restricted access Beyond Mnemotechnics: Confession and Memory in Augustine
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Philosophy and Rhetoric 39.3 (2006) 233-253

Beyond Mnemotechnics:
Confession and Memory in Augustine
Dave Tell
Department of Communication
University of Maryland

In Book 10 of The Confessions, Augustine famously describes memory as a "great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds" (1961, 214). 1 Augustine here articulates the first premise of the mnemotechnic tradition: memoria ex locis. 2 Memory, in this tradition, is figured as a place—an "inner chamber, vast and unbounded"—into which images are "seized with marvelous speed and are put away as if into wondrous cells" (10.8.15, 10.9.16). For Augustine, however, this inner chamber is not simply a repository in which images of the past are preserved intact; the images "undergo change" in the process of placement (10.25.36) and, once within the chambers or memory, the images are gathered, reordered, and "placed ready at hand" (ad manum posita) (10.11.18). The spacious palace of memory, in other words, positions the past as it preserves the past; placement is a form of management.

The politics of placement set the stage for what Augustinian scholar Roland Teske (2001, 153) has argued is the central question of TheConfessions: "How then do I seek you, O Lord?" (10.20.29). If this is the central question of The Confessions, the central answer is memory. The sheer facticity of Augustine's divine recollections assures him that God "abide[s] within" memory: "Truly, you dwell in my memory, since I have remembered you from the time I learned of you, and I find you there when I call you to mind." Yet the memory by which divinity is called to mind must not proceed ex locis (from places), for Augustine refuses to subject God to what I have called the politics of placement—the changing, positioning, and managing of the remembered object that, according to the mnemotechnic tradition, always accompanies its placement in the storehouses of memory. God is "unchangeable," Augustine writes, and resists the management that attends placement in memory (10.25.36). 3 His search for God thus ends with an emphatic double proclamation that there is no place for God: "There is no place, both backward do we go and forward, and there is no place" (et nusquam locus, et recedimus et accedimus, et nusquam locus) (10.26.37). [End Page 233] This is not simply the theological insistence that God cannot be placed, it is also an indictment of the entire mnemotechnic tradition, for it was precisely the ability to move backward and forward through the places of memory that marked the pinnacle of the mnemotechnic art. 4 Yet even this ability to move bilaterally through the places of memory—even the mnemotechnic tradition at its best—is, Augustine insists, inadequate for remembering God. This inadequacy is underscored throughout The Confessions. Augustine writes, "I was intent on the things that are contained in places, but among them I found no place of rest" (7.7.11). Augustine, then, found the mnemotechnic tradition with its penchant for putting things in places profoundly dissatisfying: there could be no place for God and, consequently, the places of memory could never provide the satisfaction and "rest" that Augustine so ardently sought. 5 This, then, is Augustine's dilemma: God must be remembered but he cannot be placed, the memoria Dei requires a memorial practice in which the past is not preserved through placement in memory. 6 Augustine balks at the prospect of such a dis-placed memorial practice: "Am I to assert that what I remember is not in my memory?" Augustine queries. The notion, he writes, is "most absurd" (10.16.24).

In this essay I turn to Augustine's extended discussion of memory in De Trinitate to explain how Augustine remembers God without placing God. I contend that he does so through the rhetorical practice of confession. Confession, for Augustine, is a way of remembering that which cannot be placed in the storehouses of memory. Confession is a performative remembering in...