Language was our secret weapon, and as soon we got language we became a really dangerous species.
~ Quentin D. Atkinson in The New York Times
Our paleolithic poet laureate – last of the sabre-toothed tigers – sat down to his morning coffee and croissant. That caveman down the way is such a boor, he thought. No understanding at all of modern verse – and yet he shows up for every reading, grunting obscenely while everyone else applauds. Brushing crumbs from his pelt, he opened the early paper and you can imagine the shock it gave him to discover that his club-wielding neighbor had just published a damning review of his latest volume. Emergency services were summoned, but too late. He was the last of his kind, but the first to learn that while sticks and stones may break your bones, it’s names that really hurt you.
In today’s New York Times, David Brooks toots the tin trump of the apocalypse to announce the Great Forgetting, re-christening the 21st the “Bad Memory Century.” The cheeky purple tie and pink pastel lipstick in his NYT mugshot always seemed at odds with the sober matter of Brooks’ columns; it must have been the jester in him always trying to come out:
Society is now riven between the memory haves and the memory have-nots. On the one side are these colossal Proustian memory bullies who get 1,800 pages of recollection out of a mere cookie-bite. They traipse around broadcasting their conspicuous displays of recall as if quoting Auden were the Hummer of conversational one-upmanship. On the other side are those of us suffering the normal effects of time, living in the hippocampically challenged community that is one step away from leaving the stove on all day.
Is this what the senescence of the baby-boomers means? Born in ’61, Brooks makes the cut, barely. Not that his column is entirely without a sociopolitical angle:
The dawning of the Bad Memory Century will have vast consequences for the social fabric and the international balance of power. International relations experts will notice that great powers can be defined by their national forgetting styles. Americans forget their sins. Russians forget their weaknesses. The French forget that they’ve forgotten God. And, in the Middle East, they forget everything but their resentments.
In any case, Brooks is surely right that the hyper-proliferation of media and information, and our gluttonous consumption thereof (guilty!), comes only at a price. We’re chirped out of bed each morning by flocks of data; we’re fed all day on rants and confessions; we’re rocked to sleep each night in the arms of unsolicited opinion. But rather than knowing more, we simply remember less. …Or maybe it’s just me.