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.
We need to organize. I mean organize on many levels: from the desktop upward. Do we want to “arrange” life? And if so, into what: something more? Or do we want a “range life,” as Stephen Malkmus of Pavement used to sing. What was that song about? There were times in my youth when it felt anthemic. I used to drive around a lot playing it on the car stereo. Yet where are we now? What would I hear if I listened to it today? After singing of his want of a range life in the song’s chorus, Malkmus follows the line with an echoey, oddly haunting if-than proposition: “If I could settle down, / If I could settle down, / Then I would settle down.” Is “range life” country-western? Is it a life of aim and ambition? And how does it relate to “settling down”? Biographically, the song was written in the midst of the band’s performance at Lollapalooza 1994. The music video—always-already a time capsule (the whole thing framed as if found in a lunchbox on a beach)—shows tour footage of the band wandering bemusedly among festivalgoers.
It’s like watching a home movie shot by visitors at a grunge-themed World’s Fair. Malkmus sneers somewhat haughtily from indie-land at the major-label acts sharing the bill, Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, his voice drifting off into the clouds of a dream during the song’s finale. These topical references are enjoyable reminders of a particular historical moment. Yet today they interest me less than the song’s sentiment. Youthful arrogance, maybe, mixed with exhaustion and a sort of wistful melancholy about a life of crime. Was Malkmus feeling wearied by the festival, wishing he could settle into a home? I struggle with the song’s verses. They don’t quite cohere for me into a consistent narratorial voice, resembling instead a range of romantic-bohemian characters and personas: skateboarders, druggies, members of the Gen-X “doom generation,” some a bit pulpy, some a bit self-absorbed. Maybe I’m just singing this song to myself after too many meetings, wearied by work. Maybe the song just rehashes in advance plot-points overheard in the minds of tour-goers, kids raised on MTV.
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.”
I’ve been trying to teach myself to drum on and off since childhood, occasionally acquiring some rudimentary skill during times of frequent practice, only to lose it afterwards, muscle memory jettisoned after long dry spells, years of disuse. I imagine interior landscapes: frazzled, frayed, cobwebbed ruins, like backgrounds from frames of Scooby-Doo.
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.”
The verb I’m searching for to name the act I wish to practice is close to, but not quite synonymous with, “to occupy” or “to establish,” but it entails as well something like “settling in,” allowing oneself time to sit, lean back, hold space, find comfort. Of course, even this is sometimes more than our powers permit — in which case, look around, take note. Writing can occur anywhere, as long as we relax and let it. Close eyes, listen. Where do we go: figures stretching? Lying on one’s back watching TV as a child? Or maybe sitting at a computer playing a videogame, one’s avatar moving through an imaginary neighborhood on one’s Commodore 64. Computers entered my life offering generationally-novel, semi-private play space: bulletin boards, text adventures, programs stored on floppy disks. My parents weren’t able to keep up with my forays into virtual environments; they were busy working, cooking, cleaning. I could wander off unsupervised, sometimes for several hours at a time, playing peculiarities like Ghetto Blaster, where I’d speed along a maze of streets collecting cassette tapes while dodging psycho killers and junkies.
(It’s a remarkable game, well worth a walkthrough, even if just to hear chiptune originals like “Macrobiotic Brown Rice Lentil Blues,” or the moment when, like a forlorn Werner Herzog, the player narrating the walkthrough mutters, “Don’t know where to go. Ah, that’s the trouble with time. Give 25 years and you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be doing.”) Why do moments of uncensored thought lead me here? Why do images of this sort arise into consciousness when I seek to enter an enlightened state? Perhaps these images are ones I need to consult when learning to face my shadows. Simons and Chabris awaken me with their Selective Attention Test. Back to the task at hand.