Zones of Re-membering: Time, Memory, and (un)Consciousness
by Don Gifford; D. E. Morse, Editor
Rodopi Amsterdam, New York, NY, 2011
157 pp. paper. Paper, € 30 / US$ 44
Reviewed by Rob Harle
Reading this book is like taking a trip down memory lane (pun intended). Each chapter is a lecture given by Professor Gifford at Massachusetts in 1995. It is not so much the 16 years since he gave the lectures, though much has certainly changed in academia since then, but more that Gifford was a traditional “old school” style scholar. As Donald Morse, the editor of this collection of lectures says, “Don Gifford was a formidable lecturer and a great teacher in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson in that he provoked his listeners into learning” (p. 8).
The late Don Gifford was incredibly well read and the kind of intellectual who questions everything in true Socratic manner. He was not afraid to challenge any so called “established” truth, and throughout these lectures he continually sorts the wheat from the chaff concerning the functioning of memory. He does this with a sense of humour, which makes the mostly unedited lectures, a pleasure to read.
The book is divided into two parts:
Part 1 Time, Memory, and Consciousness. This section presents the six lectures given in 1995, as follows: 1 – Zones of Re-membering; 2 – Ancient Greeks and Aboriginal Australians; 3 – Doing Memory and Doing Language; 4 – The Intertwining of Language and Memory; 5 – The Sign Stream of Our Histories; 6 – Memory and the Self and Art as a Way of Knowing.
Part 2 Time, Memory, and The Unconscious. This section presents a lecture and essay: 7 – The Imitation of Dream in Literature; and 8 – A Chip on His Shoulder or One for the James Joyce Centennial.
The main thrust of Gifford's investigation was to explore memory and how this relates to the complexity of human experience. He discusses both individual and collective memory and suggests that memory is stored in the arts, “which in turn provide a way of knowing and of nourishing Memory and consciousness”. Gifford does not discuss memory from a neuroscience-neuroanatomical approach, it is through the humanities, and especially literature that he develops what he believes constitutes the nature of memory.
Robert Adolph in his Introduction “Assaulting ‘Newton's Sleep,’” notes that Gifford's goal “is not to solve the mind-body problem, or define the nature of consciousness and time, or show us how the brain works...” “His first aim, I think, is to show us no single, blinkered explanation can account for the depth and complexity of human experience, and in particular its grounding in Memory” (p. 11). He achieves this goal reasonably well. After finishing the lectures, I felt as though I had gained a great deal of knowledge concerning literature, history, romanticism (his fundamental approach), and the complexities of human action. However, I had to keep reminding myself that this was supposed to be a book about memory and consciousness, not literature per se. I think this came about for two reasons: Firstly, Gifford is a chronic digresser and wonderful story teller, and one tends to get lost in these digressions; secondly, his openly stated bias against science as providing ultimate answers, which is perhaps true to a certain extent, tends to leave his overall result wanting.
Further on in his Introduction Adolph states, “A major theme of this book is how consciousness is a function of Memory” [my emphasis] (p. 12) Now this assertion is clearly open to fairly hostile criticism from both scientific and certain spiritual views of the nature of consciousness. Gifford does not discuss these at all. For this reason I found the book somewhat disappointing. Having said this, I still recommend the book as a great read for those interested in the history of human thought, and also how human memory, from the earliest times, has become integrated and enmeshed with literature specifically, and the arts generally.