The art of memory

Politicians, actors, actresses, and celebrities at the end of their career write memoirs. What a short time ago barely existed now crowds our bookstores. Certainly this is a step in the right direction; they are no cowards—unlike fiction writers, they feel no need to mask their lives in lies and deceit. But consider the challenge they face; having lived an eventful life of achievement and fame, how can they be expected to remember all that was truly important? There is no memory so prodigious that it can map the mind’s progress through an active life. It is only the inactive life that can be honestly recorded.

Memory is everything to the honest reporter. He shouldn’t know too much, and he shouldn’t write very well; he should only remember. Forgetfulness, in every guise and cover, is his enemy.

 

If all people who love each other were allowed to marry, it would deprive them of the right and privilege to do anything else. If men were entitled to choose their own women, one might choose for himself a silly girl for no other reason than he loves her pale skin and dark hair; if women men, one might choose the man she saw walking down the street, who seemed to her proud and clever, but was no more than a debauchee and a boaster. In the wake of that day, much of the world would dust itself off, and try again.

Romance is the art of forgetting. Its best practitioners—and no doubt I was one—practiced that art to its furthest extremes. I remember only a small fraction of all that I experienced, much like the soldier who only remembers the flora he saw on the beaches of Normandy.

 

The Romans discovered that memory could be greatly extended. With the use of dramatic images placed in strict order, a student could create an artificial memory that would be greatly more effective than his natural one. It was taught like this: to remember a speech, a poem, a series of events in a particular order, the student must first create within his mind a place. The place can be anything, a market, for instance, or a temple, or the interior of a house, so long as the place has parts which occur regularly. This place should be absolutely clear in the student’s mind; he must be able to walk around in any direction and jump from one point to another with no difficulty. Once this is done, he can populate it with images representative of that which he wishes to remember, and the more vivid the images, the better. A ravenous dog foaming at the mouth could stand for revenge, for example, or a scepter and wreath for victory. The images are then placed in corners, on tables, in closets, over windows, on doors, and in any of the other spaces available in the student’s imagination. To remember is then to walk through the place and take from each spot the memory that is represented by the image.

Reader, I have constructed a place in my mind. To commit this morning to memory, I made a brightly lit room, where a bird broods on leaves in one corner, a low-burning fire burns in the fireplace; on the mantle sits an enormous portrait in a gilded frame of a young man with a crimson tie, and adjacent to the window, darkened by an iron screen, a dark man slouches in a chair.

The old practitioners of the art of memory noticed that their images, instead of remaining static, would interact and suggest new relationships. Two rooms separated by time and distance might appear remarkably similar; images might become obscured, whole rooms disappear only to be found again in unexpected locations.

To write accurately and truthfully, to see and relate everything worth seeing and relating, the honest reporter must use every tool at his disposal. Sometimes my roommates see me staring at a white wall, but they cannot imagine what I see.

My place is small, but it is well-ordered; and with a new room for every day, and a new wing for every month, it will soon expand into a palace. Henceforth, I plan to live exclusively in my palace. I plan to explore every nook and hole, and to dispatch what I see to you, dear reader, who no doubt eagerly awaits to learn what I discover.

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To begin

Good day, idle reader. I had hoped to begin by recounting what had happened to me earlier this week when I stumbled upon a great inconvenience; how can I tell you of my life without first laying down some sort of introduction? Always put your life in context, my teachers told me; ease your audience into your way of seeing. I cannot help but acknowledge what good advice that was.

Sometimes it so happens that there is only context. I have read many articles and books where the author would have done better to continue his introduction, and not switch, after only a few pages, to a tedious and false history of unlikely characters in unbelievable situations. You can rest assured, dear reader, that I have learned from the mistakes of my peers. Here you will find no adventure; there will be no discoveries of new worlds, no search for everlasting fame, no daring escapes or last-minute rescues. The battles recounted—if they can truly be called battles—will bring no glory and less gore; for true adventures, as you are no doubt aware, only happen a long time ago or a long time from now. And even so, I am not entirely convinced that they happen as I read them.

Likewise, there will be no comedy. I have nothing against comedy in principle, and I must confess that occasionally it has pleased me beyond the foolishness that it usually is. But from what I have seen, it is too often at someone else’s expense. I wish to make no enemies here.

Which brings us to romance, and especially that strange abomination, the romantic comedy. Some would be upset to hear that I think it as improbable as the adventure, and thereby dismiss anything further I have to say. Let them. This blog is for you, reader, because you and I know how things really stand. Though we may sometimes indulge in far-fetched stories—who doesn’t?—it’s always with a guilty conscience. We know full well that they don’t show us anything real, nor please for longer than it takes to scroll down a page.

I write neither adventure, nor comedy, nor romance. What I give to you is honest and straightforward reporting. Everyone well knows that a true story is better than an invented one, and so every word you read will be the truth.

 

On the building next to mine, workers are building a scaffold six stories high. They are building it by hand. This morning I watched a worker add a beam to the top; he carried it from his truck and put it on the first level, climbed a ladder, put it on the second level, and so on until he could fit it in place. On each level there were two wooden planks on which the worker stood, and the base was made of two planks wedged on a hill. I do not humble myself, reader. Writing the truth is no small undertaking, and reading it maybe even less so. But I believe that you are not squeamish, and that, au contraire, your sensibilities delight to see a mind exposed for what it really is.

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