Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Borges on Memory

"Funes the Memorious" is Borges' story of a simple village man whose "perception and memory were perfect." Funes remembered every visual and bodily detail of every experience in every day he had lived, and learned languages with great ease. However, "he was not very good at thinking," wrote the story's narrator. His remarkable powers had appeared after a crippling accident which knocked him unconscious -- an event that often changes a person's mental abilities.

Before the accident Funes had possessed only one unusual capability: always knowing what time it was. Confined to bed after the accident, and choosing to spend much of his time in the dark, Funes was in the process of inventing numbering and classification schemes to allow him to deal with his overwhelming memories and perceptions. He borrows a book in Latin from the narrator and teaches himself to read it -- by chance it includes Pliny's chapter on memory prodigies, which Funes says "he is amazed that such cases were thought to be amazing."

Joshua Foer's book "Moonwalking with Einstein" which I wrote about last week describes a variety of memory specialists who have much in common with Funes, and for this reason I found Borges' descriptions especially interesting. Funes seems to me to illustrate very well the limits of having a fantastic memory, as well as reflecting some of the actual realities of people with unusual gifts like Funes' original ability to know what time it is. Funes seems to be an exaggerated -- or magically real -- example of what used to be called an idiot savant. Clearly, the story is more than a clinical description. It includes a characterized (and perhaps not entirely reliable) narrator, a setting in late-19th-century Uruguay, and descriptive details that are very enjoyable.

Foer says of this story: "Perhaps, as Borges concludes in his story, it is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human. To make sense of the world, we must filter it. 'To think,' Borges writes, 'is to forget.'" (Moonwalking, p. 37)

No comments: