New objects arrive into the lifeworld, gifts from friends and family, well-wishing from near and afar. Some are even hand-crafted — a granny squares knit blanket, an alphabet book, a stuffed creature — made with care specifically for our daughter. These objects return me to the place in my memory palace featuring Sadie Plant’s book Zeros + Ones, a book from the future somehow released in the past, ahead of its time. It’s a steampunk biography about Lord Byron and his wife Annabella’s only child, the nineteenth century mathematician Ada Lovelace. The book focuses especially on the cause for Lovelace’s fame, her encounters with the engineer Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine. Lovelace was the first person to recognize the full potential of computing machines, designing and publishing the first algorithm intended to be used by such a machine, thus in a sense making her the first computer programmer. Her biography follows Babbage in calling her the “Enchantress of Numbers.” I read Plant’s book decades ago. What would I find in it if I read it again today? Would I find it frustrating? Perhaps even a bit frightening? Or would I find something worth retrieving — a major or minor arcana? Perhaps the Queen of Wands? Where did Babbage and Lovelace stand, and to what extent did their work contribute, with regard to empire? Byron certainly wasn’t the most admirable character. I prefer different stories, different rabbit holes, bunnies chewing on carrots.
NYC producer Cofaxx’s “Isles” sets the scene.
I read around a bit as clouds roll in. A book passed briefly through my lifeworld today: The Complete Van Book, filled with images and descriptions of shag-carpeted nomadic 70s utopias on wheels. Vans with names like The Sun and the Moon, with instructions in back for how to custom-build your own. Time to sit at a red table eating Chinese takeout. Time to revive myths and legends. “What we are seeing as we look straight ahead to the back wall,” writes Frances A. Yates as if she were Socrates speaking to those who live in the Cave, “is the tiring house wall at the Globe, not the whole of it but only the two lower levels; the ground level with the three entrances; the second level with the terrace and the chamber. We do not see the third level because we are under the heavens which are projecting invisibly above us from below the third tier of the tiring house wall” (The Art of Memory, p. 347). How’s that for a cognitive map!
Reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again with students, I find us wanting as readers to separate the book’s countercultural critique of the Combine from its racism and its misogyny. On race, as on gender, Kesey maps power-relationality ass-backwards. The novel erupts into an episode of cruel racial violence when black orderlies threaten to hose down the book’s white male patients. When one of the orderlies sprays a germophobic character named George, the book’s redheaded TV-cowboy brawler protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy lashes out with racial epithets and starts swinging. In reality, of course, it was black children, not white men, who were sprayed with fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham, AL by racist white police officers on May 3, 1963, just one year after the novel’s publication. By teaching the book, the country’s racism lies there exposed: Oregon’s history as a white-only state, with laws forbidding black people from living in its borders upon its entry into the union in the midnineteenth century; the persistence of antiblack sentiment more than a hundred years later even among 1960s counterculturalists like Kesey. These are sobering facts, are they not? Even among those who had found the enlightenment of LSD, these ideas persisted. Granted, in Kesey’s case, enlightenment came courtesy of MK-Ultra. Not the most auspicious set and setting. Yet this, too, is part of the tale’s appeal. Kesey was there, present as a participant in events of world-historical importance, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Glancing out my back door I glimpse a black and white cat on my deck, beckoned perhaps by my drum-play. One of my teenage dreams involved touring with a band, improvising with instruments night after night, town after town. I was never much of a traveler, lacking wealth, talent, and initiative. Yet still I got around. Made it here and there. Hence the “literary turn,” the turn to books and careers based on them. Books allowed me to spin off in any number of directions, across many dimensions, albeit mediated by language. Where to tonight? I slip on Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane’s The Elements and read about obstacles to black homeownership as documented with painstaking detail in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new book Race for Profit.
I stand on my back deck staring at fallen leaves, listening, building a sense of place, attending to sights and sounds generated by neighboring beings: birds, squirrels, planes, trees, automobiles. A small bird lands beside me and sings to me, dancing in rapid increments. It pecks, it eats, it leaps, flitting to and fro. Capitalism encloses us in its habitus, its time-discipline, its states and estates. Yet there in its borders and interstices, in its gutters and margins, fugitive life proceeds apace. Imaginary bagpipes drone betwixt dueling leafblowers. A sound blown in honor of comrades who died 40 years ago today in the Greensboro Massacre. Mysterious books call out to me, rise off shelves and land in my hands, ready to be read. By these means, I happen upon The Knee of Listening by Franklin Jones, aka Da Free John, sensing immediately in his use of language evidence of a fellow head. Jones began graduate study in English at Stanford University in 1961. He must have been part of Ken Kesey’s cohort. At the very least he volunteered as a subject in the same drug experiments as Kesey, MK-Ultra experiments run out of the Veterans Administration hospital in the early 1960s.
One of these days I’ll have to tell the story of the architect who designed a memory palace. A stately pleasure-dome there decreed. I’ve done something of that sort myself, with my books. Ideas stored in locations across a navigable space. Internal / external and micro / macro realms flip, begin to seem like indistinguishable sides of a Klein bottle or a Möbius strip. One thinks again of the famous Great Library of Alexandria and, following its destruction, episodes in the externalization of memory, the latter launching eventually from the Gutenberg Galaxy out into cyberspace. According to McLuhan, it was by way of this extension of its memory outward into media that humanity desacralized the world and assumed a profane existence. Enter our friend the architect.
I read Frances A. Yates’s famous study The Art of Memory with the same enthusiasm that moved me when reading Nancy Drew mysteries as a child. “The Case of the Ancient Memory Palace.” Are there practitioners of this art today? Many people claim so, providing how-tos and demonstrations of various kinds on YouTube, as in Dean Peterson’s video for Vox about memorizing an entire chapter from Moby Dick.
Peterson takes for granted neuro-reductionist assumptions, consciousness translated into a two-dimensional illustrated map of a brain, bisected and divided into named components, like territories in a game of Risk. Birds interject, sending chirps from tree to tree. Fredric Jameson’s new book Allegory and Ideology has also been on my mind of late, causing me to think of allegory not as a two-fold but as a four-fold system of meaning, implying movement between an individual and a collective as well as a surface and a depth. Jason Louv’s book on John Dee approaches that level of complexity at times — as does the course I’m teaching on literature and consciousness. For late classical thinkers like Origen and the Christians of the early medieval period, the fourfold allegory’s levels of meaning consisted of the ANAGOGICAL (the fate of the human race), the MORAL (the fate of the individual soul), the ALLEGORICAL or MYSTICAL (the life of Christ), and the LITERAL. What would be the equivalent of these levels today?