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Sunday, December 07, 2003


LI�s readers should check out Umberto Eco�s essay on the fate of books at al Ahram, an Egyptian weekly. The re-commencement of the Library of Alexandria (a silly, theme park project, in LI�s view � what was burned in 600 is good and gone, and by no Humpty Dumpty tricks are we going to piece that civilization back together again) is the occasion for Eco�s meandering meditation on the meaning of texts, and the chances for their survival as texts in the age of the Net. He begins with a marvelous classification of memory: organic, mineral, and vegetal:

�WE HAVE THREE TYPES OF MEMORY. The first one is organic, which is the memory made of flesh and blood and the one administrated by our brain. The second is mineral, and in this sense mankind has known two kinds of mineral memory: millennia ago, this was the memory represented by clay tablets and obelisks, pretty well known in this country, on which people carved their texts. However, this second type is also the electronic memory of today's computers, based upon silicon. We have also known another kind of memory, the vegetal one, the one represented by the first papyruses, again well known in this country, and then on books, made of paper. Let me disregard the fact that at a certain moment the vellum of the first codices were of an organic origin, and the fact that the first paper was made with rugs and not with wood. Let me speak for the sake of simplicity of vegetal memory in order to designate books.�

This is marvelous but, we think, conceptually dubious, for two reasons: one is that these memories do seem to interpenetrate into one another, the mineral crystallizing in our nervous systems, the vegetal being interwoven with chemical synthetics, and the whole system being subordinate to function rather than substance, which is where the real distinction lies. Of course, there�s an Aristotelian echo here: he postulated three souls: the vegetal, the rational, and the animal. A long dead classification, but not completely bogus. The superstition that the human body is conducted by the brain as an orchestra of automatons might be conducted by a conductor with numerous switches ignores such anomalies as the immune system, which is certainly net plugged into some cerebral oversoul, and might well be considered separate souled. But I digress�

From LI�s painfully Derridean point of view, the second problem with Eco's memories is with the very idea that a text is a memory. Of course, a defender of Eco might say that memory is a metaphor. But a little Derridean delving would reveal that the metaphor is deeply implicated both in the way we conceptualize memory and the way we conceptualize writing. Eco recapitulates the gesture of the Pharmakon of Plato, going back to the Greeks (in fact, back to the story in the Phaedrus to which Eco, later in his essay, explicitly refers). It is under the sign of myth that the definitional contract is sealed. Yet that seal doesn't hold in practice. I hold a book in my hand, say Deity and Dirt, the biography of Robert Burns that I am currently reading. I have read fifty pages. I have not read page 62. Is page 62 somehow part of my potential memory? Is page 62 part of some general consciousnesses memory � l�esprit du bibliotheque, or Uber-Seele, or some such thing? What, then, is it a memory of? The obvious answer would seem to be that the book �remembers� Robert Burns. But this is a memory without a subject � insofar as the biographer doesn�t claim to �remember� Robert Burns, but to report on his life, and interpret it according to the norms of biography. There are books � called memoirs � that claim to be written out memories, but they are a small subset of books. They pose their own problems. However, that they have become paradigmatic for he way we think about texts is interesting � in this sense, autobiography, not poetry, is at the center of the literary cosmos.

The claim that a text is a memory is part of a larger ideological program, one in which literature is the �memory� of a culture, while memory becomes the written, the code, and eventually the essence. We recognize this as the old White Mythology� it is, in general, what we call liberalism. Memory works in this ideology to displace an older ideology, I think � in which literature is merely a tool of redemption, and the memory of a culture is taken care of by the Creator. Of course, my story, there, is way too simple. But there is some part of it that seems valid. The debased reverence that is given to books might have something to do with traces of this older religious framework.

Eco�s does make a more solid distinction later on in the essay, between books that exist to be referred to and books that exist to be read � between the dictionary and the detective story, to use his examples. I might, at some later time, comment on what he has to say about the story in the book.

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