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Heroic History, 3

mnemonic advantages of a narrative distortion: aggrandizing individual lives

Efficiency is always a present need of remembering. In pre-literate cultures, when oral storytellers preserved the memorial past, the dominant narratives of a culture or group were determined not only by social preferences but also by cognitive limitations. Political elites had control over the message, but they needed their story to 'stick' within individual minds. The preferred narrative still had to compete with other rememberances in a 'natural selection' process: not all stories about the past are equipped to survive in the present and thrive as stories into the future, so if society needed its stories about the past to glorify role-models, worship great heroes, and justify current traditions, then society's primary need was to make such stories memorable, or at least feasibly rememberable. Despite all volume and repetition, no matter how much the culture controlled its own 'echo chamber', a message itself bears some burden for preserving its own memory. Over time, it was natural that some stories (and some methods of storytelling) were found to provide greater mnemonic advantage than others.

As I said in part one, "heroic history" (my preferred name for the infamous "great man theory of history") is a narrative distortion that offers mnemonic efficiencies. To consider the converse, mnemonic advantage appears to be one major reason why ancient storytellers focused on heroic individuals. Either way, this pairing of heroes and memory appears to be multifaceted, which I'm attempting to explore in this series.

Today's post is about the difference between memorable story-content and rememberable story-structure, and about specific ways in which an emphasis on individual heroism can provide one or the other, or both.

Obviously, stories provide efficiency by reducing historical content. A synopsis of experience is more rememberable than all the vastness of detail. Just as obviously, in both oral recitation and literature, stories also reduce the physical sensations of experience to a mere collection of words. This dual reduction has sometimes been treated as one and the same, but narratology is not merely a subset of philology.

In 20th century studies of Memory and Orality in heroic narratives (particuarly Epic), scholars tended to focus on the memorability of language and description more than the memorability of narrative per se. Much has been said about the linguistic mnemonics of Homer's formula sayings, the oft repeated phrases, introductory epithets, parallel sequences of mundane or time-filling transition scenes, and much more. However, while recitation as a performance required such tricks with words, catch-phrases like "swift-footed Achilles" probably weren't what the bard's wealthy underwriters hoped that people would remember most vividly. Words were merely a technique for content delivery. The mnemonic target objective was the content itself.

In the 1960's and 70's, Havelock and Ong began considering the importance in pre-literate cultures of privileging memorable content: the great deeds of noble figures, the cartoonishly exaggerated features of fables and fairy-tale characters, the "mnemonic servicability" of the 'monumental', the 'monstrous', and the 'marvelous'. (See HH, 2.) It was this type of story-content which illustrated the target ideals Homer was being paid to provide epic poetry about. But while memorable parts of a story can increase the likelihood of an audience remembering those parts of the story, such a strategy does not necessarily advantage a remembering of that story altogether. Just as Homer needed mnemonic vocabulary to deliver his epic, the audience needed a certain type of story-structure in order to retain that delivery.

Memorable content does not make a story coherently memorable, as a narrative whole.

Again, the reduction of experience to a story is the prime narrative efficiency. Events become words, long sagas become succinct. Genette summarized Homer's Odyssey as "Ulysses comes home to Ithaca." The truncating ability of succinct storying makes episodes from human experience, but summarization does not string those episodes together. Reduction atomizes, but what bonds the molecules? To retain a synopsis of episodes with a singular coherence, human memory needs a way to recall sequence.

Enter Heroic History. The structural-mnemonic advantage of Heroic narratives is their tight interweaving of plot and character. As perceived by the narrator, heroism is a form of causality.

In terms of coherence, critics have long recognized the advantages of stories which feature a plot, at least in terms of literary superiority. My own estimation is a bit more specific. As I explained HERE, HERE, and HERE, a plot is most valuable for remembering because it removes the need to construct an accessory outline to align story-content in sequence. In the classic example, "The king died and the queen died" is incoherent as a whole story, unless you construct a separate means of recalling who died first and why these deaths are discussed together. (As has been pointed out, they could be Philip of Spain and Elizabeth of England!) In contrast, "The queen died because the king died" embeds coherence and also sequence by replacing "and" with "because". In terms of measuirng Information, the improved story conveys both relevance and chronological order with equal verbal economy. Causality advantages the memorability of stories as stories.

For mnemonic advantage, this structural efficiency far outpaces the basic efficiencies of verbal and episodic reduction. 

In Heroic Histories, the protagonist is often a nexus of causality, the dominant force in a plot. By aggrandizing the "great one", storytellers accomplish much more than inflating their personal agency and glorifying their memory with perpetual honor. By making the central character heroic, storytellers can inject the causality that brings order and coherence to an entire storyworld, not to mention storytime. Sometimes histories have even accounted for multiple centuries of results with the great deeds of one hero.

Without question this strategy distorts the actual past, sometimes drastically. However ,just as undeniable is that this works brilliantly to memorialize the past as the past, including multiple episodes (even entire time periods) with connection and sequence. In such narratives, heroic causality is an organizational key to the project of "keeping history straight". Since the great woman or great man was responsible for creating the big change, major turning points of history can be located with chronological ease. When did Israel take Caanan? "In the days of Joshua." When was the story of Purim? "When Esther was in Persia." In very practical fact, the precise date of a watershed occurrence can become: "It happened when she/he was alive." And there are yet other advantages.

Consider the pros and cons of the following dubious* but very popular narratives: (1) Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in America. (2) Winston Churchill kept the Allies from losing WWII. (3) Adolf Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust. (4) Moses instituted the Jewish law. (5) Jesus founded the christian religion. (6) Augustus Caesar established the Pax Romana. (7) Karl Marx revolutionized historical understanding. While technically indefensible, to any rigorous logic, these oversimplifications remain popular largely because they make history more rememberable.

(*) To clarify: Each of these statements may seem reasonable on the surface but each of them, technically, is a distorted inflation of personal agency. At the very least, the above claims respectively ignore the participation of: (1) Lincoln's constituency, the US Congress, and thousands of soldiers; (2) other leaders, nations, armies, and at-home supporters; (3) economic and social trends in pre-war Germany and holocaust architects indicted at Nuremberg; (4) the elders of the people and the influence of previous cultural tradition, plus likely co-writers and/or divine inspiration; (5) John the Baptist, Peter, James, Paul, etc; (6) Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Antony, Drusus, Tiberius, etc; (7) Marx's literary influences and motivating interlocutors, Frederich Engels, and thousands of readers, critics and historians who've popularized Marxist theory in general in philosophy and historiography.

"Lincoln ended slavery in America" is much easier to remember than the complex reality of events leading up to Emancipation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Ammendment in 1865. The heroic narrative distorts history but renders a simplified timeline, dramatically reducing the amount of information that must be preserved by individuals' memories and social memorializations. As Heroic History the Lincoln narrative facilitates a more efficient remembering of one story, one particular story, based on significant aspects from the largely forgotten vastness of the actual past. It preserves a kernel of actual events... a kernel which can later be made to pop!

Heroic causality has long played a big role in maximizing human memory of the past, not just as the typical "post hoc" causality but as the type I recently termed "Multiple Effecuatlies". As with Lincoln, or Esther, when the impact of the Hero is longstanding, when the narrative effects are diverse and expansive, the revised status quo (as perceived via the story) provides multiple and perpetual opportunities to recall the Hero as cause of that status quo. On one level, the neural advantage is simply a byproduct of associative memory. On another, it's the narrative structure that facilitates such continuous remembering. The memorability of Lincoln or Esther is not due to their characatured greatness, but the greatness of their narrativized impact.

Thus is the kernel preserved, but how does it pop? First, the oversimplified narrative distortion can be passed on as is to a simple audience and preserved at further length. We have future historians right now learning about Abraham Lincoln in kindergaarten. For them, the kernel is most appropriate. Second, as the distorted quality of that preserved memory becomes evident to growing students, the oversimplification can eventually serve ironically as evidence toward reconstructing a more complicated account of events. At both stages, however, it's the distorted truncation and aggrandizement of Lincoln's character that facilitates memorability. Whether seen as a culturally expedient and simplistic hagiography, or as decrepit historical mulch useful only to fertilize the seedbed of deeper inquiry, the memorable legend will almost certainly persist. What else serves as well to promote both these competing agendas?

To sum up:

Heroic histories are narrative distortions which provide mnemoinc advantages. Memorable content is relatively less advantageous than a memorable structure, which is actually so common it has largely been taken for granted. My amateur analysis, however tentatively, fills a tragic lacuna. Nevertheless, the "hero-oriented history" must be recognized for its facilitation of memory; not just remembering the historical figure (and/or character) and their valid or dubious "greatness", but also remembering the precise temporal relationship between the great "hero" and the way times changed before and after their apparent period of prominence. In short, heroic history does not merely advantage the remembering of heroic accomplishment, but the remembering of time itself.

One last point:

The memorability of story-structure is a tremendous key to all this and deserves further reflection. Indeed, as it turns out, causality is only one way to provide structure for narratives that focus on significant individuals. In fact, causality may not even be the best way the most popular, or the most common way to structure heroically oriented stories.

The heroic narrative may or may not become less "heroic" when it esschews Plot as its central dynamic, but it remains viably and coherently rememberable when it takes on the form of the genre called "Life writing", or modern Biography.

There is much more to consider.