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.”
All of it seems memorable in retrospect. I remember a clickable icon appearing in the upper right corner of a newly opened Word document, or a text message arriving on my phone. Both events occurred. Updates have something to do with ontological transformation. They introduce novel forms of interruption and collaboration into the lifeworld. Through them, I find myself rediscovering ancient play-scripts: theaters of mind anchored to toys and action figures, consensual hallucinations, collectively experienced fictional beings. Of course, collective authorship can take other forms as well, Zoon in dialogue with Oikos. “Listen: go out and take note!” reads the received instruction. “Don’t ask where: just go!” So I do — promenading excitedly to a neighborhood park. I walk first to a small wooden pavilion to sit in its shade, but turn away upon sight of a purse left on a table, preferring instead to sit at a different table on the far side of the park, near a stand of trees. Sunlight warms my forehead. Kind words kindle kind dreams. Before long, I’m home again, feeling a bit distracted by worlds of possibility. The story involves beams of light, squirrels appearing, eyeing us, making contact. The story involves forests and rock creatures, Lego ruins amid gardens overgrown with weeds. “Time for a little ventriloquism,” says the narrator. “Become an ensemble and speak each part.”
Warts and all, my friends. ‘Tis my motto, as I soak in the wood-paneling-meets-burnt-orange-Naugahyde interior of an Arby’s. The working class eats beside me on its lunch break. Customers can ring a bell of gratitude hung by the exit whenever the spirit moves them. But no number of bells, I think, could ever address the humiliations and degradations inherent to a service-based economy. Several hits, like my middle-school asthmatic self with his inhaler, and I sink and recede inward. Gone With the Wind can be heard, but only as a distant old-time ambience, whispered from another compartment of reality. The ancients spoke of a method of remembering called the mind palace or memory palace. To underscore, tune yourselves to SPELLLING’s “Tremble Dancer,” or better yet ZEEK SHECK’s “7777-01-07 Son” off the ROGUE PULSE / GRAVITY COLLAPSE benefit comp from Ratskin Records.
This is the world of the heads: a vast network burrowing outward from a rasterized, “Dig Dug“-shaped cosmos. “We all make believe / What is can be.” Is it capitalist to think that desire can restructure reality and give one what one needs? One of these days, I’ll unlock the capabilities contained in Frances A. Yates’s The Art of Memory. Inspiration, I take it, for the album of that name by John Zorn and Fred Frith. The imagination never fails to provide, so long as one allows it. One wakes, one becomes, one finds oneself. If one wants to visit a memory palace, one can do so by listening to Kosmiche duo Art of the Memory Palace’s collaboration with Scottish author James Robertson, “Your Soul Is Not a Bird.”
Devoting oneself to becoming conscious of this makes for a joyful passage of time. But being a brave comrade also means learning to give account and modeling for others a way to be present. It means taking control of the narrative. Is my consciousness behind or ahead those of my comrades in thinking we need as one of our priorities “encounter group”-style retraining at the interpersonal level of how we relate to one another? Tearing down a statue is as easy as gathering enough people willing to do it! Just make sure someone holds up a camera and takes a nice shot. One hand in pocket, other one flicking a cigarette. “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”: so it goes with one’s rebirth as a revolutionary subject. But what if, instead, we become men in boxes in the ruins of a new Pompeii?