Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Art of Memory

I like to think of memory as a raw material, like clay or paint. It is what it is, but we bend, shape, and smear it into the image that serves us best. Sometimes we do this deliberately, as when we take our memory of someone else's work or idea and use it as part of our own creation, our own new thing. The best fiction, people will tell you, comes from experience of real life, but I remember what a wise professor once told me. “Books,” he said, “come from other books.” Art comes from art. We take that art, bring it into our minds, bend it a little, take things away, add other things, and we have something new. To try to create the wholly new is a folly. Our minds are stuffed with memories. They are the building blocks of human creation.

Humans are not the only creators in this universe. I just read a good book called Why Birds Sing by David Rothenberg. Rothenberg is a musician with the inquiring mind of a scientist and the pen of a poet. He tries to answer the titular question and, in my opinion, forgivably fails. It is too big a question for one consistent answer (it is large, it contains multitudes). The point of reading this book is the journey, not the destination. Which brings me to one of the more interesting stars of Mr. Rothenberg's book, the marsh warbler.

I've never heard a marsh warbler. I'd like to, but I don't have the means to travel across the Atlantic just now. The warbler is a migratory passerine that summers in Europe and winters in southern Africa. It is a mimic and Rothenberg describes it's song thus: “One by one it repeats nearly all the sounds of all the other bird species that live in its habitats, one after another with little recognizable pattern or repetition, packing a few tiny fragments into every second like a bird song identification tape played at double speed.” European ornithologists had identified about half of the warbler's song as being mimicry of other birds. The other half, they assumed, was the warbler's own song. They assumed that until the late 1970s, when Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire followed the bird's migratory path to Africa, listened as she went, and then heard the warbler's song anew. The warbler's journey is a songline that fills the traveling bird's memory with the music of two continents. The songs are borrowed from other sources, but the final version is all the warbler's own. The bird that mimics is not simply a playback machine. It is a careful listener and a deliberate creator.

All art is like that, whether we are conscious of our influences or not. That which we call sui generis is not, in fact, completely new. It is a basic law of physics. Something cannot come from nothing. In striving to make art we take the somethings that we have in our minds, the bits and pieces of memory, and shape and combine them in new ways to create meaning and beauty. If you would be an artist of any kind you must be like the marsh warbler. Pay attention on your journeys. Read widely. Listen intently. Gather up all the culture and nature that you can. Then do something wonderful with it.

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