I read somewhere that Sumerian documents contain references to events that happened as long as 27,000 years ago. Since writing has existed in that region for at most 8,000 years, the memories of those long-ago events survived in a pre-literate environment for more than twice as long as the total time we have been writing anything. This gives rise to a strange notion of pre-literate memory as a durable medium, analogous to our paper-and-ink or data-storage-with-interface. If memory were a durable medium in the total absence of other durable media for substantive documentation, then our collective memory was identical to our personal memory. Our species knowledge was the same thing as what any one of us or any local group of us happened to remember about other places and times.

I don't think we can imagine what it felt like to be human in those long-gone pre-literate times. Today our memories are "retrieval cues" for externally documented information: when you remember something you immediately google the information on it, so your memory is really just a "retrieval cue." But recent science suggests that human memory doesn't really work according to that old model of "recalling" a static mental record of something old on the basis of "retrieval cues." That's how written and electronic data storage works, but not the human brain. If you stipulate that "world" means "place as past as place," then a world that was purely the real human memory is now inconceivable to us because it would have been a totally different world from today's recall-a-snippet-and-look-it-up-in-the-cloud world.

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But don't we writers have exactly that kind of atavistic, now-obsolete, pre-literate style of memory? A writer's central talent is meaningful expression of trivia! To most people some select detail of elsewhere and elsewhen is a parlour game, which is what "trivia" really is; but in the hands of a writer it becomes far more than a parlour game, as our "trivia" is fertile and gives rise to profound implications for the lives of today's people. So I'm wondering whether the way I experience myself as a writer; which is as a subjective and documentarily flawed living archive of repeatedly reconstructed pseudo-evidence of elsewhere and elsewhen, may be an atavism that connects us to our old pre-literate lives in which the world was personal.

I'm curious what other writers think of this.

Source: reddit post


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