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Remembering the Known Unknown

Now, this is a weird one: Yesterday, while talking to Carol about how monasticism amplifies the dangers of dualism, I tried to remember the name of the poet who wrote “Wherever the Catholic Sun Doth Shine.” Failed. This annoyed me; the poem is a very big favorite of mine, and someday I’ll have it printed on a poster and framed. I punted and went on with the conversation, but the memory failure rankled me.

Ok, sixties moment and all that. Happens to the best of us. The weirdness started when it suddenly occurred to me that the last name of the poet was the same as the last name of Indiana Jones’s archaeologist rival in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was absolutely certain that it was the same name…but I still couldn’t remember the name itself.

Sheesh. I could see a picture of the poet. He looked a little like H. P. Lovecraft with a squarer face, and I knew that the two were contemporaries. I could see the archeologist in the movie. I could even hear his voice. The name, nowhere to be found.

It hit me sometime later: Hilaire Belloc, of course. And the fictional archaeologist, Rene Belloq. (I don’t consider the difference in spelling significant.) I think most of us have the experience of remembering facts about a person while failing to remember the name. I distinctly recall asking Carol: “Who was the woman in Albuquerque who showed a bichon named after G.W. Bush?” I could see the woman in my mind. I could see the bichon. I knew where they lived. Carol had to remind me of the woman’s name.

I don’t think I’ve ever before had the insight that two people had the same name, without being able to remember the name itself. I’ve read a number of arguments that the invention of language made our brains explode and allowed us to make the final leap to true intelligence. I’ve heard counter arguments too, and I think the counters have it: We could think long before we could speak, and when we evolved machinery for managing language, it ended up somewhere else in the gray matter. (Odds are that Michael Covington knows a little about this. Or maybe a lot.) I’m guessing that we store facts about stuff in one place, and we store names in another place. We store relationships in with the facts (I think) and we can recall and understand facts and relationships without necessarily having a name tag tied to any of it. I had a little plastic drawer devoted to spade bolts long before I knew the term “spade bolt.” Not knowing what they were called only became a problem when I tried to go buy more. (Like a lot of things in my junkbox, I have no idea where the ones in the drawer originally came from.)

I don’t bring this up because it’s surprising; in fact, it makes perfect sense. I’ve just never had my nose rubbed in it so vividly. We once lived in a world where everything was a game of charades, 24/7. Language was a damned useful invention. I’m a little surprised that it took us as long as it did.


  1. RH in CT says:

    I recently heard the interesting – and believable, I think – idea that the fundamental thing language gave us was group memory. Before language we learned by personal experience, including watching others, but most of what we knew was lost with us. Language allowed us to share information that could last as long as the society we shared it with. Of course that lead to rather more over time, but the key of persistent memory over a group and over time was the enabling technology.

  2. As a linguist, all I can tell you is that nothing is known about the origin of language. There is no genuine, informative evidence telling us about a time when language wasn’t what it is now. Attempts to reconstruct prehistoric languages are based on the assumption that language has always worked the same way(s). This is of course to some extent a circularity, but the point is, it gets results; we get reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European that don’t founder upon the unavailability of something that ought to be there. If anything, languages in physically primitive cultures (modern or ancient) are often amazingly complicated, not “primitive.”

  3. Ed Hanley says:

    First of all, how many people are lucky enough to have a beautiful companion with whom they can discuss, “how monasticism amplifies the dangers of dualism”? That right there can take up the better part of an evening and a good bottle of wine. Second: Have you noticed, Jeff, that temporary lack of recall is contagious? When someone asks me, “What’s that guy’s name who…,” I often know but just can’t recall. Others have the same response when I ask the same question: “I know who you mean but I can’t remember.” I’ve learned to disguise my lack of recall when I’m fishing for someone’s name, to hide as well as possible that I really don’t remember: “What do YOU think about that guy who…,” If I disguise my temporary aphasia well enough, the person questioned is more likely to come up with a name.

  4. Jeff Rice says:

    For me, at least, faces also have their own separate compartment. I may remember any one or two of {face, name, facts}, without being able to connect to the rest.

    Personal facts (e.g., owning a bichon) and event facts (attended a particular dog show) also seem separated.

    Alas, this introspective insight is a consequence of middle-age; I remembered everything when young!

    Now the biggest problem, having accumulated decades of good and bad experiences, is being unable to forget the things I want to forget!

  5. R-Laurraine Tutihasi says:

    I’ve experienced this sort of thing practically all my life. I guess I was just wired wrong.

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