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Sport 43: 2015

Giovanni Tiso — The story of S, or the problem of forgetting

page 190

Giovanni Tiso

The story of S, or the problem of forgetting

La mémoire est une maladie dont l’oubli est le remède
Memory is an illness for which forgetting is the cure
(Georges Perec)

Solomon Shereshevsky was born in Russia in 1886. Were he alive today, he could tell you about his infancy, which he recalled as an adult in all its sensory and emotional detail. It was his remarkable memory that brought him in contact with the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who referred to him in his studies as S.

The story of Shereshevsky, or S, is also the story of Luria. For the scientist, what made the mnemonist interesting wasn’t just his overdeveloped capacity for recall: it was the effect of this gift on the rest of his personality. How good was S at thinking? How good at forming personal relationships? What excited his passions or caused him anxiety? It is the broad-ranging nature of this interest, and of Luria’s speculations, that make S an enduringly interesting figure and the unlikely everyman of a later, wired age—ours.


S remembered things precisely. Not the gist of a story, or the general thrust of a speech, but every word in its original sequence; not the mathematical progression of a patterned series of numbers, but each number in order as it was presented to him. Conversely, he struggled to remember faces, because faces aren’t precise but vary with expression, or the plots of books, because plots are messy and so are human motivations.

Luria diagnosed in S an extreme form of synaesthesia. Put simply, every word S came across triggered in him a sensation of sight,page 191 smell, taste and/or sound (and vice versa, in various combinations). So sensitive was he to such associations that he struggled to eat foods whose names evoked the wrong texture or flavour, for this would overcome what ordinary people might regard as the food’s ‘actual’ taste.

It was synaesthesia that made S’s memory so precise, by giving him extra information against which to test his recollections. Say that he heard the word ‘chair’, and that the word chair for him was yellow: the combined memory of word plus colour would be locked together, each part reinforcing and validating the other. In the language of digital computing, we might say that synaesthesia provided him with a checksum mechanism, or the means of verifying the integrity of a file after transmission.

There is little doubt in my mind that, had Luria studied S thirty years later, he would have relied on computer metaphors to illustrate the working of his mind, useful as they are to exemplify a precise memory that doesn’t change over time or in the telling. But the mark of Luria’s research programme was his commitment to moving beyond the mere description of a pathology or ability. What interested him was the whole psychological life of his subjects and, by extension, the social world they inhabited. In the case of S, this moved him to explore his intellect more broadly, which he found to be unremarkable if not somewhat limited by conventional standards. Most intriguingly, he found that what afflicted S wasn’t how best to use his memory, but a problem of forgetting.

It is counterintuitive that somebody should wish to forget not a lost love or a cause of grief, but facts, names or phone numbers—the things most of us struggle to remember. Yet this was a recurring preoccupation for S, especially during his career as a performing mnemonist, in the 1930s, when he had to clear his mind from one show to the next. In order to do this, he erased in his mind the blackboard on which he recorded the input of his audience, then covered it with an opaque film. As he continued talking to the audience, he would imagine peeling off the film from the erasedpage 192 blackboard and crumpling it into a ball in his hands. Yet as the next performance started he would often find that he could still see the numbers on the blank surface.

Away from the stage, he came up with other tricks. He tried writing down the things he wanted to forget, reasoning that his mind would no longer bother to remember them. This was no use. He tried writing them on identical slips of paper, using the same pencil, but he could still see them in his mind. So as an extreme measure he tried burning the slips of paper, but again in his mind he could glimpse traces of the names and numbers in the burned embers.

As Luria discovered, this problem of forgetting was connected to his subject’s uncannily vivid imagination. S was able to imagine things happening in such detail as to make them indistinguishable from one of his perfect recollections. Thus he tells Luria how occasionally as a child he imagined getting out of bed and leaving the house in the morning, and did so in such detail as to convince himself that this ‘other self’ had really gone to school on his behalf, only to be awakened to reality by his father demanding to know what he was still doing in bed. Even now, as an adult, he would sometimes will the hands of the clock to stop moving and convince himself that time wasn’t passing. Which is why he was often late for appointments.

When thinking about Shereshevsky, I wonder what it might have been like for him to practice the art of memory under Stalin, when the vertiginously growing number of enemies of the state was erased from books and cut out of official photographs. Did not only his profession, but who he was, make him an uncomfortable figure? His biography is too sketchy to answer the question. All we know is that he died in 1958, at the age of 72, five years after the man who ordered the Great Purges and who presided over the obsessive, daily revision of the country’s historical record.

However, Shereshevsky can be viewed as an emblematic and in some ways problematic figure for our own epoch as well.

Consider the precision of his memory, which is attainablepage 193 nowadays thanks to consumer digital devices and is promoted not merely as a desirable goal but as a social imperative by a culture that places supreme value in the personal archive and the continuous sharing of personal information. The idea of an exhaustive digital ‘life log’, first introduced to a mass public by Bill Gates in the mid-90s and later put in practice by one of his engineers, Gordon Bell—the first person to record every moment of his waking life for a dubious posterity—is a common place in the age of smartphones and social media.

The analogy is banal enough. We should, following Luria, wish to explore it more fully. Is our culture—in New Zealand, in the broader West and beyond—also plagued by the problem of forgetting? Does the story of S hold any lessons for us?

Perhaps the story of S is a parable. The man who couldn’t forget went from job to job: journalist, mnemonist, efficiency expert. He confided to Luria that he always felt he was destined for greatness and that this greatness would come to him eventually. He ended up after the war as a taxi driver in Moscow, so it is reasonable to suppose that the greatness never came. He might have imagined it, just like he imagined going to school while cheating the winter mornings of some extra time spent in bed, and he might have felt that it was real, for his fantasies were virtually indistinguishable from his memories.

We could say that imagination was for him a way of remembering forward, of replacing fantasy for experience. Luria himself remarked upon this, distinguishing between the creative imagination that leads to invention and the kind of imagination ‘whose activity is not directed toward the external world, but is nourished by desire and becomes a substitute for action’.

Memory, desire and an infinite array of nesting virtual worlds: isn’t this what the internet is about? Isn’t our age traversed by the same tension between the constant perfecting of the collective record and the narrowing of our available futures? The internet, too, came with the promise of imminent greatness, of social and economic revolution, of infinite creativity—a promise which maypage 194 just have become, to our culture in transition, a substitute for action.

To argue that this is at its heart a problem of forgetting, I turn from Alexander Luria to the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, in a short story written during Shereshevky’s lifetime. Ireneo Funes, ‘el memorioso’, is a Uruguayan peasant who acquires the gift of a perfect memory as a child, after falling off a horse, and goes on to live a short life of virtual seclusion, his body crippled, his mind plagued by his all-too-vivid recollections. Like Shereshevsky, he commits to memory speech and all other kinds of information he’s exposed to automatically, without effort. One of his hopeless pastimes consists in attempting to solve the problem of semiotic regression, by assigning to each conceivable experience one symbol and one symbol only, seeing as

it was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front).

Critically, Borges understood how a perfect figurative (as opposed to narrative) memory could impair the ability to think creatively and produce new knowledge. Writes his narrator:

to think is to forget a difference, to generalise, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.

Borges imagines for us the darkening of the life of Funes (or is it S?): unable to sleep, morbidly obsessing over images of consumption and decay, trapped inside the waking fantasy of sea waves crashing onto a rocky shore at night-time, a dramatic metaphor of his desire to find refuge from the world of human experience and meaning.

These stories—the real one of S, the fictional one of Funes—are dramatic metaphors of their own. Parables, as I suggested above,page 195 not to limit our understanding of the present moment with a narrow contrarian view, but to broaden it through doubt. Doubt that technological progress as it is being sold to us is an absolute good of self-evident value; doubt that the geometric expansion of the archive leads to social progress and the creation of new knowledge; doubt that a life perfectly remembered is a life better lived.