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Professional Memorizers

From “Moonwalking with Einstein,” by Josua Foer:

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Professional memorizers have existed in oral cultures throughout the world to transmit that heritage through the generations. In India, an entire class of priests was charged with memorizing the Vedas with perfect fidelity. In pre-Islamic Arabia, people known as Rawis were often attached to poets as official memorizers. The Buddha’s teachings were passed down in an unbroken chain of oral tradition for four centuries until they were committed to writing in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C. And for centuries, a group of hired tape recorders called tannaim (literally, “reciters”) memorized the oral law on behalf of the Jewish community.

This also puts me in mind of the roman nomenclator, who might deserve to be thought of as loosely belonging to this class. It was the nomenclator’s job to follow a politician as he walked through his district, interacting with the public and whisper into his ear the names of the citizens he talked with. Whether he was a professional memorizer or not, he was a professional memory aid.

In some fiction by Heinlein, especially, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” we find characters who have a special profession, known as “fair witnesses” who wear white robes, are trained in total recall and thoroughly indoctrinated against making unwarranted assumptions. (Any assumptions at all, it is implied, though I don’t see how this is at all possible. A person who made no assumptions whatsoever would be effectively insane. Writing that puts me in mind of the character in one of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, the thorouhgoing philosopher who lived in a shack, and, it was implied, was the real president of the galaxy that Zaphod was a distracting figurehead to hide.)

It seems odd, especially by the standards and assumptions built into Joshua Foer’s book, “Moonwalking with Einstein” to set such a profession, such a class of people in a technological future in which there also exist such things as three-dimensional television.

In one scene in “Stranger…”, Jubal calls for both two motion picture cameras and Anne, in her white witness robes to record a demonstration of Mike’s power to make things disappear.

Anne correctly reports that the objects seemed to diminish in apparent size rather than disappear instantaneously. Both movie cameras, when the film was played back also confirmed this, the objects receded into the distance, from every perspective.

Who really needed the Fair Witness in that world, when they could just hire a camera? And how would the existence of such a profession relate to one of the books earliest central protagonists, the reporter Ben Caxton? Remember it was Ben who hired the first fair witness to appear in the book. But what is a reporter’s job if not to investigate things, notice them and be a kind of witness? For two centuries the reporter has been imagined as someone who went about, constantly noting everything in his memo pad.

The Fair witness is reminiscent of the Mentats of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series. The common threatd may be that they each represent guesses about the possibilities of future training methods for mental development. But a critical difference between “Dune” and “Stranger…” was that in Dune, machines made to mimic the powers of the human mind were strictly forbidden. It was a story set in space, with technology and science, but in which the human mind, human strengths and foibles were still dominant, along with a form of government that seems atavistic by today’s standards. In a way, it was the opposite of a cyberpunk novel, in which we find shallow, empty characters rushing to augment or replace their humanity with computer technology.

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  1. Takamas
    January 20, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    I thought you might enjoy this article about another set of professional memorizers: http://amimagazine.org/bringing-the-torah.html

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