On reading time and memory

I can’t remember learning how to read. I could read and write before I went to school, reportedly because I demanded to know how. There were books in the house, and presumably I saw my parents reading and, like all small children, wanted to emulate my elders.

Reading for me was as intuitive as breathing. I always assumed it was easy, right up to the point where I watched my own children struggling with the staggering conceptual shift that permits us to see visual symbols as representations of sound and meaning. That is when I realised how significant the shift to literacy is, and how painfully it is learned.

In short, my consciousness, from early childhood on, is literate: the world for me is mediated, not just by language but by written language. When I was much older, I began to wonder what that meant. I live in a culture in which literacy is privileged, often savagely, at the expense of other kinds of knowledge. One of the reasons that Indigenous culture was so peremptorily dismissed by English colonisers was that it is, like that of the Incas, an oral culture: its vast thought is contained in the memories of its keepers, passed down over millennia from mouth to mouth. The colonisers couldn’t see it and so it didn’t – and for some still doesn’t – exist.

Literacy changes the nature of consciousness, our experience of time and memory. As Eric A Havelock notes in The Muse Learns to Write, a study of orality and literacy, oral poetry is ‘a flow of sound, symbolising a river of actions, a continual dynamism, expressed in a behavioural syntax, or a “performative” syntax.’ In oral cultures, language is an aspect of the body and its actions, a present act. Written cultures abstract speech from the body, separating words from their sounds and from each other.

Reflecting on the invention of the Greek alphabet – the first to record not only consonants but also vowels, thus bringing the expressive possibilities of speech to the page – the poet Anne Carson says, ‘The alphabet they used is a unique instrument. Its uniqueness unfolds directly from its power to mark the edges of sound … We read too much, write too poorly and remember too little about the delightful discomfort of learning these skills for the first time.’ And later: ‘In writing, beauty prefers an edge.’

Writing takes the flow of speech and gives it edges, differentiating words and syllables one from the other. It takes the complexity of primordial time and makes it linear: events and words move from left to right, or right to left, or down and up, one after the other. As neurologists are discovering, memory works differently: the past and the future are spatial, connected not by chronologies but by affective associations.

When it is written, language is no longer immaterial flow: it is, rather, an object that can be seen and touched. It is both symbol and a thing in itself. ‘In the beginning was the Word’, says the Gospel of John, ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ The word is the beginning of consciousness: through written language, meaning itself is abstracted from the body. When it is written down, it exists outside and beside those who say and those who hear. It is at once God and with God; it is meaning itself and also separate from those who made meanings.

Over the centuries, writers have often spoken of a sense of transgression in the act of writing. I don’t think this view is mistaken. To write down experience is to transform it utterly, to transform the immaterial and indefinable into an object. Like all transgressions, the liberations and revelations of that process exact a cost. We forget wholeness and flow. We forget the interconnectedness of a living world, of meaning that is embedded in our very breaths. It is this loss that leads to the denatured language of politicians and economists, of those who seek to convince us that meaning lies wholly in the ultimate abstraction, money itself.

The act of writing, most obviously in poetry and plays, often strikes me as an attempt to recuperate the oral consciousness that still exists in our languages. It is, of course, impossible: the literate can’t unlearn what we know, especially a knowledge that has so deeply shaped the primary way in which we define ourselves in relation to the world and each other. But memory, even mine, isn’t wholly a function of the written word. We can’t recover the capacity of memory that belongs to preliterate cultures, and no matter what physics says, we can’t unlock time from its linear chains. We can only link what we know with what we have lost, and waken the infinite aporia of our doubts.


Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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