Keeping memory fresh: a stoic exercise in reading four modern novels

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This project gives an account of the modernist preoccupation with memory: the reasons behind it, its relation to the ancient art and modern science of memory, its expression through aesthetic choices, and its confrontation with Stoic theories of mind and morals. It proposes that the preoccupation is a response to an increase in scientific knowledge, of human and animal psychology in particular, and the perceived threat such knowledge poses to our ethical frameworks. By giving readings of four novels that engage with this threat directly, beginning with a romantic, proto-modern novel for comparison, it tracks a development of theories of the unconscious by which allegory splits into mimetic pastiche and intellectual abstraction, jettisoning intersubjective supports in the manner of a Stoic exercise in apatheia taken too far. It approaches each novel by identifying a central word or concept in each that isolates an aspect of memory as it functions in our ethical frameworks: "impulse" in Frankenstein, "conscience" in Lord Jim, "reservation" in Ulysses and "abstraction" in A la recherche du temps perdu. Tracing the roots of these frameworks leads to a discussion of Stoic (contrasted with Aristotelian) theories of mind, language, ethics and tragedy. Concepts discussed include the notion of oikeiosis or belonging, the rhetorical concept of the enthymeme, theories of oral poetry, the medieval art of memory, the distinction between human recollection and animal memory, and the problem of how judgments can remain prosphaton or "fresh" when emotions fade. This study argues that the shadow of Stoicism in these novels is cast by the excesses of memory, of emotion and meaning, which need moderation; but that it is literature, not philosophy, that is best able to counter the opposite danger, that of forgetting. It is suggested that the modernists came to terms with Stoicism by translating its injunction to "make the proper use of impressions" into the aesthetic realm, turning Pound's modernist dictum, "Make it new," into the challenge to "Keep it fresh." The task of the literary critic is seen as parallel: to engage in the Stoic exercise of both moderating literature's meanings and refreshing its interest.

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The Arts and Sciences of Memory

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