Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, Borges and Memory

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012). 224pp. Hb £17.95. ISBN 9780262018210.

Recent years have arguably seen a sharp increase of interest in cognitive science, psychology and all things ‘neuro’, not only in academic circles but also in popular culture and primers aimed at the layperson. A willingness or even hunger to understand the seemingly endless mysteries of the brain/mind by those with little scientific background helps to explain the success of accessible humanities-grounded works, such as the story-like case studies of Oliver Sacks, or Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist (2007). Novelist and literary theorist David Lodge comments in his Consciousness and the Novel (2002) that ‘until fairly recently, consciousness was not much studied by the natural sciences’, but that on the other hand, ‘literature is a record of human consciousness, the richest and most comprehensive we have.’ Rodrigo Quian Quiroga’s Borges and Memory evidently seeks to insert itself into this new area of brain science that has been filtered through literature and culture (which in itself is perhaps merely an anxious appeal to an older tradition of Romantic Science).

Quian Quiroga, an eminent Argentinian neuroscientist, talks in this book about his rediscovery of a Jorge Luis Borges short story which has been translated into English most commonly under the title of ‘Funes the Memorious’. This story, which Quian Quiroga claims to have read with relish as a teenager and then ironically forgotten for decades, deals with a bizarre Uruguayan gaucho with a limitless and ostensibly perfect memory. Given that Quian Quiroga has himself gone on to become an expert on memory, breaking important ground on the relationship between perception, specific neurons and abstract concept storage, it is extremely interesting that he asserts that Borges's story ‘had the perfect words to express the results of my research and which with astonishing clarity ended up sorting the pieces of the puzzle I had been working on’ (5).

Having set out his stall thus, Quian Quiroga then relates a story that his introduction intimates he felt compelled to share and which almost wrote itself. The book is structured across twelve chapters, expounding his scientific findings (and those of others) in a format that flits between Borgesian digressions and a history of modern neuroscience. It begins by discussing the possibility of a real-life historical figure predating Funes, much as Borges does in his tale. With Borges himself tail-ending this illustrious list of mnemonists, Quian Quiroga talks about Borges’s library and the potential philosophical, literary or theoretical influences it contained – the neuroscientist had been given privileged access to the library by Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama. This rumination leads Quian Quiroga to consider further extreme cases of real prodigious memory as well as forgetfulness in more recent writings, such as ‘S’ in Alexander Luria’s famous The Mind of a Mnemonist, or the much-studied Patient HM. Here, points both in common with or diverging from Funes are truly intriguing.

After a concerted explication of current and historical thinking on memory (including a chapter touching on autism and savants), there comes the centre-piece chapter: ‘The Delicate Balance between Remembering and Forgetting’ (117–130). The main thesis here linking neuroscience and Funes (or Borges more broadly speaking) is the fascinating insight, adapted from William James, ‘that if we remembered everything we would be as disadvantaged as if we forgot it all, and that, paradoxically, we must forget in order to be able to remember’ (119) – this is remarkably similar to Lehrer’s conclusion in his discussion of Proust and neuroscience that ‘If you prevent the memory from changing, it ceases to exist. [W]e have to misremember something in order to remember it.’ The point is that Funes’s immense memory is arguably as tragic in its own way as an amnesiac’s missing past. Quian Quiroga continues by touching briefly but engagingly on perception, vision, neurophysiology and his own experimental discoveries regarding concept abstraction at the neuronal level. His discussion here (which includes that of his own amusingly named ‘Jennifer Aniston neuron’) is lucid and entertaining, helping to explain how ‘normal’ brains abstract things rather than remember every single detail – precisely in order to avoid becoming over-burdened by memories like Funes, or Luria’s ‘S’.

Framing its twelve chapters, the introduction and acknowledgements sections paint the author almost as a protagonist in a narrative about his own personal interactions with literature, philosophy, history and neuroscience. The supposedly ‘unscientific’ centralization of himself as an agent in the construction of the book’s very fabric and subject matter, by using an evidently intentional narrating ‘I’ throughout, is refreshing and effective; the authoritative gravitas lent to the text by Quian Quiroga’s status and clearly outstanding career is nicely tempered by the conversational and furthermore absorbingly passionate tone of his writing. However, far from being an uncomplicated (yet no doubt welcome) explosion of the unnecessarily elaborate nature of most academic texts, fascinating and problematic new questions do arise in Borges and Memory. The principle one revolves around one of Borges’s own pet topics: translation. Quian Quiroga notes that ‘Borges, who was raised bilingual, joked that the Spanish version of Don Quixote was a bad translation from the English original. It may actually be the case that the English translation of this book [Borges and Memory] surpasses the original. This shouldn’t be attributed to my modest bilingual abilities, though, but to the terrific work and dedication of Juan Pablo Fernández’ (204). As an Argentinian neuroscientist consciously and pseudo-autobiographically treating a largely literary topic, but one also stemming from a fellow Argentine, the reflexive nature of Quian Quiroga’s project spills over into the territory of the mutability of language and culture.

Likening the practice of scientists to ‘personal quests [and] quixotic endeavors’ (3), it is worth asking if using Borges as a lens upon neuroscience might not also have made available or even necessary some commentary upon the Spanish-speaking and Argentinian aspect of the minds of the authors involved. Certainly, an elaboration on the interrelations inside and outside of the brain between memory and language (perhaps resulting in the abstraction of a concept such as culture) would greatly serve to elucidate a book as personal as Borges and Memory (especially as concept abstraction is such a central idea). It seems a fairly important oversight on his part – unless his choice of subject matter is coincidentally a mirage in the manner of Don Quixote himself, and the conflation of science with an epic search for truth its own obstacle.

Romén Reyes-Peschl, University of Kent