Giordano Bruno and the Survival of Learning

Drew Gateway 42 (Spring 1972): 147-159

Within the domain of literary criticism one of the changes that has come about in my time is a kind of re-establishment of Rhetoric as a respectable category. I expect it began earlier; but it is noticeable that in 1936 Professor I. A. Richards chose, as his title for a collection of essays, The Philosophy of Rhetoric. For further examples: Erich Auerbach’s Figura, much of which was subsequently incorporated in Mimesis, first appeared in German in 1944; and in 1957 there was a good deal about Rhetoric in that long and interesting work, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. I suppose the whole Scrutiny development and, later, the New Criticism, can be seen as part of the rehabilitation process, though I am not sure if they made use of the actual word.

The term began to recover its dignity when it began to be realized how much its meaning had changed. It had come to mean, and still meant when I was growing up, simply Oratory; and by that time any kind of oratory was beginning to be regarded as ornamental and therefore phoney. One could perhaps say that oratory disappeared from the British Parliament (Churchill being the exception that proves the rule) at about the same time as Rhetoric began to re-appear as critical theory. Its status as a category began to improve, as it came to be better understood how much more than what we mean by “oratory,” how many other disciplines, the term Rhetoric covered in Antiquity, and throughout the Middle Ages – and in a diminishing degree for two or three centuries more. Our predecessors often said “rhetoric,” where we should say “literature.”

It is, I think, also becoming more and more appreciated that the contracted meaning of the term, representing as it did a kind of etiolation of the category it stands for, reflected, not just the substitution of one system of terminological classification for another, but something more like a change in people’s whole experience of words and ideas and the relations between them. If that is so, the change itself, and therefore the history of Rhetoric, can hardly fail to be interesting. For instance, in E. R. Curtius’s European History and the Latin Middle Ages there is a brief but pregnant passage on the Confessions of St. Augustine, in which the relation is considered between their real meaning on the one hand, and on the other hand their style – which Curtius describes as that of “antique artistic prose.” Is it a relation of contrast only? Do we experience, as we read, the new wine of Christian, or Judaeo-Christian, inwardness struggling helplessly in the old bottle of Roman forensic oratory and its tricks? Oddly enough we do not. It is astonishing – and it is a fascinating literary experience to feel – how snugly and effectively the agonising polarities and contradictions between God and man, between virtue and sin, between good and evil, between nature and grace, have adopted and revitalized those counterbalancing periods and pointed antitheses (the technical skills of isokolonantithetonhomoioteleuton and the rest), which had long become the principal concern of Greek and Roman literature. In short, continuity rather than substitution is here revealed, certainly as the instrument, perhaps as a condition of semantic metamorphosis.

Or one could take the topic – which has even become the psychological problem – of figurative language: simile, metaphor, symbol. These have been written about and worked over not only in poetic theory (much of which has been concentrated on Metaphor as the very sparking-plug in the internal combustion system called Imagination), but also, from the semantic point of view, as a prime factor in the history of language and indeed of consciousness itself. All very true, but it all began with the Art of Rhetoric and the attention its teachers gave, among much else, to what they called “figures of speech,” useful sometimes for ornament and sometimes for persuasion.

There was one other device, to which a good deal more attention was paid by the professors of Oratory than to “figures of speech.” Already in classical times, and then down to and including the Renaissance period, it was written about and worked over in something the same way as was to occur later with figurative language. This was the technique of memorizing, which is so important for a speaker. How I envy those lecturers, to whom I sometimes listen, who continue happily and fluently for 60 minutes without any written assistance; and how ashamed I always feel of my own voluminous notes! But I can at least have the notes, or script, and have them not too conspicuously evident – a matter of much greater difficulty before the invention of paper. The practical importance of mnemotechnic in the Art of spoken Rhetoric, or Oratory, hardly needs emphasizing. But as with figures of speech (only much earlier), the study of it led to consequences altogether transcending the aims of ornament and persuasion.

Yet, unlike figurative language, this is an aspect of rhetoric which has received very little attention in my time. The Art of Memory seems to be an art that stopped short in the cultivated courts of the Renaissance. But now, as to its development down to and including that time, it is possible to read all about it in a book called The Art of Memory, by the Reader in the History of the Renaissance in the University of London, Dr. Frances Yates. It was published in 1966; and I strongly recommend anyone who has not already done so to read it. I should be glad to think that, whatever I may have succeeded or failed in doing, I have won it some more readers.

Memory is in the first place, not something we do, but something that happens to us. The art of memory is the methodology of artificially stimulating it, so that it becomes something we do as well as something that happens. By tradition this methodology, amid a rich variety of detail, has always been focussed on two central devices: that of Places and that of Images – Loci and Imagines. Verbal memory, or “learning by heart,” as we say, is one thing; but the politician, the advocate or the lecturer without notes had also the problem of fixing in his memory the serial order of whole sections of his discourse and the transitions from one topic to another. For this purpose he was recommended, in the earlier and simpler form of the art, to visualize a building, say a house with a series of rooms (or it might be a theatre) and to suppose himself walking through the house from one room to another. These were the Loci, or “Places;” and the next thing was to fill them. Within each room, or disposed about the whole house in its corners and niches, you had to invent, and then to visualize sharply an image of some sort: perhaps a statue, perhaps a friend with some outstanding characteristic, perhaps a scene – such as a flogging or a murder – each of which was vividly associated in your mind with something you intended to say, and even with the feeling you would put in to what you were saying.

I have never seriously tried it myself. Such experiments as I have made indicate that it is very hard work and would take up a lot of time, and it is so much easier to make notes and refer to them. But one experience I do have, which easily convinces me that images of place, and particularly of movement from place to place to place, have a strong psychological link with the strength of memory. For reasons into which I need not enter, I sometimes endeavour, at the end of the day, to remember the events and experiences of the day – and even to recall them in inverse order from evening to morning. This I find very difficult. I am always having to go back and fill in the most irritating gaps. With one exception. If the day, or any part of the day, has been spent in travelling – it doesn’t matter whether by train or car or on foot – there is no difficulty whatever. Everything falls smoothly in place, in the right order, and with nothing left out. Some further evidence of the link may be found in the fact that Aristotle used the word “topoi” (meaning “places”) for the Heads of Discourse – and this has entered firmly into our language in the words topic and commonplace.

As to the Images, with which the Places were to be occupied, although statues could be employed, it was strongly recommended that they should be dynamic. I mentioned the instance of a violent scene. In drama, in motion, in gesture or in some powerful emotion they suggested, they should be (it was taught) Imagines agentes – active images – if they were to prove really effective; if they were to be effective, that is, in bringing about the transition from natural memory to artificial, or achieved, memory; or, one could say, from passive memory to active memory.

All this is common ground among those who have written on the subject, though it is ground that is not very often trodden. It has also long been known that, at the time of the Renaissance, the passion for Mnemotechnic suddenly swelled in such a surprising way that actual buildings were constructed, to embody the fancied ones. What is new, I believe, in Dr. Yates’ book is her fully documented, and illustrated, account of the extraordinary “Memory Theatres” of Giulio Camillo and Robert Fludd, and her persuasive arguments for the light which a further study of these could be expected to throw on the design of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. That, and its underlying argument, which is that the attention given in that time to Mnemotechic (like the attention given in our own to figures of speech) developed in such a way as to transcend its original object. It is this developmental aspect of the subject which I find especially interesting, and which I should like to look at a little more closely.

The Art of Memory is very much concerned with the integration of concepts, drawn originally from Mnemotechnic, into the whole way of thought of a great many prominent thinkers of the Renaissance. Very much; but also very modestly; inasmuch as the author repeatedly emphasizes the need for further work on the subject. Among these thinkers the one who is singled out as the most relevant, and whose writings are accorded the fullest treatment, is Giordano Bruno. It should be added that, as the author of an earlier work, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Dr. Yates is an authority on Bruno; I should suppose the leading authority in the English-speaking world.

Bruno was born in 1548 in Nola, near Naples. He was trained as a Dominican and no doubt received a thoroughly scholastic education from the monks of his convent. At a comparatively early age he fled, first from his convent and then from Italy, and his short life was spent in an uneasy series of sojourns in France, England and Germany, concluding with eight years in the prisons of the Inquisition before he was burnt as a heretic in 1600. It is somewhat of a mystery how, in the course of such a disturbed and restless life, he managed to think as deeply and to write as voluminously as he did. His stay in England endured for something less than two years between 1583 and 1585. Although he aroused resentment in Oxford, which then (as now) had its own antiseptically exclusive brand of philosophy, he was welcomed in London in the enlightened circle that included such figures as Fulk Greville, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. When he left London, it was for Wittenburg; and it has even been argued, not on that ground alone, that he is the prototype of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However that may be, it is doubtful if he ever actually met Shakespeare, who would have been about twenty years old at the time. Of his influence on Spenser, especially evident in the Cantos of Mutability, which conclude the Faerie Queene, there can however be no doubt. A number of Bruno’s Italian works (he wrote in both Latin and Italian) were published while he was in England, including the Cena de la Ceneri, or Ash-Wednesday Supper, the account of a philosophical dialogue which took place in Fulk Greville’s house in London.

Bruno also published, while he was in England, a book in Latin, which has a very long title that starts with the words Ars Reminiscendi and is usually referred to as the Thirty Seals. It was followed a few years later by a work on Images called De Imaginum, Signorum et Idearum Compositione (“On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas”). These are two out of five major works by Bruno, which can be loosely described as “works on memory.” I have selected them for reference, because their titles alone (taken in conjunction with what has been said here already) give some indication of their relevance to what I would call the “underlying theme” of Dr. Yates’ book. The theme is in fact mainly threaded on Bruno, and is developed by showing how precisely the Art of Memory was the mental framework of his whole adventurous metaphysic.

Yet he was not the only philosopher of whom that might be said. Ramon Lull is another outstanding example, and the chapter in the book on Lullism as an Art of Memory is indispensable. Incidentally I do not think anyone who set out to master the philosophy of Bruno – a formidable task – would get very far if he were not prepared to give some preliminary attention to Lull; and very little such attention appears to have been given in my time. But I have had to confine myself to Bruno, and indeed have said little enough even about him. I really have no time to do more than add that the book has immeasurably strengthened and confirmed the tentative picture I had already formed in my own mind of Giordano Bruno, with his voluble and meteoric flittings through Europe, as a kind of philosophical torchbearer of what I shall venture to call the “Renaissance Impulse.”

It is with that impulse, and its relation to memory, that I am primarily concerned. I myself first came to it – or I came at it – as I suppose most of my contemporaries did, through the Romantic Movement; or, again, let me say “the Romantic Impulse,” and I shall be saying something about this word “impulse” a little later. The intimate link between the Romantic Impulse and an intensive study of Shakespeare has often been noticed, especially as regards the growth and development of the concept of Imagination; and it has been nowhere perhaps been better drawn out than in Logan Pearsall Smith’s Essay on “Four Romantic Words” in the collection called Words and Idioms. Lessing, Schlegel, Goethe, Schelling, Coleridge are, I suppose, the great names, though plenty of others were involved. One can hardly survey the literature and criticism of the Romantic period without coming to see Shakespeare too as a torchbearer for Europe, though in rather a different way. Not in his case by travelling, not even during his life at all, but two hundred years after his death, he was the torchbearer certainly of something, but of what? Should we say of the Renaissance impulse itself, an impulse that was not to be fully revealed or realized until later on, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

That the comparison is a fair one is suggested by the fact that Bruno’s name, too, was one to conjure with among the great ones of the Romantic philosophy. It is true that not all those who were enthusiastic about him actually knew very much about him. But not all those who were enthusiastic about Shakespeare actually knew very much about Shakespeare. The thought of him was somehow an inspiration; so that Schelling, for instance, could write a philosophical Dialogue called “Bruno,” although it is not actually about Bruno at all. Bruno was indeed much more concerned with the philosophical than with the poetic imagination. The Art of Memory describes part of the Thirty Seals as “a kind of a manifesto of the primacy of the imagination in the cognitive process.” It is not surprising therefore that Coleridge devoured all of Bruno’s writings that he could lay hold of. To Bruno he attributed his own leading thought, or rather idea, of universal polarity, and there is a mysterious passage in the Biographia Literaria, where he acknowledges the debt, which he says he shared with Schelling, to “the polar logic of Giordano Bruno.” It was in point of fact an attempt to pursue the implications of this reference, and to assess the actuality of Coleridge’s debt to Bruno that led me on to scrape such acquaintance as I can claim with the writings of Bruno himself.

Readers of C. S. Lewis’s volume on the Sixteenth Century in the Oxford History of English Literature are sure to remember his brief digression on the word “Renaissance,” in which he argues with his usual cogency that it can properly mean no more than the “Revival of Learning” in the technical sense – the substitution, for instance, of a classical style in Latin prose for a medieval one. It should suggest, not Bacon and Shakespeare, but Gabriel Harvey and Erasmus. At least, if it were still used with that limited reference, the word would have some meaning; but, as it is in fact commonly used, the word has no real meaning at all. It is the name, he says, for a fictitious entity (“some character or quality supposed to be immanent in all the events”) – and for the emotional overtones which that non-entity has gradually been collecting around itself. Roughly speaking, his case is that there was no such thing. Dr. Yates, in a number of passages, draws the opposite conclusion. For her, by the time Giulio Camillo had built his wooden Memory-Theatre, “something has happened within the psyche, releasing new powers;” as the result of which “there is a new Renaissance plan of the psyche.” Not merely has there in fact been a Renaissance, but it sprang from something that can legitimately be called an impulse. Furthermore this impulse is inseparable from the emergence into a clearer light of consciousness of both the experience and the concept of the faculty of Imagination – or better say of the activity of Imagination.  Moreover it was just this new Renaissance plan of the psyche that set on fire the poets and the philosophers of the Romantic Movement.

What is particularly interesting is that, in emphasizing as she does the element of novelty in the Renaissance mentality, the author nevertheless rejects the commonplace view. What happened was not a sudden decision, arrived at out of the blue, to repudiate the whole culture of the Middle Ages and put something new in its place. Quite the reverse. We are shown the new Renaissance “plan of the psyche” growing in all detail, and by gentle gradations, out of the old medieval plan; and this at the same time as we are also being shown the practice of Imagination emerging from the Art of Memory.

If she is right, as I believe she is, it must follow that, so far from the Renaissance being merely coterminous with the Revival of Learning, that predominantly academic aspect of it has been, if anything, overstressed. The men of the Renaissance period themselves are partly responsible for this, since many of them stressed it so heavily at the time. Bruno on the other hand was one of those who were aware, even while it was happening, that there was more to it than that – who felt deeply that “something had happened within the psyche.” And yet it is also Bruno, whose philosophical development brings out so clearly that other truth, which Lewis emphasized, namely, that the relation between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages was by no means one of absolute contrast. With all his insistence on novelty, and all his exuberant boasting the outstanding originality of his own contribution, there is never any doubt that Bruno is building on foundations – on a “plan of the psyche” – derived originally from Greek and Hebrew philosophy, but developed further by such immediate predecessors as Ramon Lull and Nicolas of Cusa. It is Bruno who brings out most evidently the fact that the Renaissance was less a Revival than it was a Survival of Learning. And this is also a truth that has been gaining fuller recognition in the last few decades. One thinks, for instance, of Johann Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages. It is particularly instructive to compare Bruno’s attitude to the authority of the Past with the sometimes almost puerile iconoclasm of Francis Bacon.

There are three things, I would suggest, which can be brought home to us by study of Bruno. The first is the paradox that, while the Renaissance intellect is not nearly as new as we had thought, the Renaissance impulse was, if anything, newer than we had thought. And, as a corollary to this, that that impulse is primarily evident in the emergence of Imagination as a personal psychic activity and the awareness of it as such. (And here I would add, in parenthesis, that, when we call the Romantic Movement the Romantic Revival, it is this last that we are really thinking of – not just the revival by Mrs. Radcliffe and Sir Walter Scott of a taste for medieval trappings.)

The second thing is, that this new impulse did not arise somehow from nowhere, but was the transformation of a much older impulse. I use the same word at this stage, leaving aside for the moment the question whether, before its transformation, it should properly be called an “impulse” at all.

The third thing is, that this transformation amounted to, not the substitution of new matter for old, but something much more like a change of direction – “basic changes of orientation within the psyche,” in Dr. Yates’s term. And perhaps it is this third aspect, above all, which is particularly evident to us within the mind of Bruno, in the shape of his passionate adherence to the new Copernican astronomy. He was not merely already a Copernican when many were still committed to the Ptolmaic system; he was a man positively drunk with Copernicanism – so drunk that it permeated his every thought. Immanuel Kant is often referred to as the inaugurator of a “Copernican revolution” in psychology. I suspect that, when the history of philosophy is better understood, he will be seen as merely recording it; and that, if we want to observe the revolution actually happening, we shall do better to attend to the wedding ceremony, in the mind of Bruno, between Copernican astronomy and the Art of Memory. In the mind of Bruno – and of course elsewhere; but very conspicuously indeed in Bruno.

I have been speaking about an “impulse,” about the Renaissance impulse in particular, and about the “transformation” of an impulse. What does the word mean? For it must not be forgotten that to extend its meaning in this way beyond the psychology of the individual, and to employ it as a term of history, raises – or, if you like, it begs – some very deep questions, questions which it will be quite impossible for me to argue. All I can do in the time remaining to me is to offer a few observations.

In the first place, then, to use the word “impulse” at all in any context is to pass from a psychology of the conscious to a psychology of the unconscious, or sub-conscious, mind. It assumes what some would deny, that at least there is such a thing as unconscious mental movement or pressure. In the second place, to use it as a term of history implies much more. It implies, firstly, that the unconscious mind is super-individual and, secondly, that it has a history. Or, if we accept R. G. Collingwood’s view that the term “history” is only applicable to events accompanied by purposive thought, then we must say that the unconscious mind has, not so much a history as an evolution. In other words, we cannot conscientiously use the word “impulse” as a term of history, unless we assume that, in addition to the process we call “history of ideas,” there has been a history of the unconscious mind underlying those ideas. I generally call this an “evolution of consciousness,” since, as Herbert Spencer noticed, if we are going to associate unconsciousness with mind at all, we must just lump the logical contradiction. In his own words: “Mysterious as seems the consciousness of something which is yet out of consciousness, we are obliged to think it.”

Not that the writers and critics of the English-speaking world have shown much sign of bothering about the logical contradiction. It is not the sort of thing they do bother about. Or much sign of denying an unconscious mind. On the contrary! And here I think I must allow myself a brief digression on something else that happened in my time. By and large, the literary fraternity have been content to let others do their thinking for them. At a critical juncture in the twentieth century, there was perhaps one Johnson, but unfortunately there was no-one even remotely approaching the calibre of a Goethe, a Schlegel, a Coleridge. If there had been, much might since have gone very differently. Even without that… a competent man of letters may not be a philosopher; but he need not necessarily be a mere quidnunc. Faced with a sensational novelty, our writers might (one would have thought) have had the courage and the wit to attempt some sort of dispassionate appraisal by bringing it to the bar of their own philosophical heritage. In the ’20s, on first hearing the hot news from Vienna, they might, for instance, have looked at the chapter called “The Unconscious Soul” in a book on the psychology of poetry, which had appeared in 1866: E. S. Dallas’ The Gay Science. They might even have re-pondered Chapter XII of the Biographia Literaria and the long tradition on which it draws concerning a “consciousness which lies beneath or (as it were) behind the spontaneous consciousness natural to all reflecting beings.” Instead, they just swam around, gaping – and gaping wide enough to swallow the gospel according to Sigmund Freud hook, line and sinker. Can I be mistaken? My recollection of the 1920s and 30s is of one unseemly rush to see who could fall flattest and quickest before the common idol. It was rather like the moment when the music stops in the children’s game called Musical Bumps. And thirty years later, in 1960, it was not a member of the literary fraternity, but a man with predominantly scientific interests, Lancelot Whyte, who took the trouble to do a little elementary research and publish a book called The Unconscious Before Freud.

The distinction between an evolution of consciousness (that is, of the unconscious) and a history of ideas is an important one. The leading characteristic of the latter is continuity – the gradualness of any change that occurs; the leading characteristic of the former is the interruption of long periods of continuity by briefer ones of comparatively abrupt mutation. It was, I think, Lewis’ learned and clear perception of the essential continuity of European thought from classical times down to the seventeenth century that engendered his scepticism about “the Renaissance.” And that continuity is indeed evidenced both by the history of the Art of Memory and in the writings of Bruno. On the other hand the very sudden development of the art, amounting to a transformation, just at the time that we allocate to the Renaissance, and especially its development in the mind of Bruno, may be seen as the outward sign of an inner discontinuity.

Now we assume, if we use the word “impulse” as a term of history, that there is an evolution of consciousness underlying the history of ideas. Moreover, the fact that this evolution operates within the historical period, and thus in the short run, precludes us from equating it with biological evolution. C. S. Lewis was consistent in this, as in most things. He was perhaps the most consistent man I ever knew. His refusal to admit the existence of a Renaissance “impulse” (as distinct from the intellectual revolution, which he also denied) was integral to his general principle of anti-historicism; which is, in substance, the denial of any evolutionary process continuing into the historical period. He held very firmly that either there is no such process or, if there is, it is quite impossible for us to know anything about it.

Incidentally, it has always been something of a mystery to me that we seemed to meet somehow in my little early book Poetic Diction, of which he held, and continued to hold, a very high opinion, although it is mainly concerned with demonstrating an evolution of consciousness from poetic to prosaic, from universal to individual, from macrocosm to microcosm. In point of fact I have spent most of my literary life – in so far as I can be said to have had a literary life – in variations on that theme and that demonstration. And I feel this is sufficient justification for what I now propose to do; which is to assume its acceptance in the rest of what I have to say. One cannot always stop to argue, and a lecturer is entitled to say to the sceptics in his audience: “It will do you no harm to assume for a quarter of an hour what I have been convinced of all my life and have moreover argued at painstaking length in half a dozen books.”

Assuming, then, an evolution of consciousness from universal to individual: inner experience will have been, in its earlier stages, more a passive reflection of the outer processes of nature herself than anything originating within the organism. It will inevitably have been of a pictorial, or imaginal, description; and the element of inwardness, which entitles it to be labelled “consciousness” at all, will have been inseparably bound up with the pictures themselves. But a picture with an element of inwardness is just what we mean by an image or figure. To borrow from Auerbach’s Mimesis an expression he is using in a slightly different context, in primitive perception you have a situation, where “the sensory occurrence pales from the power of the figural meaning.” Only it will be a figurative meaning, not supplied or produced by the individual mind experiencing it, but given in the experience itself. And this sort of experience is rather an extension of life itself, of the universal life of nature, into an individual organism than it is any separated mental life of the organism itself.

To return to the Art of Memory, one of the German words for “memory” is Er-innerung, or “inwardising.” And it is fairly clear that a perceptual image remembered has already moved a step further into the individual organism than one which merely lights up in the moment of actual perception and vanishes again the moment actual perception ceases. Memory is thus a key factor in the interiorisation, of which the whole evolution of consciousness (I am assuming) consists. But even then the remembered images are still, to begin with, passive products of the life of nature as a whole. They are in no sense the activity of the individual.

Work on the memory, cultivation of the memory, on the other hand, is an activity originating from within the individual himself. And such an activity becomes more and more necessary in the measure that the natural life inherent in the passive memory-images grows weaker, as the history of mankind progresses, with the result that they fade more and more easily.  Moreover it is just this weakening of the universal, or macrocosmic, life that has made a more individual mental life begin to be possible. One could perhaps put it that what was formerly the pulse of life in general has become the im-pulse of an individual mind. I believe it is somewhat in this sense that we should be thinking, if we are to describe the Renaissance impulse as the “transformation” of a former impulse.

This is not what the book, with which I have made so free, actually says, but it is what, to me at least, it strongly suggests; presenting, as it does, the genesis of Imagination as a kind of metamorphosis of the older psychology of Inspiration; and doing so in terms of Bruno’s cosmology of macrocosm and microcosm. For, as the author shows, it was in Bruno’s mind more than anywhere else that the imagines agentes of the Art of Memory coalesced with traditional macrocosmic imagery, such as the Elements, the Planetary Spheres, and the Signs of the Zodiac. Thus, her book is also valuable for the new light it throws on such historical matters as iconography and typology. Clearly there were, in the Middle Ages and for some time afterwards, not only the great stone cathedrals, at which we can still gaze, but also those “invisible cathedrals of memory,” to which access is more difficult for us.

By the time of Camillo and Fludd and their “Memory Theatres,” this coalescence of dynamic subjective images with the traditional macrocosmic imagery, which we find so often in the cathedrals of stone, had already started taking place. Their “theatres” were not conceived as practical devices for making oratory more efficient, but rather as groups of images with which the mind of the spectator could unite itself and, in doing so, rejoin, so to speak, the macrocosm out of which it had itself been originally constructed. The Globe Theatre itself was so designed as to be not merely circular, but “global” in this sense also; and we hear an echo of that in the Prologue to Henry V.

Quite apart from historical interest, the role of the Art of Memory in the formation of images (to quote once more) has important psychological bearings, if it can help at all towards a better understanding of the true nature of that popular mystery, the “creative imagination.” Have we reflected enough on its connection with memory? One thinks of Coleridge’s discernment of a “law of the passive fancy and the memory” in the Biographia Literaria and of his consequent distinction between Fancy and Imagination. Much has since been written on the distinction between Fancy and Imagination, but very little on that “law of the passive Fancy and the Memory,” on which it really depends.

If there were a little more time, I should have been disposed to hazard a few speculations of a more practical nature. Because there is more than one other context, in which one could consider “the survival of learning,” especially at a time when we are beginning to hear ominous talk in some quarters of “the dissolution of learning.” One could think of it historically, but in relation to the future rather than the present. Thus, there is currently a good deal of bewilderment concerning the true aim of education, and still more concerning the best methods of attaining it. Most enlightened people are agreed that, whatever it is, the true aim of education is not the amassing of remembered information – that (to borrow another bit of Coleridge’s terminology) its object is to develop heads that are “springs” rather than “tanks.” Can you teach creative imagination? In America at least they seem to think you can. But can you teach it, or can you teach anything, except by way of information? Is not that what teaching and learning actually mean? Is not the true aim of education, not the substitution of undirected whimsy for information and learning, but rather the survival of learning transformed? The question whether memory itself is susceptible of some kind of transformation must, I think, be relevant here. If we felt it was, should we be quite so sure as most educationists seem to be that it is idiotic to make children memorize what they do not yet understand? Perhaps there is even something to be said for teaching a little Rhetoric?

I do not of course mean to imply that mere study of the history of memory will hand us on a plate a new and better theory of education. I shall be more than content if I have succeeded in suggesting two things at all convincingly: first, that perhaps after all the mystery of memory is no less deep than the mystery of creative imagination; and secondly, that, if that is so, then it will bear some further reflection. We are, for instance, fond today of using the word “seminal” for the kind of thought we feel to be creative. But we do not often reflect that our metaphor carries historical as well as genial implications, inasmuch as a seed owes its creative energies to the past no less surely than it bestows them on the future. One sometimes feels that whatever in heaven and earth was not known by one or more of the Greek philosophers was known by their mythology. In that mythology it is not Madam Oedipus, nor is it some fancy goddess called Genesis or Poiesis, who is mother of the Muses. It is Mnemosyne.

Owen Barfield