Magazine article Times Higher Education

From A-List to B-List

Magazine article Times Higher Education

From A-List to B-List

Article excerpt

Felipe Fernández-Armesto muses on the habit of naming places after people

My dog shames me by demonstrations of intellectual superiority, especially by feats of memory such as I cannot emulate. He never forgets a face or scent. His ability to remember friends after absences of several years convinces me of the poetic truth of the tale of Odysseus' homecoming, when the seafarer's dog, alone of all the household, recognised him. I forget names with embarrassing regularity. I struggle at cocktail parties and conferences, where good manners make impossible demands on my powers of recall. I sometimes forget, albeit momentarily, the names of famous academics when I rattle off reading lists for my students. When I was an undergraduate I had a tutor whose failings in this respect were eccentric. He could rarely remember the title of a book, or the name of its author, although he could always direct me to its exact place on the shelves of the Bodleian.

I console myself with the findings of Daniel Schacter, the Harvard cognitive scientist, who points out that selectively deficient individual memory is an evolved advantage for humans, sparing us from clogging our brains with trivia. The more I forget, the more evolved I can feel. The shortcomings of what most specialists call social memory seem, however, to have no redeeming feature. My students arrive as freshmen in my classroom knowing mainly mythic versions of the past, which most monuments and commemorative events reinforce. The false memories tend to outlast the corrections that academic revisionists offer. In England, the Whig interpretation of history is still blithe and glib, as is, on my present side of the Atlantic, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant reading of the manifest destiny of the United States. Or our lieux de la mémoire - which include graveyards and memorials of the dead - often have a sepulchral effect, burying the supposedly commemorated in effective oblivion. When my children were little, I made a habit, as we walked around the cities we lived in or visited, of asking if they knew why the streets we frequented bore the names of particular heroes or heroines. At last, when we were strolling along Osler Road in Oxford, my elder boy became exasperated. Sir William was not among his own heroes. "Why do they bother to name streets after people who end up forgotten anyway?" he sagely asked. In parts of Paris, and some other French cities, explanatory inscriptions accompany street signs. But this seems an admission of failure, demonstrating that the commemorative act is insufficient to perpetuate memory. Few read the inscriptions, which become more fodder for oblivion in their turn. I always pause to study Blue Plaques in London, but I do not think I can remember anything about any individual to whose life and achievements they have introduced me. …

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