With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Memory and the Beauty of Lent

In his widely unknown exploration of the various aspects of sound and rhythm, aptly entitled De Musica (Libero VI), Augustine examines a great number of elements to which the memory relates. He presents us with a notion of memory that goes well beyond viewing it merely as a passive faculty whose only task is to receive images for storage, which are then sifted by the intellect during recall. Although memory does have some aspect similar to this, for Augustine, memory is as active as it is passive. On the active side, every moment of sense perception, which includes every waking moment, the memory performs an indispensable role.

The context in which he explains this role is introduced by explaining how time and space are two components of reality that are divisible unto infinity. Since time and space constitute the very possibility of appearing, all material reality is mediated through these two most fundamental “intuitions” (to borrow a characterization from Kant). This creates a paradox of sorts with respect to the material world – a paradox illustrated by Xeno’s javelin thrower: how can a javelin be thrown, Xeno asked, if the act of throwing requires the movement of the arm from point A to point B, which in turn requires the movement from point A to point .5A, which requires movement from A to .25A, and A to .125A and so on to infinity. All material entities embody this same paradox, since as matter, they can potentially be divided an infinite number of times.

Augustine reflects on this in light of the act of sensation, recognizing that to hear or to see something, which always occurs in time and space, requires a power without which the seen and the heard would simply pass away into that infinite abyss. This power he recognized, for the most part, in the memory.

When the ear hears music, he explained, it can never hear the whole piece at one time. Does this not mean that all music is only heard in fragmented sound bites? So how is it that music is so pleasing in its unity? His answer was that in all acts of hearing the memory is actively engaged as that power which holds before the judging faculty that which, in a musical piece, has passed into and then out of the existence of the present moment. Consider a three note melody: the first note sounds, and in order for the second note to sustain the melody line, this first note must pass out of existence to make room in the melody for the second note to perform its function. The same goes for all subsequent notes. Yet the memory is that which allows those notes, which seemingly have ceased to exist, to remain present precisely in the constitution of the melody as a melody. The memory actively participates in the very constitution of a melody, insofar as the melody is heard.

The same can be said for that which is seen. The faculty of sight has a very limited range, and, because it must focus on a point, it cannot take into the soul the vision of an entire entity. Peripheral vision notwithstanding, the memory still performs a vital function in the act of seeing insofar as it holds before the judging faculty the image of what has passed from the sight’s view as the sight expands in order to allow the fullness of a vision into the soul.

So what has all this to do with Lent? Well, the memory’s indelible partnership with the senses has a negative side insofar as degrees of pleasure are concerned. Pleasure may be spoken of in many ways, ranging from the lowest carnal pleasure to the highest spiritual pleasures. The senses participate in the mediation of all of them at least to some degree, a truth which Augustine recognized despite his Platonic influences. In the fallen state, most pleasure that a person experiences comes from the flesh, taken in by the senses, which are aided by the power of memory. Thus, just as a particular musical piece, or vista, is taken into the soul by a partnership between the senses and the memory, so too are the pleasures of eating, drinking, touching etc. And like everything that is heard and seen, carnal pleasure, once it is received, is stored away in the storage area of memory, or what we might call the storehouse of the soul. Considered so far, there is nothing too alarming or exceptional here.

However, let us consider pleasure as it occurs in its various degrees from the lowest to the ever-higher. Let us further equate the ever-higher pleasure as that which is most pleasing to the soul at a given point. This would enable that ever-higher, or always-greater, pleasure to correspond to the beatific vision; for what could be more pleasing to the soul than union with the Triune God, which is always increasing? (Thus, I do not say ‘highest pleasure’ since this too easily tends to indicate a limiting closure contrary to the infinite good). Let us further purge from our mindset a strict dichotomy between highest and lowest pleasures as if there were only two categories. Perhaps we might be aided if we think of it in the way one’s taste is said to develop (cf. 1Cor 3:2, Heb 5:12-13, 1Pet 2:2 ): a young infant can in no way enjoy the “higher” pleasures of meat, fine wines and other such things, since the faculty for enjoying such things must be acquired over time. But the development for such acquisition may often involve denying one’s immediate impulses and trusting in one’s intellectual judgment that these are indeed pleasures worth acquiring a taste for. My first taste of Guinness was not accompanied by the overwhelming pleasure that I now derive from it. Rather, in the beginning, I trusted those people who seemed to derive pleasure from it that there was indeed a pleasure in it - and a great deal. Now, after opening myself to its pleasure by weaning myself off a distaste for the bitter, I have discovered that delight and enjoy it often. It is in fact one of my greatest pleasures.

In an analogous way, it is a worthy pursuit for one to aspire to elevate his or her ‘taste’ for the higher, spiritual pleasures. Such an ascent necessarily involves ‘weaning’ oneself off of carnal pleasure: “For such a pleasure violently imprints in our memory what it draws from the deceitful senses” (Talis enim delectatio vehementer infigit memoriae quod trahit a lubricis sensibusDe Musica, Lib VI, xi, 33). Augustine should not be misunderstood here; he is not making a claim about the inherent deceit of sensuality, but the way that an ‘overdose’ of carnal pleasure can reduce the power of memory, preventing the growth and maturity necessary for it to represent the delight of higher, spiritual pleasures.

This brings us to the point of this post. Designated times when the Church as a body universal practices a withdraw from the carnal pleasures – as in Lent – are very much times that concern memory. Denial of pleasures are good, but they must be complimented with opening the opening to higher spiritual delights. For should a long enough duration of time occur during which one goes without a particular pleasure, the memory, unless it is fed by higher pleasures for which it must acquire a taste, will inevitably re-present (literally dig into its storage and present again) the images associated with these lower, carnal pleasures enticing the person to the lower realities they embody and subsequently away from its ascent. Lent, then, should not be seen merely as a time of denial, but rather as a time of denial of the lower pleasures in order to continue to acquire a taste for the higher spiritual pleasures. Indeed, this is precisely what the beauty of Lenten time allows: not only does it ask us to step back from our all too easy intake of carnal pleasures (and for many of us, we might even add vices), but it enables us to store up spiritual pleasures in our memory so that we might acquire the taste for higher, spiritual pleasures.

We might close by pointing out the eschatological and soteriological dimension involved here. Lent prepares us not only for Christ’s resurrection, but also for his passion and death. Part of this preparation involves reflecting upon death itself, which the tradition designates as the experience when the soul separates from the body. It would not be a great speculative claim, then, to suggest that death marks the moment when the soul necessarily withdraws from material reality and thus from all carnal pleasures (assuming of course that the ‘carnal pleasures’ as used here indicate the mediation of pleasure through the senses). Thanks to our Lenten practices, along with a great many others, we can cling with greater faith to the hope that this final withdraw at death will not bear the horrifying shock of a ‘cold turkey’ experience, but instead present the step – final even as it is first – of a Way toward that for which we were always already aspiring.

Labels: , ,


  • At 3/07/2007 4:50 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    This ties in with a general Mahayana Buddhist belief that we need to find a way to experience reality as it is, behind all habits and conventional interpretations we have stored in our memory to interpret it. While they might be useful in our development, we need to abandon them and the restrictions they put on us as we grow up. To get the most out of reality we need to break through our earlier interpretations of it and the attachments we made to them, and to finally get the real thing. This is difficult and requires as you say, abandonment of these habits and especially a rejection of the way they influence us. Lent (and other times such as Lent) are indeed invaluable reminders that we must stive to overcome our constructed sense of reality to experience it truly as it is. We must not limit ourselves to our past, but transcend it.

  • At 3/08/2007 10:06 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Fine observation. It's great to see such parallels between what, at a superficial or even polemic level, appear contrary. But this correspondence is yet one more area where Christians and Buddhists can commune, dialogue and learn from each other, if only in terms of the methods for how we go about "weaning" ourselves.

  • At 3/10/2007 8:44 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Mr. Sammon,

    A great post. Indeed, I think the asceticisms of Lent must be put in soteriological perspective.

    I also noticed that apparently Husserl has totally ripped off Augustine. He uses the same example of music when discussing internal time consciousness (retention and protention). And I doubt Husserl did much fasting during Lent...

    And, on another note: I can totally relate on the experience of Guinness: I am indeed in the land where it flows like milk and honey, and it is one of the greatest pleasures (that and Smithwicks)!

    Pax Christi,


Post a Comment

<< Home