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.


  1. Orality and Literacy (a book I’ll obviously have to read)
    I’ll say. There hasn’t been, amongst other things, a more illuminating book on the Internet, and it was written in 1982.
    (Speaking of its metaphorical texture and its quotability, my favourite passage is where Ong describes pre-literate cultures as having created ‘mnemonically tooled grooves’ for their orally educated characters to move into.)

  2. OK, I’ve just ordered a copy. Thanks for the added push!

  3. You amaze me, Hat. Your post is as close to appreciating more-or-less systems theory stuff gemäß Luhmann as anyone can get who feigns to dismiss it. These two quotes from Gronas that you provide:

    cultural evolution does not care about our joys, but is very keen on replication and perpetuation
    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.

    closely resemble Luhmann’s view, carefully reformulated and expanded on in dozens of ways throughout his books, that society is not “composed” of people, but rather people are only in the environment (Umwelt) of the system we call “society” (Gesellschaft). And society takes care of itself, or it fails. How to understand this ?
    The next thing is that, on the quoted evidence in your post (which isn’t much, granted), Ong and Gronas seem to have overlooked something important about memory. Ong asks, in your paraphrase, “how to retain thoughts if you’re preliterate ?”. My immediate response to that is: why would anyone want to “retain” his thoughts ? If he notices that he is forgetting his thoughts, he is already remembering that he has forgotten them – so mnemotechnics are already in place. And does the preliterate person see himself as preliterate ? Nope. So Ong is conflating “the” preliterate person with himself, the imaginary observer of that person. Ong’s answer to his question “how to retain thoughts” is peculiar: “Think memorable thoughts”. This resembles a zoologist who asks: “how to fly when you’re a land reptile ?”, and answers : “get yourself some wings”.
    We need to look at both sides of the thing: memory is a mechanism for retaining and forgetting. If we all retained everything we thought and experienced, we couldn’t function. No selection without rejection (for later consideration !). Is forgetting more important than remembering, or is it the other way around – or is that a pointless question ? What processes can be at work here ? Does the fact that a person “selects” this or that to remember, ensure him an evolutionary advantage ? Just by itself, no. Depends on how things pan out. It seems very improbable that things have worked out as they have – so it seems a good idea to try to understand this improbability as such, instead of brushing it aside with that old broom of “a lyrical poem maps your soul”.
    In another thread here, we were asked to imagine that “the Israelites started writing Hebrew” in this way:

    A light bulb goes on and people say, “Hey, why don’t we write about our place, our culture?”

    This is a pretty pathetic, boosterish, everybody’s-darling explanation. I suppose we are to understand fiat lux as God’s fuddy-duddy way of saying “Hey, let’s have some light in here !”.

  4. Harrumph. Once again, it seems that nobody wants to pick up on this kind of analysis. As if this were a case of the Gynecologist’s Dilemma. As if I were a gynecologist who barges in on a group of guys enthusing about women, and tries to divert the discussion to less pretty aspects of the female.
    But a gynecologist is just a guynecologist like the rest of them, with a wife and kids and a second mortgage. He has merely learned to consider more than can be apprehended by brute ogling. And, after all, in this post the subject is not women, but “cognitive poetics and cultural memory”. Oohing and aahing about such abstract matters is perfectly compatible with endoscopy – as the books by Gronas and Ong demonstrate.
    As several writers have remarked, Luhmann was an unusual example in modern times of a humanist polymath. His footnotes alone – which cite and comment on novels, philosophy, religious works, anthropology, mathematics, manners and morals – make reading his books like reading a travel guide to civilization over 4000 years. In his books I have noticed several references to Ong, whose name I have known for a long time.

  5. Luhmann never ceases to surprise me. After hundreds of pages of abstract considerations, he suddenly cracks a really funny little joke, or brings up some detail of current affairs. In the first volume of The Society of Society, which I just finished, in the context of the “legal system” he makes a brief reference to the O.J. Simpson business. He says something like “this is bound to have a profound effect on the jury system in America”.

  6. It’s been a while since I read Ong, but he certainly is worth spending some time on. As partial antidote to the Big Idea approach to these matters exemplified by Ong and McLuhan, one might also mention the work of Ruth Finnegan. Rather than trying to define a single paradigm for “orality,” she has studied many specific examples of “oral” literatures, some that use formulaic techniques, others that rely on memorization, still others that represent a secondary orality drawing from and interacting with a literate tradition.
    The Parry/Lord conception of oral formulaic poetry was so striking and seemed to illuminate so much that it became THE theory of orality for many, and for many others the sort of all-encompassing theory that would be needed to compete with it. It’s only fairly recently that something like Finnegan’s approach has begun to catch on.
    Gronas’s paper that LH linked to before, on free verse, the role of memorization in classic Russian poetry, etc, reminded me of some of F.’s observations on secondary orality.

  7. one might also mention the work of Ruth Finnegan. Rather than trying to define a single paradigm for “orality,” she has studied many specific examples of “oral” literatures
    You intrigue me. Is there a particular book you would recommend?

  8. The one book of hers (Finnegan’s) I have is called Oral Poetry. Its nature, significance, and social context. Originally Cambridge, 1977 but with a 1992 Indiana UP edition with added material. Really interesting, lots of specifics.
    She’s still active, as far as I know and I’m sure has written a lot since. She started, I think, or helped start the online journal Oral Tradition (, which has loads of interesting material, including contributions by her.

  9. Yikes, the book is “new from $48.95, 9 used from $33.21”! But I’ll look for it in the library, and I’ve bookmarked the journal. Thanks.

  10. The heart is associated with memory in English learn by heart ‘memorize’ and in Italian ricordare < Latin CORDE, as Primo Levi points out.

  11. Even in English, “record” used to mean memorize (before it meant preserve in writing, long before it mean preserve electronically). It seems to have also meant practice, as a piece of music (naturally that’s how you memorize it). And somehow from there “recorder” came to mean a specific kind of instrument.
    “Rehearse”, which in its main sense pretty much duplicates one of the old senses of “record”, has nothing to do with the heart etymologically — more like the harrow. Keep raking away at the piece until you have the desired furrows in your heart/brain/whatever?

  12. Yikes, the book is “new from $48.95, 9 used from $33.21”!
    Given those prices, it might be cheaper to have Finnegan read out the book to you over the phone. That’s what “oral” literature is for, right ?
    49 bucks is about 37 Euros. Is that for a hardback ? I rarely buy hardbacks, and for them 30 Euros is my Schmerzgrenze – unless I am in a state of exalted enthusiasm for an author. Currently I would pay 100 Euros for Luhmann’s laundry tickets in facsimile.
    At there are (ominous word) “used” hardbacks of Finnegan’s book “from” $19.99, and a “used” paperback “from” $95.49. As a general question: are there publishers in the States who keep serious stuff in print in reasonably priced paperback editions, like (to name but one) Suhrkamp in Germany ? For the two-volume Suhrkamp paperback edition of Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (1997) with 1160 pages I paid 26 Euros. And then there are those newfangled reprint services.

  13. Not “reprint” services, but facsimile services.

  14. 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. … 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,
    This is a brilliantly put profession de foi which I support too.
    Good that you follow Gronas, I think he has more to offer. I’m judging from this post and the article you mentioned before.
    You say attitude like his is rare these day. I’ve experienced an enjoyment similar to yours while reading Tombs’ ‘That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British From the Sun King to the Present’, for instance their observations on how Shakespeare was translated in 18th Century France.

  15. I got my Ong! (What kind of name is that, anyway?)

  16. Ong is a dialect form of young, and has been used as an English surname for centuries. It is also the Hokkien (Amoy, Taiwanese) form of two Chinese surnames: 王 Wáng, which is the most common surname in the PRC today, and 汪 Wāng, which is less common. As such it is also used in other countries where Hokkien-speaking Chinese have settled, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

  17. I would say that we are still preliterate people in Ong’s sense: literacy is something we add to preliteracy, not something that replaces it.

    As for memetics, I know you’re skeptical of it, Hat, but Michael D.C. Drout (the guy who was going to edit Tolkien’s Beowulf translation before the estate vetoed it) has a couple of books on memetics and philology that are damned convincing. So far I’ve only read the first one, How Tradition Works.

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