I once spoke to a Russian student who said that to this day they are required to memorize poetry in school.

What is the role of memorization in today’s curriculum? Does it make a difference in our lives, knit our identity together strongly, or is it a deservedly dead tradition?

A psychological argument might go something like this: your entire identity is dependent on how you remember yourself to be. But this is a flat description, devoid of the power of experience itself. At best, the psychologist will tell you “with different memories you would be a different person.” The question of memorization is also about what one should memorize.

In that sense, literary critic George Steiner has one of the best arguments for memory out there in his incredible book Real Presences.

Works of art, which are genuine experiences – real presences – shape the way we feel and think about the world as profoundly as our encounter with other people. Remembering works of art may be crucial to your own imagined self. We have a responsibility to them, almost a duty, to understand them:

The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibility. We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological.

The performers of the work areexecutants” who “invest their own being in the process of interpretation.” So what about the memorizer?

In reference to language and the musical score, enacted interpretation can also be inward. The private reader or listener can become an executant of felt meaning when he learns the poem or the musical passage by heart. To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force. Ben Jonson’s term, “ingestion”, is precisely right. What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a ‘pace-maker’ in the growth and vital complication of our identity. No exegesis or criticism from without can be so directly incorporate within us the formal means, the principles of executive organization of a semantic fact, be it verbal or musical. Accurate recollection and resort in rememberance not only deepen our grasp of the work: they generate a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows. As we change, so does the informing context of the internalized poem or sonata. In turn, remembrance becomes recognition and discovery (to re-cognize is to know anew). The archaic Greek belief that memory is the mother of the Muses expresses a fundamental insight into the nature of the arts and of the mind.

The issues here are political and social in the strongest sense. A cultivation of trained, shared remembrance sets a society in natural touch with its own past. What matters even more, it safeguards the core of individuality. What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent tide of social conformity, cannot tear it from us. In solitude, public or private, the poem remembered, the score played inside us, are the custodians and remembrancers (another somewhat archaic designation on which my argument will draw) of what is resistant, of what must be kept inviolate in our psyche.

Under censorship and persecution, much of the finest in modern Russian poetry was passed from mouth to mouth and recited inwardly. The indispensable reserves of protest, of authentic record, of irony, in Akhmatova, in Mandelstam and in Pasternak, have been preserved and mutely published in the editions of personal memory.

Amid the technological revolution where media is ubiquitous, Steiner suggests:

The danger is that the text or music will lose what physics calls its ‘critical mass’, its implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self.

British diplomat and philosopher Isaiah Berlin once described meeting the god-mother of Russian poetry Anna Akhmatova, one of the few artists to survive Stalin’s purges. It was a meeting so delightful and poignant – a meeting held in secret in a cold damp country house at dusk, observed in the distance by KGB. They spoke about music, literature and history until morning. It was a pure act of transmission,  a revelation of the human spirit and a mountaintop experience for Berlin. What was shared were her experiences with literature – a house full of real presences that could be visited many times in her loneliness. The voices of the past were alive in Akhmatova’s mind, ready to relate to a friend, and made her a truly free woman.

The other day I decided to give one of my students copies of Solzhenistyn’s  “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and “Cancer Ward.”

I was taking a gamble that they would influence this young man the way they awoke in me a connection to history, literature and humanity.

What spoke to me in the Russian tradition was the hard won reflection on human nature amidst suffering and a search for identity. Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were the interlocutors of my prolonged adolescence – they were asking similar questions about life’s meaning.

This is what all great literature does. Should we actively encourage “ingestion”? Will it safegaurd our identity against conformity, or encourage conformity to tradition? Do we want our best traditions to have an “indwelling clarity and life force”?