Reading, Anamnesis, and Play


I often think of our brains as hypertext: certain smells, sights, bits of music, words, will trigger a cascade of memories or ideas. As I’m grubbing about doing housework or walking the dogs in temperatures hot enough to bake cookies I haul out some of these to think about. One of my favorite brain hypertext words is anamnesis.

The usual definition you find is along the lines of case histories for psychological or medical purposes (more specifically the act of recollection) but the definition that fizzled my brain some time ago was A recollection of events, especially from a supposed past existence. It’s that ‘supposed’ that gets me thinking about why we read, why we create, what we all see in a work, what we see differently, why, lalalala. Early fiction purported to be personal history, usually in the form of travel. Of course a lot of that was satire–if you called your faraway nation Brobdinag, “they” couldn’t accuse you of making fun of the crown (and you’d sound stupid in court citing ‘Brobdinag’ and the other word that sounds like a horse whinnying. Or so I imagine.) But other imaginary lands were made up for the fun of . . . making things up, and what’s more, people liked to read these. And talk about them. And find out more on the subject.

Anyway, though I enjoy a good alternate universe story, my absolute favorite is the secret history, wherein the facts are as generally known, but the explanation for how things got there isn’t. Especially the one that changes how we perceive things. I remember reading Annamaria Selinko’s Desiree when I was a teen and being absolutely thrilled to get Napoleon’s ‘secret history’. Even finding out later on how much creative license the author had taken didn’t diminish the fun because by then I’d discovered Napoleonic memoirs, and Madame Junot’s. I like secret history in fiction, I like it in reading verifiable history, I like it in a blend of the real and imaginary, because in the good ones, the resonance of verisimilitude can parallel, or even (in the emotional sense) transcend the limitation of facts. For example, Robert Harris’s Imperium made Cicero and Ancient Rome so real for me, I was inspired to read more on the subject.

A fellow writer had a dinner party a while back, someone who’s written some academic works. The person came close to a dinner table faux pas (assuming that taking a fling at the life work of your hosts is not being conducive to a convivial conversation) but stopped short of sneering at how useless fiction writing is, and when will people “grow up” and write something real. Something useful.

Useful. We all like to think that what we do is important to someone, that it contributes to the world. And those who work with facts are doing Good Work in the world; scientists and academics work hard to diminish ignorance, which is desperately needed good work.

But if that guest had been at my table, I would have pointed out that not just during childhood, but all our lives, we human beings like to learn through play.

Even when we don’t think of it as play (watching TV, going to movies, etc) or as learning (hundreds of hours of poker playing makes one into a very subtle player, years of golf makes one an expert at the swing). So . . . say that guest wrote about a new idea that five or ten thousand people read about in an academic treatise. My feeling about these things is (and this is not complacence, because we know that the road to success is so very steep and fraught with pitfalls) somewhere out there is a fifteen-year-old, or a seventy-year-old, who is going to read that idea, ponder it, and reify it in some form of art that is going to reach millions. And those millions might revisit it again and again. At that time, and not before, it will weave itself into the tapestry of civilization.

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Reading, Anamnesis, and Play — 15 Comments

  1. Useful! I’m so suspicious of that concept, and of utilitarianism generally: putting one thing at service to another making something’s worth dependent on its ability to further some goal.

    You know how charities get rated by how much of their money goes to whatever the cause is, and get down-rated if they spend a lot on administrative stuff, etc? Well, I was thinking about the Walk for Hunger in Boston. It only has about a B grade, I think, and I can see why–they do spend a lot of money on sending out mailings and things, and they have a large staff, etc. But the thing is (from my perspective), the event they organize, this 20-mile walk, is more than just a vehicle for raising money for food pantries and soup kitchens. It’s really a kind of festival. Every year performers come out and perform along the route–all the years I’ve walked, for instance, there’s been an early-music ensemble playing on old instruments. Businesses in the areas field walking teams and print up T-shirts; school groups make teams and walk. There are tons of funny, pretty, and informative signs along the way to encourage walkers–which presumably people had to be organized to paint, and the supplies had to be bought, etc. From the perspective of utility, it would be much more efficient just to collect online donations and not do all this, BUT the gift to Boston and the surrounding towns of this festival event is more than just the money that’s raised.

    So yeah. Arguments that fiction has little utility hold no sway with me.

  2. Feel complemented. I’m over here on a break from Il Giro d’ Italia. Who says play is not “useful”? Not me. We mammals are complex creatures. Play is how we learn and grow as you said. Moreover, recreation–re creation–is useful. It’s mental and emotional relief to be taken away from every day life for a while. In case you wonder why I’m so keen on cycling!

  3. Asakiyume: I hadn’t considered that aspect of fundraisers, but you’re right. I still look askance at the ones that do a lot of hounding people and then spending more money in the office than actually reaches those who need it, but a festival like that? A different thing altogether.

    Pigrimsoul: bicycling through beautiful terrain? Instant recipe for keenness! I just wish I could go bicycling through Italy myself!

  4. Just so we realize watching is better than riding.
    By the way–“secret” history is often the best, the truest and most human.

  5. I fear the consequences of the steady cuts to public education and the elimination of arts and theater programs are going to be further-reaching and more profound than anyone dreamt.

    Certainly looking askance at novels as frivolous, self-indulgent, and perhaps even decadence-inducing is a return to a much older point of view — but mostly we’d learned better a couple of centuries ago.

    Humans do need play, and those in favor of rejecting that function of our brains and souls in favor of things we deem moreuseful seem to fundamentally misunderstand the delicate balance or internal ecosystem of being human.

  6. MacAllister: I too regret the dumbing down of education. I really hope that the pendulum will begin to swing back. Every time I hear a supposedly educated commentator saying “As I was laying in bed thinking . . .” or “…Greek mythology, like in the Aenid,” I feel we are losing the prospect of civilization by shortchanging education.

  7. Secret histories are the best! I love stumbling across one and having that, “aha! That’s why!” moment, though it doesn’t take much of a secret to thrill me. I think I write for the high I get when a million pieces click into place, and I know I love history for the same reason.

    I hate the idea that something fun and agenda-less is worthless and silly. I always think of that story by -I think- Bradbury, called “The Fall of the House of Usher II,” or something like that. The people at the party were murdered, but they could have prevented their murders had they read the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Mwahaha! This is what I think about when yet another person asks why I don’t write true stories (and have I got a true story for you!). BOTH have a place in culture, life, and both have worth. Both.

  8. Play in all its forms is vital to learning and to becoming fully human: that is, using that troublesome and unique latecomer, our frontal cortical lobe. We know in our core that stories are vital to our well-being. Very few sub/cultures looked askance at fiction (whether oral or written — which includes folksongs fairytales, sagas) and those that did were brutal, nasty and short-lived. And, of course, “secret” history is women’s history par excellence.

  9. I have to agree. “Secret history is women’s history par excellence.”

  10. I find myself wondering if there is really such a thing as nonfiction, anyway. Oh sure, I understand the difference as defined in the dictionary, but people bring so much to their observations of the world that even scientists acknowledge that watching an experiment changes it. And history–it’s like the way a few fragments of bone are extended to create an entire image of a fossil skull. (Or, more recently, when a single pinkie finger bone was said to represent a new hominid.) We know so little about history, just a few battle records and other pieces of often-royal propaganda passed down through the centuries. I don’t know why it delights me so that the world is a hodgepodge of the “real” and the imaginary, but that dinner guest seems to believe in a much more orderly and improbable version of the universe than I do. I’ll bet dark matter makes him nervous! As for “usefulness” as a criterion, I think one of Shakespeare’s sonnets defines humanity and determines its future in far more dimensional ways than does the scrubbing of bathrooms (as my bathroom can attest!).

  11. Although it’s true that history comes to us only in fragments and through distorting mirrors, the widely held view that scientific results are affected by the mere presence of observers is not true (the interpretations of these observations are another matter, since these incorporate the scientists’ very specific mindsets).

    Also, there is a very big difference between “there are limits to knowledge and truth” to “there is no absolute knowledge or truth”. Gravity is real and absolute, no matter how much or how little we comprehend it. So is the code of mitochondrial DNA, which is the basis for postulating a new hominid species in Siberia before the branching between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.

    More on (ab)use of scientific concepts:

    “Keeping an Open Mind is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.”
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=386

    And a bit on Neanderthals:

    The Hidden Thread in Our Gene Tapestry
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=2252

  12. Athena–Well said! I do actually believe in quite a few facts, some of them scientific. 🙂

    Thanks for the clarification about observations and experiments.

    But even in science, there continue to be many mysteries, and I like that. I keep telling my students that their science textbooks are already out of date and bringing them news articles about the latest discoveries… it’s wonderful!