Our memories are largely inscribed as though on scraps of paper — here a reappropriated napkin bearing verses of light, there a ghost image’s sketch — many waiting to be lost in repositories from which they may never emerge.
There ‘s a legend about the Muslim polymath al-Ghazali. Whilst traveling with a caravan, bandits waylay and lighten the loads of the travelers. Included were Ghazali’s multitude of notes — the wealth of his research to this point. Now he begs to repossess these — his memories are about to wander off and never return.
In reply, the bandit regrets that Ghazali’s memory (‘ilm) is on his papers and not in his heart. He has compassion and returns the papers to the grateful young genius.
While this is almost surely apocryphal (possibly the story was true of a famous relative and was reappropriated (as per Frank Griffel), the idea holds nonetheless) the question of externalized memory is one we each ought to consider. Who has n’t observed the blue screen of death remove memories innumerable to the sea of eternal forgetfulness?
So we back up our memories, eh? In the story, Ghazali rededicates himself to fully internalizing his notes. We are a society which carries memories in sticks — but don’t all libraries eventually succumb to decay or burning?
I have lost many a note which felt absolutely essential at the time. I can’t number how often I forget even to take the list which is my backup memory.
I ask myself what it is I wish to hold onto — what is indispensable. I ‘m still learning what that might be — still not sure if efforts are best placed in maximizing word or action; working for the future or the present.
That brings me to consider that words really are memory devices — we trust that the path to communication will be illumined, but surely this path too will fall into darkness, no matter how well worn. And where shall be the feet to find it again? And what shall the passenger eyes see?
See A Robbers Advice to Imam al-Ghazali for a telling of the story and Griffel’s Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology for further considerations.