Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley

I have been wrestling with some very complex works recently on the Ramblings (cough, cough, “Mythologies”…); and this slim but dense book from Fitzcarraldo is no exception. When I was looking through my pile of unreads to choose what to read for our #fitzcarraldofortnight, “Memory Theatre” jumped out at me because it sounded intriguing, and because I’d found Critchley’s other Fitzcarraldo title to be very stimulating. So “Memory Theatre” it was, then…

Ok. First up, what’s a memory theatre? Welll, an online definition states that it’s “An imaginary building thought of as comprising various rooms and areas, each containing mnemonic objects and features that symbolize particular ideas, which can be visualized mentally as a systematic method of remembering those ideas.” So, a way of helping us remember, fix memories and ideas, by rooting them in a specific space that acts as a visual trigger to bringing back the memory. It’s a clever idea, with a long history: the concept has its roots in the 16th century when an Italian philosopher Guilio Camillo wrote a book on the subject. The memory palace existed inside the mind, where a person could visualise a structure with symbols in it to act as those triggers, a sort of visual mnemonic – what Wikipedia calls “a spatial representation of chronology”. The theatre takes this a step further, arranging ideas according to importance, with the ultimate end of understanding the past and everything in it as well as being able to predict the future. At least, that’s how I interpret it – correct me anyone if you think I’m wrong…

Poetry lets us see things as they are. It lets us see particulars being various.… The poet sings a song that is beyond us and yet it is ourselves that it sings. Things change when the poet sings them, but they are still our things: recognizable, common, near, low. We hear the poet sing and press back against the pressure of reality.

Critchley’s starting point for his exploration of the topic is the discovery of a collection of boxes which appear in his office one day. They originate from a colleague, a French philosopher called Michel Haar who has been something of a mentor, and who has died in a savage summer heatwave. The boxes contain all manner of unpublished papers by Haar, and delving into them Critchley discovers a brilliant text on the ancient art of memory as well as a collection of astrological charts drawn by Haar which preduct the deaths of various philosophers (some know to both Haar and Critchley).

Through techniques of memory, the human being can achieve absolute knowledge and become divine.

Alarmingly, one chart predicts the course of Critchley’s own life and death; and somewhat inevitably Critchley becomes obsessed by this, as well as by a model memory theatre and the whole concept of the memory theatre itself. Needless to say, his mental state disintegrates somewhat at this point…

A representation of the memory theatre

“Memory Theatre” is a book which defies classificiation, and blurs the lines between genres much more than did “Notes on Suicide”. Fairly obviously, despite the astrological chart, Critchley does not die as predicted as he’s still amongst us now, working and writing. But the book shows how an idea can take hold of a person to such a degree that it affects their life dramatically; and how we humans have been searching for meaning for pretty much all of our existence, and haven’t necessarily found it. Critchley’s experiments in constructing his own memory theatre fail, and in fact he comes to the conclusion that it isn’t really possible to make something so fixed and static that contains all memory, all knowledge and the future. Instead he envisages something which is “an endlessly recreating, re-enacting memory mechanism.” Hmm – perhaps he thinks the Internet might be the answer then… ;D

Might not the space of a town or city be seen as a memory theatre? One walks or moves in the city, most Bloom-like, and somehow the entirety of the past is silently whispering through locations – ghostly and sepulchral. Like a huge question mark. And implicitly that story becomes one about the future as well. The city is a spatial network of memory traces, but also a vast predictive machine.

As I’ve said, this is a work which certainly stretches the boundaries of what kind of book it is. Part philosophy, part memoir and yes, part fiction, it really is a fascinating read. I say fiction, because in the glossary at the back of the book Critchley says of his friend Michel Haar that some of what appears about him in the book is not true… In addition, several characters are invented, and this all adds up to a heady and stimulating book about which it’s worth remembering that just because a work is branded non-fiction doesn’t necessarily make it fact…

Anyway. At the end of the day, I’m not a philosopher, but that’s my take on “Memory Theatre”. I’m not sure how many of the memoir elements were true, but certainly if they have any basis in fact Critchley has had a complex life! The book was a fascinating read which sent me off in all sorts of different directions, exploring concepts and philosophies and historical figures – ironically, none of which I would have been able to do without the memory theatre of the internet…. 😀 Another intriguing book from Fitzcarraldo, and I’m glad our #fitzcarraldofortnight provoked me into reading it right now.