UserpicThe Chautauqua Lecture 8

The Prejudice of Content over Form

Although I wasn’t familiar with the work of Rilke at the time, this idea was a continuing theme of The Philosopher and the Wolf. There, I argued that when we think of memory, we fall victim to what I called the “prejudice of conscious recall”. We might equally call it the “prejudice of content over form”. There is, I argued, a deeper way of remembering than the mere recall of content:

'But there are different ways of remembering. And when we think of memory, we overlook what is most important in favor of what is most obvious. A bird does not fly by flapping its wings: this is merely what gives it forward propulsion. The real principles of flight are to be found in the shape of the bird’s wings, and the resulting differences in air pressure on the upper and lower surfaces. But in our early attempts to fly, we overlooked what is most important in favor of what is most obvious: we built flapping machines. Our understanding of memory is similar. We think of memory as conscious experiences whereby we recall past events. But this is just the flapping of wings. These memories are not particularly reliable at the best of times, and are the first to fade as our brains begin their long, but inexorable, descent into indolence; like the flapping of a bird’s wings that gradually fades in the distance.'

The Philosopher and the Wolf, pp. 45-6

The raggedy absence through which Tess announces her presence to a time before she was born is a reminder that there is another way of remembering. Here, again, The Philosopher and the Wolf:

'But there is another, deeper and more important, way of remembering: a form of memory that no one ever thought to dignify with a name. This is the memory of a past that has written itself on you, in your character and in the life on which you bring this character to bear. You are not aware of these memories: often they are not even the sorts of things of which you can be conscious. But they, more than anything else, make you what you are. These memories are exhibited in the decisions you make, and the actions you take, and the life that you thereby live. It is in our lives, and not fundamentally in our conscious experiences, that we find the memories of those who are gone. Our consciousness is fickle, not worthy of the task of remembering. When someone is worth remembering, then being a person they have helped fashion and living a life they have helped forge: these are not only the ways in which we remember them; they are the ways in which we honor them.'

The Philosopher and the Wolf, p. 46

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