The Ventricle of Memory

Anthroposophical Quarterly 20.1 (Spring 1975): 10-11

It is a peculiarity of the genius of Shakespeare that some of his most pregnant hints are concealed in some of his most light-hearted utterances. Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is very probably the first play he wrote, is also the most light-hearted, and in that light-hearted play there is a nearly farcical scene (Act IV Scene 2) in which the Schoolmaster Holofernes is showing off what he supposes to be his erudite wit. It mostly takes the form of what were called in those days ‘conceits’ – of which there are generally more than enough to our taste whenever one or two Elizabethan courtiers get together in a Shakespeare play. When somebody flatters him on them, he affects to make light of his own cleverness:–

This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish, extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion…

Let us look rather carefully at that last sentence. But first of all a word about the word ‘conceit’. Originally it was also spelt ‘conceipt’ and it is of course a more fully anglicized form than ‘concept’ of Latin conceptus = ‘having been conceived’. By Elizabethan times it had come to signify almost anything that is engendered in some way in an individual mind, in many contexts hardly differing from what we now call a ‘fancy’. (The typical modern meaning comes through its frequent use in expressions like ‘a good conceit of himself’, ‘self-conceit’, etc.). But now, if we are to penetrate somewhat into the sort of thing that underlies Holofernes’ remark, we must reflect that, in the days before psychology was tailored to fit the Darwinian theory, it was a genetic psychology. People were not content to think of ideas being ‘engendered in some way in an individual mind’; they reckoned to trace how they are engendered. They did not use the terminology of spiritual science, but it is true, I think, to say that they sought to understand the mysterious process by which the intellectual soul emerges, as it is born from the sentient soul. And they realised that this is made possible externally by the brain and the spinal cord, and internally by the human faculty of memory.

Both the sentient soul and the intellectual soul are still contained within the womb of the macrocosm in a way that the consciousness soul is not. But the intellectual soul is for ever being born. It is in process of being born into a world not governed by biological laws, but by those quite different laws that govern the realm of concepts, including the laws of logic. Concepts do not belong to the individual soul; they are one and the same for all. But it is only by uniting itself with them that the soul can become possessed of ‘conceits’; and the conceit has in it the germ both of abstract notions in one direction and of creative imagination in the other.

Rudolf Steiner has emphasised that it is only as the Ego lights up within the intellectual soul that ‘man becomes wholly and completely man’. Herein lies the paramount importance of memory as the stepping-stone from sentient to intellectual soul. Memory, as the German word Er-innerung reminds us, internalizes; it makes the outward inward. The sentient soul can already effect this to some extent, inasmuch as it retains for a time inward pictures of the outer world. Else it would be merely sentient body. When there is a car outside the door and a bustle of some sort inside, especially if there is anything like luggage about, my cat displays great uneasiness, and this is clearly because he retains some sort of picture of previous departures resulting in unwelcome solitudes. But I cannot by any stretch of imagination conceive of my cat sitting down and thinking to himself: ‘Let’s see, what was I doing this time yesterday?’ This is memory at a different stage altogether. It is human memory and it is only open to a sentient soul which has a human intellectual soul stirring within it. Perhaps it is also why Novalis observed in one of his ‘Fragments’ that tame animals draw near to mankind out of a feeling of helplessness – “die zahmen Tiere nähern sich als hüfloser, den Menschen.” It is this sort of memory that makes possible the birth of speech whether in the evolution of man or in the growing child. In the Greek mythology Mnemosyne – Memory – was the mother of the Muses. Both speech and thought can indeed be thought of as begot in the ventricle of memory; for it is there that they are conceived.

A ventricle is, literally, a cavity in some part of the body, notably in the brain or the heart: later, and particularly in the seventeenth century, it was used of the belly. Pia mater, which is sometimes employed more or less facetiously to signify a person’s brain or his intelligence, is in fact the innermost, and thus the tenderest, of three meninges or membranes enveloping the brain and the spinal cord.

The genesis of intellectual soul from sentient soul occurs in different ways and on different levels. As a long drawn out historical process, it characterised the third and fourth post-Atlantean epochs, but at the other extreme it may be thought of as occurring in each of us whenever what we have experienced through the senses is interiorised and transformed into a fancy, a conceit – or an abstract idea. But between those two extremes – so I think we may come to feel through the Calendar of the Soul – its historical conception and birth are, or may be if we will, resumed in us in a very delicate way each year as the annual round of the seasons takes its course. In a very delicate way. The Representative of Humanity is nowhere mentioned in the Calendar, but as we go on living with it, that particular conception and birth, at once historical and archetypal, is one of the things that transpires more and more intimately through the sequence of its meditations.

Thus, No. 17, early in August when the summer is drawing to a close, speaks of what we have received through the senses into the soul: das Weltenwort/Das ich durch Sinnestore/In Seelengründe durfte führen. In No. 19 this has become das Neu-Empfang’ne, the newly conceived; and we are to envelop it protectively in memory – in the secret cavity of memory; for the opening word is Geheimnisvoll: Geheimnisvoll das Neu-Empfang’ne/Mit der Erinnerung zu umschliessen … Later, after the inmost ‘turning-point’ of Michaelmas has been passed, we are still within that secret cavity, for the correspondent verse (No. 34) again opens with the word Geheimnisvoll. But what was in August das Neu-Empfang’ne has become by the end of November das Alt-Bewahrte, the long shielded and fostered within. Formerly the goal of our endeavour should have been to allow to be awakened, in a manner from outside, the soul’s own newly forming forces (Eigenkräfte) and to strengthen them. Now the soul is becoming strong enough to wield and apply of its own accord, from within, the very Weltenkräfte which gave it life in the first place. In the intellectual soul the macrocosm enters the microcosm no longer only genetically, through sentient body and sentient soul, but also by direct encounter in the gift of the Ego. It is this that is betokened by the birth of reason.

Later still (No. 38) comes the unmistakable Christmas Imagination of the mother and – disenthralled (entzaubert) now from the secretly nourishing midsummer magic of the womb and fully born into a wholly ‘outer’ world  – the new-born child: Ich fühle wie entzaubert/Das Geisteskind im Seelenschoss … It is, as I say, unmistakable; but I believe the image may pierce a little deeper if we come to it from some measure of participation, through those earlier weeks, in an earlier phase of parturition, when the as yet unborn Child was being nourished in the womb indeed of an august ‘pia Mater’! In doing so it may help to illumine for us the way towards a renewed genetic psychology of the future. But I doubt if we shall ever be able to say, with Shakespeare’s Holofernes, it is ‘simple, simple’.

Owen Barfield