical discourse on literature or simply in the notation of immediate reactions—is shaped by and processed through cognitive and mnemonic patterns; that the literary canon may be defined as “what cultures remember” and thus the reasons for the canonization of a work or part of a work (or even a line or phrase of it) may be mnemonic, rather than purely aesthetic or institutional; and that poetic creativity—at least when the poems are more than occasional—utilizes the cognitive mechanisms of verbal memory.
It ends: “Our only way to survive in the world is to make it memorable.” And he succeeds brilliantly in making his ideas memorable while never presenting them as gospel truth; his attitude, which I share, is that the scholar should present useful ideas in such a way that others will be interested enough to see how far they can be pushed and whether they can be shot down. Obviously, the book will be of particular interest to those who read Russian literature, but I think anyone interested in memory, culture, and how the human mind works will enjoy and learn from it. This is Gronas’s first book, but I’m sure it won’t be his last, and I am already looking forward to seeing what else he comes up with. His mastery of literary theory and history and his ability to write about his ideas engagingly, sacrificing neither scholarly rigor nor readability and humor, are rare and valuable qualities, and I think he will find the wider recognition he deserves, perhaps even as a member of that vanishing species the “public intellectual.” Kudos to him for writing this book and to Routledge for publishing it.