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Funes, the Memorious

In Funes, the Memorious, Borges’ narrator describes his acquaintance with the amazing Ireneo Funes, of the spectacular memory.  The narrator meets Funes in his youth, and jokingly refers to him “The Human Chronograph.”  After a fall that paralyzes him, Funes’s memory takes over his entire state of being; although perhaps it would be just as accurate to say his entire being takes over his entire memory, and both are expanded.   The story reaches a climax of sorts as the narrator reveals the full extent of Funes’ memory and consciousness, and in doing so, adds on to what the reader begins to understand is a collective consciousness ever enlarged, yet, always stuffed full.

Funes reads from Pliny’s Historius Naturalis, from what the narrator tells us is the twenty-fourth chapter of the seventh book, the subject of which is memory.  The last words are “..ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum.”  Translated:   “So that, nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words.”

Funes enumerates things in the world according to his reverse-digital system:  Numbers are transformed into nouns:  “…in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar,” and in the transformation, the analysis made possible by mathematics is impossible, at least on the “front-end” of Funes’ memory.

“Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils. And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal.” These two statements illustrate the contradiction of Funes:  He is an ever-vigilant recorder, and a repository of the minutest memories and perceptions, yet he collects without forgetting, and is thus an involuntary hoarder, a junkman of the mind.  Funes’ memories, which accumulate upon each and every second of existence, consume his experience, and yet experience of his present immediately becomes memory, experiencing, producing, storing, experiencing the memory of the experience.  Reading historical texts provides no balm for this condition, for which Funes does not desire a cure, because each new reading and re-reading is a new experience, each new utterance, all of which must be stored.  Borges’ naming of this character with the prefix to the Spanish and Portuguese word for  ill-fated– funesto –provides us with a judgement of such an existence.

Funes’ state is a kind of pure consciousness without breakpoints.  His extreme memory and hyper-real perceptions recall the vast amounts of information, the scrupulous and minute perceptions and recountings of details of mundane life available on the vast arrays of information repositories, cloud instances, and the Internet as a whole. Relentless indexing of any information that has been exposed to digital nets, countless personal recollections, interior monologues and even homework assignments live in perpetuity in “the ether.”  The rise of cloud computing gives information a greater persistence.  There is much repetition of information and experience in tweets of re-tweets that have been re-tweeted.

Crowd-sourced repositories and crowd-sourced databases and Wikis re-tell existing vetted sources of information along with new informal sources of information, and this information is recycled again in school papers, marketing materials and personal conversations.  Obviously, social networks and sharing sites expand the collective hoarded memory further.  And while we name every capability and site only after an assiduously conducted name search, ultimately, the named properties and everyday objects of the digital age cloak numbers, in their constituent pieces, and directives.

I am stretching and distorting the elegance of Borges’ story to call up a point others have made about a somewhat banal digital existence today, when I say that digital memory management and data storage challenge societies as we push along our age’s timeline.  And yet Borges writes:  “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything.”  Is Funes’ memory is a garbage disposal that is only be emptied at his death at 19?   How can digital societies address the continual, compulsive, automated indexing and information accounting, storing, recounting, saving again that is ongoing, along with the energy demands of these activities?  Funes’ memory is not contained at his death; it lives on anew with each re-telling, each new reading of his story.

There is much more to this story, and it is redolent with dense associations and trails for philosophical thought, so I have done it a disservice describing it in this mundane context.  Still, we move in a digital life in which I make these ungraceful analogies, I am trying to bring that life to that wheel.




671 comments to Funes, the Memorious

  • Nancy

    those are certainly interesting comments!

    “How can digital societies address the continual, compulsive, automated indexing and information accounting, storing, recounting, saving again that is ongoing, along with the energy demands of these activities?….” Can or should? I wonder about the OCD nature of archiving everything. Funes.. as I said in another comment..had memory, but not much in the way of memories.

  • dm1346

    Nancy, I am sorry I have waited so long to respond to your comments.

    In the story, Funes becomes a kind of consciousness of the world and all it puts before him–imbibing, recording, archiving, seeing experiences in eight dimensions–the sip of wine becomes the glass, where it was blown, the vines, what the sun looked like as the grapes grew. I loved this tale because it hails from the past to our digital presents and futures, while at the same time, in its intense descriptions of Funes’ extreme experience, it recalls heightened memory and sense experience that each of us has had, at some point, in life.

    We are recording and archiving so much of our lives that I think many are missing the experiences of life, however immediate the modern recording media may be. I wonder whether or not this may contribute to a shallowness of experience. (The overall shallowing effect of the Internet has been a hot topic in the past year, though I have not read the book, I”m sure I’ll repeat some of those thoughts).

    If you are always recording, and saving, and archiving, you already have one foot outside of the experience. I am here and I am recording myself here. There’s the unseen or maybe acknowledged current or future audience with you, experiencing your experience of the the experience which includes your recording of all of it. And what’s more, the experience may be something like…what I had for dinner, how I am doing my hair, etc. I understand this kind of compulsive recording and saving activity for chronicling the growth and development of one’s children and family, but for many, the recording and archiving is a way of life.

    What does this mean for human memory? At a rare family event a few years ago, I asked my brother, a professional photographer, whether or not he wanted a photo of a particularly sweet shot of the event that someone had taken. He said no, that he wanted to remember the image, the scene, instead, and he has expressed the same sentiment several times since then. My impression is that he has become overloaded with the images and the archiving of his work to the extent that they almost flatten out and dissolve, and I do not think he is alone in this.

    Under optimal circumstances (nutrition, rest, time of day, etc.) in our minds, memories rise and fall, depending on need and associations. Memory is elastic, and while many pieces of information will fall by the wayside, other pieces will be ordered, placed in deep memory, emerge only in dreams, or will sit on one’s forehead-desktop awaiting our service. These orderings and placements change dynamically, as we live our lives.

    I think as scientists work further on data storage models that approach the brain’s elasticity, incorporating biology and nanotechnology, the energy demands for physical storage will eventually decrease, though this science and engineering may take longer than we hope. We surmise that records like surveillance tapes in markets and other places of commerce are purged periodically, as are the volumes of superannuated code by software and Internet organizations, but still the archiving, the preservation of information of relatively recent vintage continues unabated.

    I have very few pictures of myself as a child. Only those taken at school or at a weird photo studio where my grandmother had us photographed as present and correct, once a year. Yet I have very rich memories of childhood experiences. I know these “memories” are not accurate, because I also know that memory is unreliable, but I suspect that it travels in the opposite direction of the recorded memory of a photograph or video–instead of having a shallowing effect on experience, it qualifies, moves, and extends that experience. While the memories have their truths, in them, and in the way that my mind calls them up and patches them together, I begin to see how stories evolve–my own and those of others.