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ON THE FREQUENT COMPLAINT OF A WANT OF
Nothing is more common than the confession of a defect of memory, which may be taken as a proof that it is not generally considered one of the nobler faculties of the mind.
Men rarely acknowledge, even to themselves, a deficiency in any quality which ranks highly in their own estimation, or which they suppose to be essential to the dignity or grace of their intellectual character. People sometimes complain of the want of extrinsic advantages, such as a large income or a handsome equipage, because these things form no portion of their own moral or mental being. They conceive that they have higher and less equivocal claims to the respect of their fellow creatures; and while railing at Fortune, enjoy a secret consciousness, and sometimes even venture on a pretty open implication, that their merit is deserving of a better fate. Men are discontented with every thing but their own minds and persons. They never complain that nature has made them silly or ill-featured. In some respects what a happy circumstance is that law of our nature by which, with the clearest eyes for the defects of others, we are blinded to our own! The feeble-minded and the deformed in body would shrink into themselves with bitter shame and forlorn despondency, if they were to see their own deficiencies as they appear to others. The perpetual mirror of self-reflection would drive them to despair. It is remarkable that in proportion as nature is niggard in real gifts, she is liberal in those of fancy. Fools and dwarfs are proverbially vain. When we consider how much of the happiness of life depends upon our being well deceived, it is perhaps scarcely consistent with a humane philosophy to object to the self-complacency of the meanest human creature in existence, especially as he is in no degree answerable for his natural defects. If we lower a man in his own esteem we not only deprive him of the chief source of consolation amidst the positive ills of life, but render him less capable of a noble sentiment or a generous exertion. It is only when egotism leads to selfishness and arrogance, that it becomes necessary to repress it. The principle, however, of self-approval is so deeply ingrafted in our system, that it is impossible to eradicate it. By terribly severe and caustic handling its growth may be checked for a season, but it cannot be utterly destroyed. The cherished weed shoots out again in defiance of every obstacle, and with renewed force and freshness.
As no man wilfully depreciates his own character in matters which he thinks materially affect its influence over others, the frequent complaint of the want of memory is, as I have already intimated, rather a slight to that faculty than an acknowledgment of its value. People are often ready to resign all pretensions to it for the praise of candour, because they think they can well afford the sacrifice. A weakness in this faculty is not thought any indication of a correspondent weakness in the higher powers of the mind. On the contrary, many persons have a notion that an exact and vigorous memory is generally associated with a feeble judgment and a cold and barren imagination. Pope has sanctioned this opinion in his Essay on Criticism.
“Thus in the soul while memory prevails
Those who have weak memories and who wish to be reconcil. ed to their misfortune, should peruse Montaigne, who is perpetually informing his readers of his singular incapability of mental retention. No one will dispute the acuteness and power of that most delightful Essayist ; and indeed it is sufficiently obvious, notwithstanding all his lamentations on the subject of his memory, that he is by no means dissatisfied with the general character of his own intellect. Montaigne's Confessions, for such his Essays may be called as justly as the egotistical ebullitions of Rousseau, may be adduced as a proof of the utter impossibility of a man's regarding himself with any thing like that genuine impartiality of judgment with which he may be regarded by others. He never tells us any thing which he thinks will really injure him greatly in our estimation. Every little error is eagerly followed up by some redeeming virtue. It is true that both Montaigne and Rousseau have dared to communicate to the world several confessedly mean and ludicrous passages in their history; but this may have been done partly with a proud consciousness that their characters would not suffer by such comparative sunspecks, and partly to obtain the more credit for their self-commendations. Still, however, Montaigne's egotism is nearly as candid as is possible to human nature, and he often seems more likely to have deceived himself than to have had any intention to deceive his readers. His constant complaint of a want of memory has been thought the more remarkable on account of the quantity of anecdotes and quotations that crowd his pages. They are almost as full of learned illustrations as Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. His French editor, however, (Peter Coste) has explained this apparent contradiction. In the first place he is said to have fallen into innumerable errors respecting names, dates, and persons, and in the next place he appears to have added illustration after illustration to his Essays while in manuscript, and for every new edition, just as he met with suitable materials in the course of his extensive reading. Montaigne expresses much the same opinion of the faculty of
memory as Pope does. “In my country,” says the former, “when they would signify that a man is void of sense, they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of this defect of mine they reprove me, and do not think I am in earnest in accusing myself of being a fool; for they do not discern the difference betwixt memory and understanding, in which they make me worse than I really am ; for, on the contrary, we rather find by experience that a strong memory is liable to be accompanied with a weak judgment.” He consoles himself, in a very characteristic way, with the reflection, that in proportion to the extent of this defect of memory the more powerful are his other faculties. He remarks also that if his memory had been better, he would have been apt to rest his understanding and judgment on the wisdom of other men, instead of exerting his own natural powers.
I cannot help thinking, that Montaigne and Pope* have mistaken the nature of memory in its connection with other faculties of the mind. It is to be doubted whether any great powers of intellect are consistent with a feeble memory. This faculty was personified by the ancients as the mother of the Muses. Even Montaigne himself, in alluding to the anecdote of Messala Corvinus having been two years
emory, observes that a privation of this faculty, if absolute, must destroy all the functions of the soul. He also quotes the saying of Cicero, that “ the memory is the receptacle and sheath of all science.” Rogers has paid it a similar compliment.
Ages and climes remote to thee impart
* Pope himself had an excellent memory. It was so tenacious and local, that he could directly refer to any particular passage in a favorite author.”
Montaigne did injustice to his own memory*. He only reckoned his sins of forgetfulness, and did not balance them with his remembrances. He tells us that he was accustomed to forget the names of his servants, and those domestic matters which every body around him remembered with the utmost ease and distinctness. He did not consider how many things there were which he remembered and which they forgot. Men of genius forget things which the vulgar remember, and remember those which leave no impression on ordinary minds. The poet who in ten minutes will forget where he has placed his hat and walking stick, will remember in what book he met with a beautiful sentiment or expression ten years ago. He has a better memory than those who laugh at his forgetfulness, but it is employed on subjects with which they are not familiar. People remember only those things in which they take an interest. The trader remembers the state of the market, the poet the state of literature. Let them exchange the subject of their attention, and they will both complain of a want of memory. Scottt is said to have possessed extraordinary pow
Blarmontel observes, in his Memoirs, that he had a great desire to learn, bat nature had refused him the gift of memory. He admits, however, that though the words left no trace upon his mind, he retained the sense of what he read.
Rousseau repeatedly complains of his want of memory. But he exaggerated the defect; for no man with such a feeble memory as he represents his own to have been, could have gathered and retained a fiftieth part of his knowledge.
+ Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, gives a curious proof of Scott's retentiveness. I take the following from the Shepherd's “ Familiar Anecdotes.” “ He, and Skene of Rubislaw, and I were out one night about midnight, leistering kippers in Tweed, about the end of January, not long after the opening of the river for fishing, which was then on the tenth, and Scott having a great range of the river himself, we went up to the side of the Rough-haugh of Elibank; but when we came to kindle our light, behold our peat was gone out. This was a terrible disappointment, but to think of giving up our sport was out of the question, so we had no other shift save to send Rob Fletcher all the way through the dark. ness, the distance of two miles, for another fiery peat.
The night was mild, calm, and as dark as pitch, and while Fletcher was absent we three sat down on the brink of the river, on a little green sward which I never shall forget, and Scott desired me to sing them my ballad of " Gilinan's