Memorizing Milton


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“What John Basinger’s memorization of Paradise Lost ultimately shows us is the great power and flexibility of the human memory,” says Seamon. “We really can memorize a huge amount of information, and John has shown us what it takes to accomplish this incredible feat.”

The fact that Basinger memorized the poem on a treadmill was not mere happenstance. Aerobic exercise, according to Seamon, is a critical component of the preservation of our cognitive powers. “Quite correctly, he thought he should exercise his mind as he was exercising his body,” he says.

“I’m evidence that the ordinary person can do a vast amount if he or she just puts their mind to it,” says Basinger, a tall, lanky former college professor with a frisky, often ribald, sense of humor. 

But little about the intellectually voracious Basinger is ordinary, starting with his choice of subject. Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been an easier choice, or even Homer’s The Odyssey. He might have forced himself back in time to Evangeline, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem he memorized in sixth grade, traces of which he can still remember. Instead, he selected what many consider the last great epic poem ever written: a story about the fall of man in which Sin and Death are not abstractions but flesh-and-blood characters in the epic battle between good and evil.

Seamon’s inquiry into the pliancy of memory is merely a scientific—and, Basinger might say corporeal—question. If you really just want to strengthen your memory, a few Sudoku and the daily crosswords would certainly give the active mind a decent workout. For Basinger, however, the more interesting puzzle is spiritual and psychological. Why should this apostate Mennonite, who lived comfortably for decades with his own merry disbelief, have glommed onto a poem about the fall of man and the tenacity of sin? For that matter, if he hadn’t embraced Milton and hadn’t, as he has said, inhabited the blind bard’s masterpiece like a cathedral, would he have been able to memorize anything else as long and difficult?

Maybe, says Basinger. But no other work could have whittled and molded his soul so definitively.

“Having been raised religious, I had that pattern in my mind,” says Basinger of Milton’s Calvinist bent. “If anything, as I get older it makes it even more salient for me. I had to have a text that was going to have some emotional meaning for me.”

For Basinger, the devout Boy Scout who once suggested that his troop pray for protection rather than flee an oncoming tornado, Paradise Lost is it. In a sense, the poem is the riddle that he has danced around his whole life: Why would a God of eternal goodness dangle the temptation of evil in front of us, and why, when our immortal souls are at stake, do we take the bait?

In 1993, having retired after 20 years teaching speech, theater and sign language at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Basinger found the looming monotony of his new life disquieting. As a man with a fidgety intellect and a twitchy curiosity, he was restless. Loquacious, with a sense of the absent-minded professor about him, he has an almost athletic hunger for cerebral puzzles, pouncing on them ravenously and devouring them like so many baby-back ribs. So when his retirement arrived, he made a deal with himself (and what he not so facetiously calls “the Powers”).

“I thought I could train myself to have a photographic memory,” he says. “I thought I could train my brain to memorize something photographically. Actually, that’s not possible. The idea that I would have an instantaneous memory and immediately call something to mind, I can’t have that.”

What he did have was time—seven years until the millennium, he told himself. And, as mortality pressed, he also realized he had unfinished business with the Almighty.

“I was turning away from what had been my life in the direction of I didn’t know what,” he told a reporter in 2001. “At the time, it was a feeling of, ‘Uh-oh, now what?’ That would be a way of describing what happened to me. It meant going from a clear path to a vast unknown. It was a Paradise Lost, in a manner of speaking.”

Memorizing Milton

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