sexta-feira, 11 de novembro de 2011
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer – review
By Peter Conrad
The Observer, Sunday 17 April 2011
Memory was once a cerebral lodestar, training us to be rational and ensuring that we were moral. For classical sages it regulated judgment, citizenship and piety, and for medieval scholars, who used books as mnemonic aids not as safeguards against forgetting, it compressed and codified the history of the world. In modern times memory was redefined as an emotional treasury and a spiritual consolation: the taste of a cake brings back Proust's lost childhood and demonstrates that our wishful thinking can resurrect the dead.
This noble faculty has not yet been made redundant by electronic search engines such as Google or gadgets such as satnav, since our smart cards and online accounts require us to memorise an ever-longer list of pin numbers, passwords and security codes that are the DNA of our daily lives – a scary reminder that personal identity depends on our remembering who we are. But the contests chronicled by Joshua Foer, who in 2006 acquired the title of USA memory champion, reward competitors for the anal retention of trivia: the sequence of cards in a rapidly shuffled deck, the birthdates of total strangers, random glossaries of unfamiliar words. Such is the sadly diminished, demeaning role that the information age allots to our proudest and most precious mental skill.
Foer – younger brother of the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote Everything is Illuminated – presents this account of his year spent training for the championship as an induction into the "art and science" of remembering. In fact the useless stunts he learns to perform are neither artistic nor scientific; they are sporting feats, which is why he hypes up his associative dodges as exhibitions of strength. Thus the sedentary act of reading becomes a leap from a board poised high above an Olympic-sized pool: "I decided it would be a good idea to dive (bellyflop, really) into the scientific literature." Foer works this mock-heroic metaphor to death, honouring his colleagues – ill-groomed and unsocialised wonks, who wear blinkers and blacked-out goggles when competing – as "mental athletes" or "warriors of the mind". Eventually, as he begins to believe his own propaganda, the championship becomes "an arms race of sorts". "The brain is a muscle," a mentor tells Foer. But his cerebrotonic workouts endow him with the ornamental, gym-cultivated biceps shown off by yuppie lawyers and gay hairstylists, whose occupations hardly require them to do heavy lifting.
Even more dismayingly, Foer seems to think that he carries a calculator on his shoulders: he suggests that if you "strip away the emotions, the philosophizing, the neuroses, and the dreams", then "our brains… are fundamentally prediction and planning machines". But who would want to strip away the sludge of feeling and fantasy that makes us human? Only a geek, for whom knowledge can be equated with a stock of useless data.
The grotesque array of professional rememberers lined up by Foer includes a fellow from Utah called Kim Peek, the inspiration for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, who died in 2009. The "Kimputer", as this idiot savant called himself, was born with an oversize head that he dragged along the ground for the first three years of his life, as if the weight of its contents kept him from standing upright. His horrified parents entertained the idea of a lobotomy. But they spared their malformed offspring, who could instantly memorise whatever his eyes scanned, whether it was the text of a Shakespeare play or the telephone directory of some unknown city. Despite the library of factoids crammed into his buzzing skull, Kim had an IQ of only 87. He was at best a neurological oddity, rendered unfit for ordinary existence by his inability to select, edit or erase the information he indiscriminately absorbed. Here is the proof of a maxim that Foer quotes in a moment of rueful reflection: Proust demonstrates that to feel is to remember, but it's equally true, as Jorge Luis Borges points out in his story "Funes the Memorious", that "to think is to forget".
"Participatory journalism", which is how Foer classifies his book, requires the reporter to step into the frame as a performer, and he tries to keep us interested in his arid quizzes and numerical quirks by going on journeys to conduct interviews. He visits one expert in "a bright bungalow in suburban San Diego" and calls on another in "a plush office complex on the outskirts of Tallahassee"; he even manages a picturesque detour to Oxford, "one of the world's most storied centers of learning" where there are many "storied old buildings, with tall Gothic windows". A pity that his capacity for total recall didn't alert him to his slack or dozy stylistic repetitions.
Foer's self-improvement manual reads like the script for a reality TV series, so we are meant to experience a climactic thrill when a cable network "for the first time ever airs the Memory Championship on national television", devising "television-friendly 'elimination' events" to dramatise the dreary proceedings. Foer's win earns him invitations to fill a few minutes of otherwise empty air on early morning talk shows, though he understands how temporary his "newfound stardom" (or loserdom, depending on your perspective) actually is. After performing the tricks required of him, he is ushered off into oblivion; by telling the story all over again five years later, he is hoping to prolong his meagre allocation of fame and persuade the world to remember his name. But I have too much on my mind, and now intend to exercise my prerogative as a thinker by forgetting him.