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Memory and Phantasy

Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib Document

Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

Memory and Phantasy


The following essay is based on notes taken during a series of lectures on the “Anthroposophical Knowledge of the Being of Man,” at Rudolf Steiner House from December 28th, 1933 to January 3rd, 1934. These notes were made at that time by Dorothy Osmond and later revised by the author for publication.

Since the death, on November 20th, 1976, of Lilly Kolisko — the author's widow — several such manuscripts have come to light. Memory and Phantasy is thought to be a continuation of the series of lectures published by the Kolisko Archive under the title “The Threefold Human Organism” and it is hoped eventually to publish more of these valuable manuscripts.

Although this lecture was given over forty years ago it is felt to be ever relevant to our present day, perhaps even more so, and it is hoped that the reader will find it both absorbing and instructive.

5th May, 1977
A. Clunies-Ross

Copyright © 1977
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When the imagination of the future is as strong as the memory of the past, at that moment we are free”

E. Kolisko


AS a continuation of our series of lectures dealing with the human being and his connection with the Universe, we will proceed today to consider memory and phantasy. We can only fully understand the being of man if we are able to conceive of streams of forces, polarically opposite in character, that are working within and upon the human organism. Man is a highly complicated being and all through his organism we find evidence of the working of great polarities. The eye, for instance, is a sense-organ connected with light and with consciousness. The sense of touch, on the other hand, is connected with darkness, for here we come into contact with material substances. Everywhere in the human being polarities are at work and one of these polarities is evident in the two functions of memory and phantasy.

Memory is due to the action of thinking. The impressions made upon the soul by way of the senses remain in the human organism. Just as certain conceptions of an object arise within the soul, so is memory due to the fact that after an impression has been made through the senses there remains a picture of the object. Memory, therefore, may be said to be reproductive.

Many people, not only the scientists, have been struck by the fact that memory shows evidence of the same laws that are characteristic of heredity. Think of a growing plant, where the same form of leaf is reproduced again and again. A force which reproduces the same form many times is at work here and exactly the same thing holds good of memory. Memory reproduces the same form, only in a more spiritual sense.

Our memory is connected with our own biography. A serious ‘loss of memory.’ as we say, means that the Ego has been lost, and illness is the result. Memory and self-consciousness are inseparable. It is only because we have memory that we can have self-consciousness, and vice versa, and it is through these two powers that we are able to know our own life, at all events from a certain point in childhood. Speaking generally, memories arise in the third year of life, at the moment when the child says ‘I’ of himself, when he realises himself as an individual. Although the third year is the usual time at which this experience occurs, statements have been made by certain individuals, for example, by Tolstoy, that they remember their life even before this age. Such cases are, however, rare. Again there are people whose memory goes back only to the fifth or sixth year of life. There are great differences in respect of this individual capacity of remembering. If children in school are asked to write down their very first remembrance, the differences in the experiences are very marked. We shall always find, moreover, that the first remembrance in the life of an individual is very characteristic of him.

Memory is indissolubly connected with the individuality. From the moment that memory arises the human being is an individual, and from the moment he realises himself as an individual, he also has memory. The biography of a man is contained in the capacity to remember his own life.

Bearing in mind the fact that memory is connected with the thinking process of the Ego, we may ask: Why does memory not arise, normally, before the third year of life? It is because the force that gives rise to memory — that is to say, the possibility of picturing an object when the object is no longer there — works in the body before memory arises. A certain development of the brain must already have taken place before memory is possible. All our ‘mental’ powers work, at the beginning of our development, upon the body, building up the body. Then, when this work has been brought to a certain stage of completion, these same powers begin to work as mental or spiritual faculties. Mental activity and bodily form are caused by the same, primeval spiritual forces. As the human being incarnates into the body, the first task is to mould and shape this body (which, of course, includes the brain) and then, when the body-building forces have finished their task, they become mental faculties.

It is not true to say that the life of soul and spirit in all its forms arises from the brain. It is only the intellectual faculty that arises from the brain. Impulses of will arise from the limbs; feelings from the heart. From the brain there arises only one third of the spiritual life, namely, the intellect that is altogether bound up with the senses.

Suppose there arises in us an original idea that is not based upon sense-perception. Such an idea is able to arise because we have discovered something of the spiritual foundations of the universe — not its material, sensible foundations. When a true idea is born, the Spirit is working in the human being and in a certain sense he is liberated from corporeality. Truth is a spiritual force which releases us from bondage to the body. When we are investigating some law of nature or some great truth that has lain hidden for generations in evolution we are really finding our way to the spiritual foundations of the universe. Insight into truth involves an ascent into the spiritual world and such ascent is only possible for the human being when he is no longer bound to his body in the same way as he is bound in everyday life. The world in which truth is found is other than the physical world, and this insight into truth is only possible, during earthly existence, at certain moments.

Memory, as we have seen, is connected with a certain completion in the process of bodily formation. Thus it does not arise until the third year, and another stage is completed at the seventh year, with the coming of the second teeth, where there is a change in the whole organism. This change is often the cause of illnesses or ailments. In every period of seven years the substances that are circulating in the human organism are completely changed and the first change at the age of seven is very important indeed. After the coming of the second teeth there is an outstanding development of the faculty of memory and only then is it really possible for the child to have what we know as ‘abstract’ thought.

Memory is a faculty that can only look into the past. It arises only after the formation of certain structures in the human organism and for this reason it can look backwards when it is no longer working at the building up of the body but is free to function as a mental capacity. As the body becomes more solid, more shaped with increasing age, memory becomes more objective as it looks backwards over life, over the past.

It is quite obvious that memory is connected with the life of the intellect. Suppose, for instance, that a student is preparing for an examination and strains his memory to the utmost, crams it with facts. At such a time the student is all ‘head-organisation,’ not really a normal human being. He is so full of abstract thoughts, so full of memory substance that he is all ‘head.’ When this happens, sleep is difficult and a lack of sleep has a very bad effect upon memory. There is a very close connection between sleep and memory. Some people say that if they put a book under the pillow during the night this helps them to assimilate its contents. But this better knowledge is not due to the fact of having the book under the pillow. It is due to concentration and then the action of sleep. Overstraining of the memory is counterbalanced again and again by sleep.

In a certain sense we are born anew in our life of soul every morning. The body and its structures are refreshed by sleep and thus the powers of memory are enhanced by the forces of the night. On the average, we sleep for one third of our earthly life. The gaps in self-conscious life caused by sleep are necessary for our existence, and it is true to say that memory itself is created anew every time we wake from sleep. The miracle of a new creation takes place, during sleep and if in the light of Anthroposophy we study what seems to be a simple occurrence of everyday life, we are filled with wonder. It is indeed of the essence of Anthroposophy that the simplest things should fill us with wonder because it is only the force of wonder that will eventually enable us to understand things of greater complexity and difficulty.

As the faculty of looking back into the past, memory is similar to heredity, only the forces in memory have been transferred to the Spiritual. The same force that gives the human being memory, gives the animal his heredity. Fundamentally speaking, animals have no memory. It is said that a dog must be endowed with memory because he knows his master from day to day, but the way in which the recognition takes place is not the same as in a human being who recognises or remembers an object. The impressions that come to the animal from outside make a deep impression on the body of the animal because its soul-life is wholly bound up with its corporeal life. Impressions that come to the human being make an impression on a different principle, namely, upon the soul. After all, the strongest impression made upon a dog by his master is that the master gives him food. There is a directly material connection between the master and the dog, and when the master is not there, it may be said that the dog misses him in his stomach, not in his brain. The so-called ‘mental’ faculties of the animal are much more closely connected with the body than is the case in the human being; they are distributed through the whole body of the animal, less centralised in the brain. A human being has an inner, spiritual picture of his fellowman, but the corresponding experience in the animal is much more intensely corporeal, much more closely connected with the bodily feelings and sensations. It follows from this that the animal feels pain much more intensely than the human being. The human being can to a certain extent get the better of pain, can let pain be his teacher because it is only one part of the life of soul in man that is connected with the body. In the animal, however, the whole of the soul-life is bound up with the body. Reaction to pain on the part of human beings and of animals is, therefore, quite different.

Since memory is a spiritual capacity, it is to be found, in the real sense, only in man. Man alone can have a biography because he is an individual who has a past of his very own. Animals have no biography in the real sense.

We must now pass on to consider a faculty of the soul that is opposite in character to memory — namely, phantasy. In nature and in function these faculties of memory and phantasy are contradictory to each other. Memory very often claims to be able to represent the whole truth in connection with an event or a phenomenon. We may say that in its claims in this direction memory is often ‘pedantic.’ The sister-faculty of phantasy is altogether different. Phantasy is connected with the element of artistic creation. Memory is concerned only with the past, with reproduction of what has been. Phantasy, however, introduces variation and is directed towards the future. Phantasy paints the future in glowing colours, builds ‘castles in the air’ as we say. It is quite clear that phantasy has something in common with dreaming. The relation of memory to life of dream, however, is altogether different. At the moment of waking our dreams may still seem very vividly with us, because the faculty of memory which has to do with events in our waking consciousness, has not yet begun to function. But after we have been awake for some minutes, then memory comes into play and our dreams elude us.

In connection with the relation between phantasy and dreaming, it is interesting to know that certain great poets, for example Goethe, wrote some of his finest lyric poems in the morning, directly he had wakened from sleep. It is as though these poems were born of his dreams. Again, the composer Schubert wrote most of his very beautiful songs in the morning, in a half dreamlike state of consciousness.

Artistic creation is connected with the life of dream and, if we think of it, there is unmistakably a musical element in all our dreams. They seem to be full of dissonances and also of concordances. Phantasy is connected with the life of feeling and of will — not, fundamentally speaking, with the intellectual faculty. It may be said that poetic creations, of which examples have been given above, are phantasies, objectivised and made real.

Phantasy, this sister of memory, is the very reverse of pedantic. Something lives, grows, and comes into being in phantasy, something that grows on into the future.

And now let us think of these two faculties in connection with the sense-organs. In looking at some object the faculty of memory comes into play, for we can remember the object after it is no longer there. But it is possible to close the eyes and look at them as it were from the inner side. If we can do this, we shall see fantastic pictures and images such as were described by Goethe, by the Russian scientist Purkinje and by Johannes Müller.

A process of metabolism takes place in the eye and this is due to the blood. With the faculties of intellect and of memory we grasp the contours and outlines of objects. This is due to the action of the nerves. But the other faculty, the faculty of seeing the pictures of phantasy is not due to the nerves but to the blood. If, however, these pictures of phantasy becomes objective, if they seem to stand there before us in the outer world, then this is a symptom of illness. The pictures of phantasy in such a case have become hallucinations.

Thus in every sense-organ, two forces are active, namely, the force of the nerves and the force of the blood. The blood feeds the sense-organs. Think, for instance, of the eye. When we gaze at some object with intense interest, more blood flows into the eye than when we merely look at an object with indifference. If children in a class at school are irritated by the lesson or by something at which they are made to look, then the blood will withdraw from their eyes. Short-sightedness is by no means only due to intense and over-preoccupation with small objects, or too small print in books. One of the undoubted causes of short-sightedness is the fact that in childhood we are taught a great deal of intellectual matter which, at this early age we are incapable of understanding. When this happens, when the child feels annoyance, the blood refuses to stream into the eyes and short-sightedness is caused.

It is the nerve-force, then, that leads to memory, and the force of the blood that stimulates phantasy. If too much blood flows into the eye, then the action of the eye itself becomes ‘phantastical.’

The interest we take in objects and phenomena is a centrifugal force, due to the action of the blood in the sense-organs. Children have more blood in their sense-organs than grown-up people, and that is why their interest in the things of the outside world is so much more intense. Children cannot, in fact, always register things as they actually are and will often tell phantastic stores of what they have seen. When this happens at an early age it is quite normal, but if it continues until a later age, then a corrective is necessary, for now it is an abnormal process.

This is an indication of the fact that for every illness — which is an abnormal process — there is a corresponding normal process. We shall understand the nature of illness if we can discover the point at which the symptoms were themselves the expression of a normal process. Let us take a characteristic example, namely, the illness of sclerosis. Because the head is so full of dead, mineral substance, man has the capacity to think abstract thoughts, i.e. thoughts that are ‘abstracted’ from the immediate physical reality. This mineralising process is absolutely normal when it is confined to the head, but if the same forces that set up the mineralisation there, pass over to the rest of the organism, sclerosis arises.

Once again let us consider the contrasts that exist between phantasy and memory. The human brain is like a mirror which throws back pictures of the different impressions we receive and which work into the whole organism, not only into the brain as is generally believed. The brain is like a reflector of the memory-content, and memory, as we know, is due to the action of the nerves. But the faculty of phantasy is permeated not with the forces of the nerves, but with the forces of the blood, and blood pours not only into the sense-organs but into the limbs, into the life of feeling and of action, and helps, in these regions, to build up what works on into the future. The past is there and cannot be changed, but the future is quite a different matter. The future is connected with the processes and organs in us that are the basis of our will and of our life of feeling.

The human being stands constantly between two sets of forces: the forces of the past (connected with the head which is three times older than the rest of the organism, and with memory), and the forces of the future in which phantasy is working. Over-development either of the power of memory or the power of phantasy leads to abnormality. Memory, if over-developed, will produce a tendency to pedantry; if phantasy is allowed too much scope, a nebulous life of soul will be the result. Thus we have the polarities of vitality (blood) and mineralisation (nerves), and excess of either leads to abnormality. If abnormality in either direction is present, it must be counterbalanced before normality can be re-established. If the action of the, nerves becomes too strong, neurasthenia and other kindred illnesses will result. There are also illnesses which arise from excessive activity of the sub-conscious life, of the vitality in our being.

Modern physiology and psychology sometimes speak of a ‘psycho-physiological parallelism.’ This is an erroneous theory of which we must get rid. Soul and body, in reality, are related at every moment, but by no means in a simple sense. It is only spiritual insight that can reveal to us the connections between the action of the blood and phantasy, and the action of the nerves and memory.

Although they are opposites, there is no fundamental cleft between the activities of the soul and the body. Their united action, however, can only be understood by spiritual insight.

It is only by a spiritual conception of the world that we can discover the spiritual foundations both of the body and of the soul, and it was Rudolf Steiner who revealed the true nature of the connection between the soul and the body. Materialistic thought will never be able to bridge the gap that exists between them. To real insight, soul becomes more concrete and body more spiritual, and then the relation between these two principles is revealed. The facts given by materialistic science are true, but only from the standpoint of the body, and it is only Spiritual Science that can discover the true interrelation of soul and body.


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