Tuesday, March 29, 2005

How The Human Mind Shapes Myth
by Elizabeth Wayland Barber & Paul T. Barber
Princeton University Press.

How Memory Shapes Our Past
by Douwe Draaisma,
translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans
Cambridge University Press.

by William S. Kowinski

These two books are about memory, although on very different scales: the cultural memories stored over long periods of time through myth, and human memory in an individual's lifetime.

Though I started reading these books at about the same time only because of the accident of their arrival in close proximity, the idea that they are both about memory came quickly, for early in each book they each cite the same 1880 memory experiment, conducted in Germany by Hermann Ebbinghaus. Though they make entirely different (but not opposing) points from their examples, the coincidence suggested how the books naturally go together.

In '>When They Severed Earth From Sky, E.W. and P.T. Barber cite the Ebbinghaus research to support the idea that memories are remembered better when they are structured as stories rather than strung together as isolated facts. The basic premise of their book is that ancient myths are essentially stories that preliterate people used to help them remember important information about the real world, and pass it down. But for various reasons, we no longer recognize the events and phenomena these stories are meant to describe.

Their first example is a story of the Klamath people, about the fire-flinging Chief of the Below World battling the Chief of the Above World at Mount Shasta. Thanks to the sacrifice of Klamath medicine men, the Chief of the Below World was overcome, and his mountain disappeared. It then rained for many years, filling the hole where that mountain had been. The people were saved from the threat of fire, but were cautioned not to look upon the sorrowful waters.

Using details of the story matched up with known geological history, the authors maintain this is actually a story about a volcanic eruption which in fact blew away a mountain near Mt. Shasta, and left a hole now filled with water, which we call Crater Lake. The warning to stay away from the lake (which the Klamath people obeyed for many years) essentially was to protect them from any later eruption.

This book is a pleasure to read. The authors give the impression that they had a good time traveling and doing their research over a number of years, and they seem to have worked hard to make the writing seem easy, which is always appreciated. The result is a very readable romp for any intelligent reader, with lots of forward momentum (at least until the "Of Sky and Time" section) and employing a mostly engaging style consisting of lean, robust sentences and breezy diction. They anticipate the reader's logical questions, and present their theories about why myths are encoded as they are and the mechanisms they use, using a series of cleverly named "Myth Principles," like Memory Crunch, Silence Principle, Lethe Effect, Zone of Convenient Remove Syndrome and UFO Corollary.

Along the way readers will learn what getting up on the wrong side of the bed actually means, as well as fascinating interpretations of dragons (as a collection of ideas stuck together with the same name) and the Prometheus Myth.

The weaknesses of the book, apart from an awful lot of the myths turning out to be descriptions of volcanoes (including Prometheus) and attendant tsunamis (parting of the Red Sea), are in its limited usefulness and jovial reductionism. While it may come as a surprise to some academics that Native stories record real events, in my part of the world---which is not far from the Klamath---even geologists refer to stories of indigenous peoples when they talk about seismic events on the North Coast of California, and they've used these stories for at least a decade to help them understand local geologic history. As these authors admit, on this quality of Native stories, Vine DeLoria got here ahead of them in his impassioned and at times hilarious diatribe, Red Earth, White Lies.

While I'd be surprised if the premise that myths can refer to actual events is big news to academia (but I'm prepared for that eventuality), the authors are really on shaky ground with their apparent contention that this is all these myths represent. For instance, in her A History of God, Karen Armstrong refers to the possibility that the Bible story of the parting of the Red Sea may refer to earlier pagan stories, and that the Israelite god Yahweh might have originally been a god of volcanoes. But Armstrong goes on to discuss how the Israelites changed the nature of this god, and adapted this and other stories to refer to themselves. For them and I suspect in many other cases, the myths are not merely explanations of natural events; the natural events and the stories about them are incorporated into the myths to support a religious, philosophical, political or tribal idea. In other words, at least some myths use the natural events to explain beliefs, not the other way around.

The authors also completely dismiss Carl Jung's theory of mythic archetypes (central to Joseph Campbell's work, too), and later refer only to minor features of their ideas. (They also dis dreams with an oversimplified and reductionist "scientific" explanation that would surprise some neuroscientists.) They apparently reject what I take to be much more likely: that myths can be stories by which peoples remember some natural events, and they express other kinds of beliefs, and they reflect archetypes that may be universally present in human life. Sometimes one, two or all of them, and probably more. There's really no contradiction. We don't call them the mystic chords of memory for nothing.

In '>Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, Douwe Draaisma , a professor of history of psychology in the Netherlands, describes Ebbinghaus' researches (which he doggedly conducted using himself as the subject) as one pioneering kind of memory research, which became the dominant kind because it allowed for quantified data. Another early self-researcher, Francis Galton, experimented with associating subjective memories to current observations, but for much of the twentieth century, this way of approaching memory (as actual autobiographical memories) was neglected.

Draaisma uses the fruits of both kinds of researches, in the laboratory and out, as well as the musings of philosophers, writers and psychologists, to freshly examine several phenomena of memory, which always involve the content of memories. He explores reminiscence, so-called photographic memory, forgetting, déjà vu, and other questions of how we experience time and memory, and examines unusual cases, such as the memory of savants and grandmasters, trauma victims, and two people who seemed never to forget anything: one of them fictional, and one real.

Draaisma is a graceful writer (the English version's virtues aided no doubt by translators Arnold and Erica Pomerans), and most chapters have the length and structure of short self-contained essays. Many address questions we all have about memory and memories (since we all have both)with stylish economy and a treatment of relevant research that is involving. The questions begin with why don't we remember more of our earliest years? (Memory, or access to our memories, is autobiographical, and seems to depend on self-awareness and the development of speech.) How do people with unusual or prodigious memories remember so much? (Their memories seem to be laden with more sense data, and their brains structure memories in spatial relationships.)

One of the best essays is on "Smell and Memory," which confronts the question of why certain smells can instantly bring a long forgotten moment to life. Draaisma begins with the literary reference that has become automatic: Proust's moment with the madeleine dipped in tea that floods his memory with images and feelings (which is relevant because taste is so strongly related to smell.) But instead of referencing what has become a cliché, he goes back to the text and reveals that Proust's description of this experience takes up four pages, and his narrator goes through a long process of remembering, which requires hours, and not one but ten tastes of the tea-soaked cake.

Draaisma then examines other similar recorded experiences and the relevant laboratory research. It appears that smell is the exception to the rule: that associations are formed in memory that don't depend on language, which is why memories inspired by smell are different from most other kinds.

Of course, there's more to each question than these paranthetical and somewhat reductive summaries, and much of the pleasure here is in the reading journey. There are intriguing insights within chapters, such as our predeliction to remember insults and humiliations with great clarity, and unlike other memories to see ourselves in these painful scenes, as if from outside.

Not all the chapters are successful either in the questions they ask or the answers. In particular, the chapter that addresses the title question, why does life speed up as you get older? is not very satisfying. One of the central difficulties in talking about memory and time is the difference between subjective experiences and objective facts of each. Sometimes in dealing with them, Draaisma is illuminating, but this chapter seems a bit too confusing. He acknowledges that part of the difference in experiencing time in youth and age is physiological, and some is experiential. His final metaphor in this chapter, of a man running along a river (at first as a child running faster than the river of time, then in youth at the same rate the river is flowing, then with aging, slower and slower until the river runs without him) is a lovely synthesis of the research he cites, but doesn't quite answer the question.

So why does life speed up as we get older? I think it has a lot to do with anticipation and hope. I am writing this a few days after Easter Sunday. In my childhood, Easter was a major holiday, and one that I anticipated and thought about far in advance. The day itself was full of events and feelings (some of joy, some of disappointment, some of boredom.) This Easter had such little significance that the fact that some places were closed was a momentarily unaccountable surprise.

Part of the difference is objective: Easter is not as big a holiday as it was in my particular ethnic Catholic western Pennsylvania context in the 1950s, though among my family still living in the area where I grew up, it is more significant than among people I know where I am now. Much of Easter became oriented towards children, so naturally it would have been more important when I was a child, or if there were children now in my household. But I think an important factor is also the change that comes with disillusion. After awhile, tempered by disappointments and fading possibilities, you no longer expect or anticipate wonders linked to a day or an event, so time does not slow down before or during it.

So much of youth and adolescence (when Draaisma says most retained memories occur) is the experience of discovery. Having discovered through experience the limitations placed on hopes and dreams leads to a disillusion that distances you from the moment. It becomes too painful and wearying to either anticipate or allow yourself to fully experience the flow of time. This translates more generally, as your priorities necessarily shift to dealing with daily responsibilities, especially now that the speed of life has increased. As the habit of anticipation and hope gives way to the habit of coping and the suppression of disillusion, we flatten experience and even hurry through it as unconsciously as possible. For this and other reasons, life speeds up because we aren't paying so much attention to it.

This may also be why as we get older, we live more in our memories. Memories are themselves timeless. The more time we spend in this timeless space, the faster time seems to speed on, in those fewer moments when we rejoin the present. So now when we bite into a marshmallow bunny, it is a more Proustian than present pleasure.

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