The Lost Art of Memory: Simon Critchley Drags Occult Philosophy Into the Present

Do we farm out our memories to the Internet? Does Google have the power to destroy what we can remember, search by search? Already this month, we’ve seen Oxford Dictionary choose an emoji as “word of the year,” in what amounts to (I’ve argued) a celebration of the end of our working memories. And just two weeks ago, AMBI Pictures announced its plans to remake Memento, the 2000 Christopher Nolan film about a man with anterograde amnesia. The built-in joke was obvious enough to be unfunny: in remaking the film within just 15 years, it’s clear that we’ve become its protagonist.

But if it’s true that we’re damaging or losing our working memories each time we interface with the Internet — and this appears to be the case — what isn’t so clear is how we could reclaim them. Or if we want to or should.

For many readers and writers of literary books, the tiny humanistic voice that rings behind the eardrums is telling us that it does matter, and that we should work to retain our memories (by some means). Still, it’s surprising that it has taken until 2015 for substantive literary fiction to seriously address the erasure of our memories by the Internet.

But the literature is substantive. Take, for example, Joshua Cohen’s novel Book of Numbers, which suggests (among other things) that companies like Google (or in the case of the book, Tetration) are in the business of memory. In a telling bit of strike-thru text, the novel’s protagonist notes of a tech billionaire:

Cohen, who founded his career on memory, on the notion that memory is the future’s greatest commodity,

The time Cohen spent with his grandfather in the last summer of his grandfather’s life comprises Cohen’s only memory of

This half-redacted passage has become an image (in my mind) of how our economy is more and more rigged to steal or damage our memorial faculties in order to sell back to us what we can no longer remember.

Another, slimmer fiction, out this month from Other Press, deals more strictly with the historical art of memory (and where it might lead us) but is ultimately about our relation to the Internet. Simon Critchley’s Memory Theater is a short philosophical fiction (some have bafflingly called it a novel) that offers up a thought experiment, one that wonders whether we might save our memories through more hermetic or occult or ancient means.

The book tells the story of an unnamed protagonist, a not-un-Critchley-like philosophy professor originally from Essex, who finds himself at a new job in New York City. When we meet him, he’s been suffering for three years from what sounds to me like a prostatitis-induced sleep disorder — with its attendant thoughts of death (to himself and others). Or maybe it all stems from some ill-described accident that erased memories of his childhood? It’s hard to say.

Not long after he moves into his new office, our professor finds a “semi-hidden” box filled with “the unpublished papers, notes, and remains” (my italics) of his old friend and teacher, Michel Haar. Now is the time to point out that a quick search (on the part of the reader) will reveal that Michel Haar was indeed a professor in France, although, Critchley notes in a glossary, “Much of what is said about him above is true. Some of it isn’t.” The same goes for most of Memory Theater itself, which (refreshingly) plays loose with both its “factual” characters and its philosophical underpinnings.

The protagonist soon realizes that this box of notes and papers is arranged according to the zodiac. (Haar was — apparently in real life, too — a bit of an occultist.) Somewhere within the box, the professor finds a brilliant essay on Hegel that suggests the Phenomenology of Spirit could constitute a sort of memory theater (see below). He also finds among Haar’s papers a series of documents that predict the course of Western philosophy, his own life, and the lives of his friends. The professor, as it happens, finds the exact time of his own death.

About the rest of the plot I’ll say nothing more, except to note that the professor, driven a bit nuts by his friend’s prophetic research, moves to the Netherlands and beings constructing his own memory theater. As all of this happens, the book becomes strange and gently didactic and unlike any other book I know of. The only touchstone I can offer — one that crept up in my mind repeatedly while reading Memory Theater — is Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime.

Memory Theater’s real power lies not in its fictional investigations, although Critchley’s pen is warm — he’s not a master of plot, but he knows what he’s doing. Instead, it’s notable for ultra-clear mini-essays on the “memory theater” and “the art of memory.”

In some ways, the book is a brochure for the work of Frances Yates, a brilliant scholar of hermetic and occult thinking who published The Art of Memory (1966), a sui generis work that traces the history of mnemonic systems from Ancient Greece through Leibniz. It turns out that, according to Yates, the art of memory was originally a rhetorical practice meant to abet the delivery of long speeches in an age without easy access to widespread writing. The mechanics of this art were fairly straightforward: link what you want to remember to places and images in your mind. (The most popular recent illustration of this art was probably in BBC’s Sherlock, where both the detective and one of his nemeses use the art to great advantage.) And this approach worked fairly well until the invention of the printing press, which meant that orators no longer needed to memorize texts that were now available to read aloud. But instead of disappearing entirely, the art of memory passed into other occult and hermetic arts, notably the memory theaters and systems of Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo and Robert Fludd. In some cases, these memory theaters were actual edifices (however miniature). As Yates points out, even the famous Globe Theatre, home to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, may have been an augmented memory theater.

What does this mean for literature and memory in the 21st century? I’m not sure whether Critchley’s book is a call for or against constructing artificial mnemotechnic systems — memory theaters, memory palaces, memory castles — but I do know that it cleverly and admirably lays bare the fact that our memories are being gentrified. It also admits that the burden to remember has become a kind of fatigue, a weight we would rather not bear. Still, that voice in the back of my mind tells me that we should.