The Oasis of Memory

An outpost of stability in the shifting sands of our time

NEAR the beginning of his great work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II the historian Fernand Braudel described the vast nomadic regimes that held sway for centuries throughout Europe and North Africa, until they were displaced by the more sedentary economies of town and field. In nomadic societies, as generations of anthropologists have pointed out, ever-moving populations pursue livelihoods and maintain social ties over vast expanses of geography. Distinctions between life and work verge on the meaningless. "News" becomes elusive (and untrustworthy), but all the more sought after. Memory, though intangible, serves as a major source of continuity. "That this life is hard will be easily imagined," Braudel wrote. "That it has its own charms, with the aid of poetry and illusion, must also be accepted."

was published half a century ago. Braudel died in 1985. Had it occurred to him that nomadism of some sort might be the hallmark not only of a distant past but also of a post-industrial future? He never set eyes, surely, on the Country Coach company's Magna line of $300,000 recreational vehicles, which come equipped with a complete set of household appliances, a computerized chassis-balancing system, and a wine cellar, and can be ordered in a nomadically correct color called Sand Storm. "Living out of a car" was once synonymous with "living on Skid Row," but according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, some 25 million Americans now live out of their cars in a state of affluent peripateticism for part of the year. (America's RV herd numbers upwards of nine million vehicles.) Manufacturers report a surge in sales of luxury cars fitted out as offices, allowing owners to remain linked to headquarters by phone, fax, and modem while traveling. Even standard versions of ordinary cars seem to anticipate a state of continuous tribal excursion. A typical Dodge Caravan offers twelve built-in cup holders; the new Chevy Venture offers seventeen. A full workstation (computer, printer, desk, filing compartment) has been designed for strapping into any front passenger seat.

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"The simple fact is," the ethnologist Philip Carl Salzman writes, "that the path from nomad to sedentary is not one way; on the contrary, the shift from the sedentary to the nomadic way of life has been frequent and widespread over historical time, and is in many regions an ongoing process." Pedestrians everywhere move about with nylon-and-Velcro saddlebags affixed to hips and shoulders, and special receptacles for liquid; more than 40 million carry pagers. Perhaps soon they will also wear around their necks a lightweight pressurized canister now advertised in catalogues -- "your own personal, portable source of clean air." One of the best-selling items of luggage at Patagonia stores is the "Maximum Legal Carry-On" bag, which enables users to pack dense amounts of electronic gear and other life-support apparatus into a container guaranteed to fit into the overhead storage bin on commercial aircraft. Observe the contents of a stranger's briefcase the next time one is opened near you; in all likelihood, the owner could be transported unexpectedly to Alma Ata or Baku and yet retain full access to money, power, and freshness of breath. The Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has begun to design computers and telecommunications equipment that can be sewn into clothing. A prototype Wearables ensemble called the Lingua Trekka provides access to the Global Positioning System and makes possible the simultaneous translation of spoken language wherever one happens to be.

"The enhancement of investment opportunity, of personal autonomy, and of political independence can militate in favor of the nomadic life," Salzman observes. An acceleration in the movement of people from job to job, and of jobs themselves from city to city and country to country, is by now well established. Locales where Americans in significant proportions have owned their homes for as long as thirty years now occupy a shrinking domain in the heartland and New England. Last year, for the first time, the amount of money Americans spent on meals outside the home surpassed the amount they spent on meals inside the home. Medical services once provided to bedridden patients have in many cases been replaced by "ambulatory care." Dual citizenship, a consequence of natal accidents and legal quirks, has proliferated by several orders of magnitude as wandering tribal groups collide and propagate. (In one recent year the most popular name for newborn Hispanic males in New York and newborn Asian males in San Francisco was Kevin.) Universities are moving away from the system known as tenure (the very word harks back to a regime of stable landholding) and toward reliance on a migratory professoriat. More than 40 percent of college teachers are essentially day laborers, working at temporary jobs or on part-time schedules.

Greater mobility is evident not only in the spatial dimension but also in the temporal one. A growing share of the work force toils outside the traditional dawn-to-dusk workday. "Now, venturing into the night," the sociologist Murray Melbin writes, "we have the same motives as our predecessors who migrated geographically." Some analysts, including those at The Economist, ascribe the low unemployment in the United States today in part to the fact that more and more American businesses are open around the clock. The term "hot-desking" describes the assignment of employees on different shifts to a single office, desk, and computer -- a workplace version of vacation-home timesharing, or of the shipboard practice of sequential bunking. To accommodate travelers for whom the conventions of diurnal rhythm have become impracticable, the Hilton hotel chain offers "Sleep-Tight Rooms" with circadian light boxes, special soundproofing, and other features designed to induce restful sleep at unlikely hours.

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Braudel was fascinated by the way evolving social facts show up in social mentalités. It is not hard, obviously, to discern a nomadic sensibility in the diffusion of such terms as "grazing," "surfing," and "browsing," or in the popularity of books by Bruce Chatwin, or in the way the continuous loop of the twenty-four-hour news cycle has become a unifying social feature. ("'What is the news?'" asked Wilfred Thesiger, a mid-century chronicler of Bedouin life in Araby. "It is the question which follows every encounter in the desert even between strangers. Given a chance the Bedu will gossip for hours ... and nothing is too trivial for them to recount.") But traces of that sensibility show up in subtler ways as well. For instance, cats that might once as a class have been hunted down as "strays" seem lately to have found cultural affinity: people who would preserve the nomadic alley-cat lifestyle have organized themselves into a defensive National Feral Cat Network. Scholars who study seventeenth- and eighteenth-century piracy are detecting worthy elements in the pirates' vagabondish ways -- "floating democratic commonwealths," their shipboard polities have lately been called by one scholar. Another scholar has celebrated "the uniquely free-floating social dynamics of pirate culture." And then there is the recent example of Vernon Pierce, a sometime resident of Glendale, Arizona, whose own free-floating social dynamics kept him so constantly on the move that within a few years he had collected four wives in three states. A newspaper account of his sentencing noted that Pierce "had to make notes to himself to keep his stories straight."

The Pierce case offers an inadvertent reminder that for societies as for individuals, one of the greatest challenges posed by nomadism is the preservation of memory. It is here, perhaps, that modern nomadism departs most sharply from the more traditional kind, in which prodigious feats of memory -- involving legend and lore, poetry and genealogy, profit and loss -- secured links among individuals and generations. Pharmacologists, to be sure, are experimenting with powerful drugs that could one day enhance the memory of specific people, but the ongoing erosion of collective memory is difficult to deny. Education remains tantamount to individualized foraging. History is a matter of personal choice.

If we are going to travel further along the nomadic path, then might it not make sense to revive one key element of preliterate nomadic culture -- the memorization of a few basic dicta we could all hold in common? Memorization is an antique skill that has heedlessly been allowed to atrophy. The word "rote" tends to be employed these days solely with a pejorative inflection, as if rote memory were not a resource or a tool. I would propose the creation of a kind of oasis of memory. And I would suggest, as a start, these few basics: the "Rules of Civility" from George Washington's childhood copybook; the biblical Song of Songs; Chapter Fourteen ("Mealtime Manners") of Emily Post's Etiquette; the preamble of the Constitution of the United States; Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech; the official baseball rulebook; the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld; Chapter Seven ("Tires, Wheels, Brakes, and Suspension") of the Readers Digest Family Handyman guide Simple Car Care & Repair; Chapter Ten ("some are more equal than others") of George Orwell's Animal Farm; the category "Anonymous" in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; the words to "Louie, Louie." When students are ready to move on to second grade, they can add much more.

That this task could be hard will be easily imagined. That it has its own charms must also be accepted.

Cullen Murphy is the managing editor of The Atlantic and the author of (1995), a book of essays. He writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.

Illustration by Dave Calver

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; The Oasis of Memory; Volume 281, No. 5; pages 24 - 26.