Balzac on memory

 

 

In view of the fact that I have posted several posts recently with comments about memory, I found the following passage in Stefan Zweig’s biography of Balzac to be very interesting.

 

 

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The assimilation of ideas through reading had in his case assumed phenomenal proportions. His eye took in seven or eight lines at a time, and their meaning was grasped by his mind with a rapidity that matched the swiftness of his eye. Frequently a single word sufficed to give him the sense of a whole sentence. His memory was marvelous. He could remember ideas acquired through reading no less accurately than those he had thought out for himself or heard in conversation. In short, his memory was not only of one type but of all types–memory for places, names, words, things, and faces. Not only could he remember anything he wanted to remember, but with his inward eye he saw them in the situation, the lighting, the color in which they had once appeared to him in reality.

He was gifted with this same faculty so far as the incomprehensible processes of reasoning were concerned. He remembered, to use his own expression, not only the way in which ideas were arranged in the book where he had first come across them, but also the states of his own soul at various periods far back in time. His memory, that is to say, possessed the incredible power of recalling the different stages through which his mind had passed and the whole activity which had contributed to its make-up-from the first thoughts which had entered it to the most recent idea that it had grasped, the most involved as well as the most simple.

His brain, accustomed from an early age to the intricate mechanism which renders possible the concentration of human forces, absorbed from this rich storehouse an abundance of images which, in their remarkable clarity and freshness, constituted the nourishment of his mind during his hours of vivid contemplation. At the age of twelve his imagination, stimulated by continual practice, had developed to a pitch which enabled him to form such accurate conceptions of things he only knew about from books, that their image could not have been more dearly present to his mind if he had, in fact, actually seen them. He either reasoned from analogies or else was endowed with a kind of second sight which enabled him to comprehend the whole orbit of Nature. … When every fiber of his being was concentrated in this way on what he was reading, he seemed to lose consciousness of his physical existence and functioned only by means of his inner faculties, whose scope became abnormally extended. To use his own expression, he “left space behind him.”

 

— Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, quoted in Stefan Zweig, Balzac; translated by William and Dorothy Rose (Viking Press, 1946), pp. 16-17 (Louis Lambert is an autobiographical novel; the eponymous main character is a fictional portrayal of the young Balzac)

 

 

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A couple of thoughts of my own.

 

“He could remember ideas acquired through reading no less accurately than those he had thought out for himself or heard in conversation.”

I find that my own memory works in a similar fashion. It is very much verbal, and it works by association. It includes my past thoughts, past conversations (and, of course, others’ thoughts), and reading. And, the memories are very contextual.

 

“His memory … possessed the incredible power of recalling the different stages through which his mind had passed and the whole activity which had contributed to its make-up-from the first thoughts which had entered it to the most recent idea that it had grasped, the most involved as well as the most simple.”

I have experienced very much the same, memory wise. It is a texture of thoughts and associations that are recalled through association. And, recalled because of how they affected me at the time; what the situation was when someone said something or other to me; and what I was thinking at the time, all of which I usually recall. And, yes, “the most involved [memories] as well as the most simple.” Offhanded comments that were striking or intrigued me. An idea or train of thoughts comprising or embedded in a conversation.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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