Where did I leave…

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.


Disassociated: ‘Is that me?’ or Mach on the Physical and Psychical

Questions of self-identity are popular these days, but then they are perhaps popular in all eras.  Popular films incorporating this element include ‘the Bourne Identity’ and ‘Unknown’.  In both films, the central character struggles to discover who he is, or perhaps who he was

For those of us not struggling with amnesia, the problem of permanence or connection of our current self with the past self (or rather selves) might rarely occur.  After all, most mornings I do n’t wake up wondering at any truly deep level who I am – or if I do it does n’t have any consequences.  If the question is ever posed, memory swats it away. 

According to Ernst Mach,

“Further, that complex of memories, moods, and feelings, joined to a particular body (the human body), which is called the “I” or “Ego,” manifests itself as relatively permanent.  I may be engaged upon this or that subject, I may be quiet and cheerful, excited and ill-humored.  Yet, pathological cases apart, enough durable features remain to identify the ego.  Of course, the ego also is only of relative permanency.”

~The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical, Ch. 1.  Trans. by C.M. Williams and printed in ‘The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche’ p. 769

So for Mach this permanency of Ego is n’t so permanent.  In fact it ‘s largely illusory. 

The apparent permanency of the ego consists chiefly in the single fact of its continuity, in the slowness of its changes.  The many thoughts and plans of yesterday that are continued to-day, and of which our environment in waking hours incessantly reminds us (whence in dreams the ego can be very indistinct, doubled, or entirely wanting), and the little habits that are unconsciously and involuntarily kept up for long periods of time, constitute the groundwork of the ego.  There can hardly be greater differences in the egos of different people, than occur in the course of years in one person.  When I recall to-day my early youth, I should take the boy that I then was, with the exception of a few individual features, for a different person, were it not for the existence of the chain of memories.  Many an article that I myself penned twenty years ago impresses me now as something quite foreign to myself.  The very gradual character of the changes of the body also contributes to the stability of the ego, but in a much less degree than people imagine. 

~ibidem, pp. 769-770

I must say there is nothing by which I can connect myself today, though he seems very like the me of yesterday, with the 2008 study abroad version of myself, or the 2004 fresh college transfer version, or the junior high school baseball player who read a few books over his head some summers ago – save memory.  And I ‘m too nostalgic not to note that my memories are changing to, not simply as I forget more things but as my vantage point changes.  While the day-to-day flux seems minimal and easily corrected for if I ponder yesterday’s events, when stretched across the canvas of larger time periods I find I can offer little explanation for the macro-changes, the gestalt shifts that have taken place.  Truly I would be unrecognizable to my 2004 predecessor.

Worse, I find that I am largely unrecognizable to myself in any enduring fashion!  I do n’t journal consistently, so that evidence cannot be called against this faltering witness, but I have critically engaged with myself as a habit for many years.  If there is any story to be told, it is that each point of view I have taken up has only had significance in relation to some purpose; and as such, my views have no absolute, permanent validity (as Mach from ‘the European Philosophers’ p. 790).


But some will have already foreseen the dubious nature of such views for those anticipating a bodily resurrection.  This is no problem for Mach, for he rejects such as unnecessary impediments (ibid, p. 785).  For Christian and Muslim believers, this is a considerable problem.  Resurrection is kind of a big deal.

Perhaps it is n’t often a believer thinks at any deep level about what the concept of a bodily resurrection entails philosophically.  After all, it is a promise for the faithful afforded by revelation (sourced either in Jesus or the Qur’an) before ever philosphical language is consulted.  But critical thought is not the enemy of religion so long as it does not supplant faithfulness and obedience for these are primary. 


Seriously though, how are we to expect a bodily resurrection to look?  In the New Testament/Injeel, the resurrected Christ is recognizable to his followers at the minimum as human (though unusual) and seems to be fully recognizable after some period of testing (on occasion).  While resurrection is no everyday thing, the resurrected Christ is n’t some monstrosity or tertium quid.  As such there seems to be something recognizable of his personality or self, even though his body at will passes through walls.

If God is to resurrect the faithful according to His promise, which self is going to be renewed?  Oh yes, of course it ‘ll be you, but are you the exact quantum states of each atom you might consider part of yourself?  Or wait, maybe now.  By tomorrow, if you were able to count, there ‘d be something akin to a slightly different body.  But then, we simply have to connect it all through memory.  If God recreates a set of memories we ‘d recognize as our own, then maybe we can say He ‘s successfully resurrected that which we used to (and can now again call) ‘I’.  But our memories are very much in flux. 

It is for this reason Dr. Augsberger, one of my wife’s professors, calls marriage ‘a series of monogamous relationships’.  The ‘we’ who say those vows are not the ‘we’ a few months later, much less years or decades.  So, we must say with Mach: “The ego is as little absolutely permanent as are bodies.  That which we so much dread in death, the annihilation of our permanency, actually occurs in life in abundant measure. (ibid, p. 770)”


Or perhaps, we have other options (I ‘ll give two, feel free to add your own): 1.  The ‘I’ is illusory.  Mach does an excellent job demonstrating the indefinite extensibility of the ego.  That which we experience as the self is actually provided for us by God.  We exist at His pleasure and, in whatever way He chooses, we will experience resurrection in some recognizably parallel manner.  In such case, nothing is particularly given of itself.  Insofar as I exist I am unable to picture my existence truly independent of other beings.  Perhaps this would be compatible with some form of acosmism, in which only God truly exists and no finite thing can claim any true existence.

This seems not to fit so well with the offered personal bodily resurrection expected by Christian or Muslim adherents.  It seems to work on a philosophical level (they do n’t know the nature of their existence after all, so however God chooses to resurrect them is still a gift); but is it recognizable still?  Perhaps not.  The anti-individualism is appealing at moments, but I ‘ll have to say this is unsatisfying as an answer.

2.  We ‘ve gone to some length to speak of the ambiguity attached to the idea of ‘I’ to this point.  I ‘m not so sure that a legitimate monolithic anthropology limits us here.  Is one picture of humanity going to eliminate answers for the Christian or the Muslim?  Perhaps, on careful consideration no answer is necessary.  Although I cannot now tell you who I shall be in the next moment, or in the past these are all in God’s hands.  That is, I see the problem, but I trust that God’s will is manifest in the state of events as they exist.  In the same way, my hope is in God to accomplish his will in resurrecting me and my fellow believers.  How exactly that is to look, I do n’t have many enduring expectations.  Only guesses.  And perhaps that ‘s the best place for me answer from: trust, not uncritical trust, but trust.

Perhaps we need not fear stepping in the river, though neither we nor the river shall be the same in, during, or after the event, for the river is but a path to an end.  Our choice then seems either to step boldly assured of the claims of our Scriptures or entirely do away with any idea of ego or self.  Which is it to be?

Intertwine: C.S. Lewis, Reading, and Atrophy of the Mind

While I ‘m working perhaps a bit too much, and making little headway in pursuit of my particular research interests, some little time is afforded me for reading.  Perhaps I should spend such times in transit lesson-prepping instead, but I hope the exercise keeps me from turning dull.  Last week I finished a book from my favorite Masters’ class (ironically an intensive I had to add for the purpose of graduating but simply so that I should have enough loans dispersed so as to be able to finish the course necessary for completion of my degree): Overcoming Onto-Theology by Merold Westphal. 

There is much food for thought, some repeated a little too often, but on the whole I am remembering something of the language presented in that course on Philosophical Hermeneutics (because ‘interpretation’ just sounds too simple, and after all; Gadamer will demonstrate how interpretation never escapes, nor should it attempt to, its embeddedness in its Zeitpunkt (time/place, but the German adds a bite to my ticked ear).  This poorly executed segue could, largely unbeknownst to its author, almost serve to illustrate the point Lewis wants to make in ‘Edmund Spenser, 1552-99’ as found in my current travel-mate: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1998), Cambridge U., by C.S.L. 


What the revered Mr Lewis has to say about nearly any matter piques my interest, and I should say this is most true for the ways in which I yet find his writing a surprise not merely to be admired but worthy of being pondered at length.  As regards Spenser, whose Faerie Queene I tackled because it fell within Lewis’ realm some years ago, I find C.S.L.’s reading sheds light on those qualities I had forgotten.  Foremost is Spenser’s ‘polyphonic’ story-telling which surprisingly leaves Prince Arthur, his squire, and Sir Guyon in pursuit of an unknown damsel close-followed by a forester (the intrigue is ryp to be pickt) in favor of following the tale of a strange knight of whose character the reader is wholly unfamiliar. 

In my own reading, I recall both my initial shock and my determination to await the inevitable ‘dovetail’ing where again I should meet the exploits of Arthur and his court.  Lewis remarks that the “old polyphonic story…enjoyed a longer success than the modern novel has enjoyed yet” (Studies p. 134) and some of us might add our approval.  While C.S.L. appeals to the renewal of a theme by a composer, he has addressed a reader too musically challenged to benefit.  Thus I am only able to appreciate the simile theoretically where it might prove illustrative for one less impaired.  But as a reader I share this appreciation for the complex, if not a mind skilled enough to wield it properly. 


And so I nearly escape the charge that “this kind of suspense is lost on us because our bad memories frustrate it and when we get back to Arthur we have forgotten all about him, then, since our ancestors made no such objection, it would seem that we differ from them by an inferiority, not by a superiority” (Ibidem).  I rather envy this skill of such readers – perhaps in such I am ‘behind my time’.  But then, I suppose that is rather essential to any imaginative reading; for any reading that not only explains this world but carries us to another point, another space, another world is, to my mind, an attempt to leave this particular Zeitpunkt in favor of considering the world from another (and then, of course, returning with fresh eyes to see our own – no reading is a truly successful escape).  That former minds were able to embed themselves so thoroughly in such a world, be it a land of faerie or whatever you will have, that their memory extends through the pages and cantos and Books that comprise a work like Faerie Queene illustrates a deficiency of my time.

Lewis takes this opportunity to aver that while the technologies of reading have improved, the faculty of memory has diminished.  Where he points to “cheap paper, typewriters, notebooks, and indexes” as prime examples of what impairs our memories, just as “automobiles have made some people almost incapable of walking” (Studies p. 134), Lewis echoes Socrates’ complaints in Plato’s Phaedras about the book as destroyer of memory and anticipates Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ – reading technologies have continued in progressively offering greater accessibility to resources for reading even as those technologies inhibit the practiced attention needed for higher order reasoning.  In the same sense, the more accessible my destination is by motored vehicle the more effort I need to exert to fight atrophy (surely not a concern for my forebears). 


It is in this sense that C.S.L. marks: “One of the great uses of literary history is to keep reminding us that while [humanity] is constantly acquiring new powers [it] is also constantly losing old ones” (Ibidem).  But our tale need not end on such a negative note for Lewis believes that exercise of these faculties, however much more effort is required, can still be practiced to good effect.  Just as the habit of walking will restore and strengthen our legs, the habit of reading works with ‘thickness’ or ‘density’ may expand our view so that we may not merely follow the immediate events of our stories, as we live them, but so we may be impressed of the conviction that other stories worth being told may break in and interrupt, or better intersect that which we thought worth our interest.  The world of such poems is intricate enough that we should always be forced to leave one tale untold to consider the other, and I should think this true of our own world equally.


At such time, I shall take the ill-advised course of explaining how I inadvertently slipped into giving an example of what struck me in this writing.  I have, of course, completely failed to consider in any depth the world opened by Westphal’s course.  In truth, it is a story I have tried to begin more than once and I can but promise that this poor teller of tales would at least warn his reader against the notion that King Arthur’s court (or the likes of Heidegger, Derrida, and Nietzsche by way of M. Westphal) have left the pages of this sham world not to be summoned again, for there are ever more tales to be told (of faerie and wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) if the reader will but follow along.