Lionel Hampton’s Golden Vibes dances through me, my skin resonating like keys beneath Hampton’s mallets. During Tuesday’s performance, percussionist Sandy Blocker stood from his drums and played a balafon. Meanwhile I got bills to pay, roles to play, life pregnant with life. In the Renaissance occult imagination studied by Frances A. Yates, an “umbra” is a shadow formed by the light of the divine mind — light we can only ever seek “through its shadows, vestiges, seals” (The Art of Memory, p. 268). One of these days, I tell myself, I should track down the Nock-Festugière edition of the Corpus Hermeticum along with Norman O. Brown’s book Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. I sit in a dark room for a few moments, in a hat and a cape, observing shadows, thinking about stars and moons, ancient debates between Egyptian and Greek philosophers arising again from memory, debates of great consequence, much of it still hidden. For Renaissance occultists like Alexander Dicson, the roots of the art of memory lie in ancient Egypt, not ancient Greece. “And if it is separated from Egypt,” he writes, “it can effect nothing” (as quoted in Yates 272).
Sympathy and sympathetic identification. “Sensitivity.” Being-with, being-toward, relating. Chip to Grudge: Lay Off. And suddenly I’m in the presence of a bunch of smart, wise musicians, and beside me a brilliant mythmaker-griot, all of us conversing about ouds and masonic lodges and memory palaces; binary code drum patterns used to initiate uploads and downloads between orishas and human beings; the Order of the Eastern Star. Nate and Sandy recommend Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Dorian and Vattel note the ideas of Pythagoras. I feel at times like I’ve been inducted into a society of secret-sharers, Mackey’s Mystic Horn Society made real. With his cane, I realize, Mackey reminds me a bit of Papa Legba.
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.
To live allegorically is to juxtapose multiple dimensions of being: this world and another, or this part and that within a single world-system. Records arrive for me at Goodwill, including Charlie Haden’s The Golden Number. I wander around in what feels sometimes like a giant memory palace, reading student essays, some thoughtful, some not. I imagine one adapted into a lush graphic novel confrontation between a psychedelic Plato and a teetotaling Aristotle. From the underground temple of Eleusis we ascend to the Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo.
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?
There, sing the birds. There, there. Let us materialize and mobilize, let us get up on our feet and go for a walk. Things click: memory palaces are what we’ve built for ourselves, only we’ve externalized them, turned them into digital media devices, software and hardware, computer beings co-evolving alongside an “us” that includes gourds, birds, gardens, neighborhoods, communities — an “us,” in other words, that is both Psyche and Cosmos. Speaking of which: perhaps I should read Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, with its proposed “participatory epistemology,” in which Nature is a self-unfolding reality, a “living, sensuous and ensouled matrix in which we fully participate and belong.” Up to now, astrology has never made much sense to me. But I have found that outer events meaningfully coincide, both with one another and, more importantly, with inner states of consciousness. Bringing the planets into it and assigning them characteristics, however, just seems a bit messy. Though the “fortune,” I suppose, is the genre that allows us to interact with astrology, playing with it as one would a language game or a narrative system. I’m not yet ready to ascribe to it any more meaning than that.
Memory palaces are where it’s at. Can a person have more than one? Spurred by this inquiry, I begin to read Frances A. Yates’s famous book The Art of Memory. “It was as a part of the art of rhetoric that the art of memory traveled down through the European tradition in which it was never forgotten, or not forgotten until comparatively modern times, that those infallible guides in all human activities, the ancients, had laid down rules and precepts for improving the memory” (Yates 2). Okay, I think to myself — but does it work? And must we follow the ancients regarding sight as the strongest of the senses? What role does ocular imagination play in the mind’s capacity to store and retrieve information? And why is it always Legacy of the Ancients that arises from my past when I try to imagine a near equivalent of one of these structures? I guess I’ve never labored seriously at any mnemonic gymnastics. Of the memories I possess, most are externally stored or unconscious. One doesn’t “retrieve” these; they arrive as gifts. I imagine sets and galleries of images, some of a kind one can enter, others locked, available only to those who through play earn coin or key. One could do the same, I suppose, with the flotsam from “Waters of March.”