Aristotle's Styles: On Memory

By Edmund Hardy


A field of points. The horizon-membrane of this space defines "retentive memory" and the speed of possible lines between points is the "power of recollecting". Memory's architecture bristles. Aristotle says, the soul is full of images, for "Without an image thinking is impossible." (450a)

The field of points stamps down on life, life which is aware of time, as a seal on wax, but the very young and the very old are in a state of flux, so it is as if "the movement of the seal were to impinge on running water". (450b) Things which are too fluid, or too hard, running water or an old wall, have no relation to the pointed field. To remember is to "have an image." (451a)


Aristotle's essay, in its second half, now tips this pointed field of images named memory, sideways, and an infinity of lines is conceived, connecting our present moment (a moment in which we might, in Aristotle's example, see "a white object" but not, of course, remember it until we turn away and it becomes an image-point) to the mass of dots, memory's star-field.

An act of recollection is a series, a movement of sense which has antecedents, these lines crossing over, interconnecting, moving backwards until the object of memory is perceived. "That is how recollection takes place; for the movements involved in these starting points are in some cases identical, in others, again, simultaneous, while in others they comprise a portion of them, so that the remnant which one experienced after that portion is comparatively small." (451b)

This complex of movements contains the great potential for mis-remembering, spurious linkages, fertile entanglements. Memory is part of the imagination, says Aristotle. This mass of lines is memory's forbidding geometry. It could be shown, but only on a map in n dimensions.


Recollection requires a starting point, which must be imagined as still, from which the set of movements begins, a place: "from milk to white, from white to mist, and thence to moist, from which one remembers Autumn if this be the season we're trying to recollect." (452a) Where is the best starting-point? Of course, of course, "It seems in general that the middle point among all things is the best starting point." These movement-series, once begun, by will or accident, are not easily allayed. Terror or anger may set off lines which continue inexorably towards memory-points after the passions themselves have ceased.

There is an inverse to Aristotle's essay, for what is memory with no witness? This is the darkness of the field on which image-points are positioned, the inert, vast darkness. Aristotle tips the field once again, and sinks it in a water - a substance of potential movements though not like water when it is full of blocks, mis-directions, substratum of differing qualities - through which memory-movements, "as stones", are thrown by affection. The stone, a trace of light, impelled into a machine so complex its substance appears to be transparent; the purposed mass.

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