Memory Theater

Simon Critchley

November 18, 2015 
The following is from Simon Critchley’s novel, Memory Theater. Critchley is a professor of philosophy at the New School and the series moderator of The New York Times column "The Stone." His previous works include On Humour, The Book of Dead Philosophers; How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Impossible Objects, The Mattering of Matter, and Bowie.

It was still dark when I woke up. Breathless and rigid with anxiety. Mouth aching from clenched teeth. I lay there waiting for light to come, listening to the BBC World Service. A show about Malian griots. I couldn’t think of anything apart from death and the vague prospect of breakfast cereal.

I drove back to the university the next morning and thought about my dream of the Gothic cathedral as a vast memory theater. The medieval love of the figural, the dramatic, and the grotesque was not, then, evidence of either some tortured sexual repression or the liberation from such repression, as we moderns arrogantly assume, but is simply a powerful and vivid aid to recollection. Before the Reformation and the rise of literacy, image rather than print was the privileged means of religious instruction. The seemingly wild imaginings of the Gothic cathedral were simply concrete ways of shaping the entirety of time, from Creation to Redemption, as an aid to recollection and reflection. In a cathedral, time became space, fixed in location, embodied in stone. It was a vast time capsule. Decline from Gutenberg onwards. Fuck the Reformation.

But wasn’t this also true of everything, even the shipping forecast? Might not the space of a town or city be seen as a memory theater? One walks or moves in a city, most Bloom-like, and somehow the entirety of the past is silently whispering through locations— ghostly and sepulchral. Like a huge question mark. And implicitly that story becomes one about the future as well. The city is a spatial network of memory traces, but also a vast predictive machine.

I looked out of the car window at the slow windings of the A1124 as it wended through the subtle hills of the Colne Valley and thought of the old Roman road between Colchester and Cambridge. Traders carrying oysters wrapped in damp sacks from Mersea Island. Might not a landscape itself be seen as a memory theater? Might not the whole globe be viewed as a set of memory traces for life, organic and inorganic, past and future? When we look at the night sky, all we see is the past; the further we look, the further back we see. To see the future, we must turn inward.

Maybe the Hegelian memory theater is not just a map of the past, but a plan of the future, a predictive memory theater. Everyone could have their own memory theater. Everyone was their own memory theater. If I had no memory, had I ceased to really exist at the moment of the accident? Was this a kind of death in life where I was experiencing a kind of reverse dementia?

As I reached the office, the thought hit me: Did Michel have plans for building a memory theater? Or did he perhaps even build one?

* * *

I opened the Pisces box. There were a compendious number of obscene epitaphs written in Latin denouncing various of Michel’s academic enemies, of which one has many in France, bien sûr. There were also a number of translations from Martial’s epigrams where Michel had crudely cut out a page of the Latin text and handwritten beside it, often illegibly, a French translation. They were awfully rude. My favorites were: “Lesbia claims she’s never laid, without good money being paid” and “If from the baths you hear a round of applause, Maron’s prick is bound to be the cause.” Michel translated “mentula” as “queue.” “Prick” worked quite well, I thought.

I dug deeper, through piles of notes and drafts for lectures and seminars from the final years. Among some frankly uninspiring material, I found a fasci- nating little presentation of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and the beginnings of a comparison with Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Artwork.” It looked like it was dated 1997, with the word “Perouse” in uppercase at the top of the title page, the French name for Perugia in Umbria, where we met every summer for many years. There were stacks of yellowing papers which I glanced at quickly and several large Rhodia notepads with squared graph paper, as is the French custom, covered with Michel’s sloping scrawl. I used to collect those notebooks and fill them with awful stretches of sub–T. S. Eliot lyric poetry and then type them up. Thank God I stopped writing poetry.

Then, at the bottom of the box, I discovered a stack of what initially looked like unframed lithographic prints on large pieces of stiff card. On closer inspection, however, they were a series of circular charts covered with numbers, dates, and masses of cramped handwriting. Each chart was arranged in concentric circles. Each circle was intersected by irregularly divided lines radiating out from the center, which was left empty apart from some writing. Knowing Michel’s predilection for astrology, I assumed they were star charts.

I felt a chill, as if someone had walked over my grave. I knew I’d stumbled onto something interesting. But the charts were impossible to read. I bundled them up with some string from my desk and decided to continue work in the university library. I needed dictionaries, reference books, and magnifying devices. The librarian, Robert Butler, was an old drinking companion of mine and would be able to help.

I settled into the special collections room in the basement of the library. As the academic year had just finished, all was quiet and I was alone. It was perfect. Surrounded by hundreds of rare books on wooden shelves with a carpeted floor, all I could hear was the persistent, high-pitched ringing of my tinnitus, my constant, clandestine companion since the break- down in Nice in 1986. I began to do random Internet searches on astrological charts, but my initial hunch was not confirmed. Frustrated, I called Robert to come down and tell me what he thought the diagrams were. Laconic Dundonian. He took his time with a large magnifying glass before concluding, “They resemble astrological charts, drawn carefully by hand with a compass and protractor, with their concentric circles and division into what look like zodiacal houses. But they are full of words instead of the numbers, degrees, planes, and lines that one would expect.” He began to peer through the glass and mouth what he saw: “Platon, 428/427-348/347 av. J.-C . . . ne fait d’ailleurs référence à lui-même qu’à deux reprises dans ses deux douzaines de dialogues…Platon avait trente et un ans à la mort de Socrate . . . D’après Cicéron, Platon se serait éteint en train d’écrire . . .

“It appears to be a biography of Plato,” Robert said. “It recounts the few biographical facts and anecdotes associated with the broad-shouldered one, which is the meaning of Plato’s name from the Attic platys, broad, as platanos, the broad-leaved plane tree under which Socrates and Phaedrus sit. You know, the Phaedrus takes place in the shade of the Plato-Tree.” God, Robert could be a pedant, particularly when he was right. Plato had apparently died writing. I wish I knew how he felt.

Michel had basically assembled all of the real or apocryphal data available about Plato, from Cicero, Hermippus, Diogenes Laërtius, and even Ficino, who claimed that Plato died on his birthday. (Many happy returns! There will be no returns.) He had written the data on a chart, complete with the titles of extant dialogues and several apocryphal texts for which we have only the titles, the names of purported family members (for example, Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, who appear as Socrates’ interlocutors in the Republic), and some significant dates. The phone rang and Robert had to go back upstairs to resume his duties.

There was a sequence of a further ten such charts, each one devoted to a philosopher or thinker with whom Michel clearly felt a strong affinity: Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), Plotinus, John Scottus Eriugena, Montaigne, Campanella, Pascal, Spinoza, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. In short, these were Michel’s favorites. The oddities on the list were Zhuangzi, whom Michel had never mentioned to me, but whose Inner Chapters I had read and become captivated by; and Spinoza, who initially didn’t seem to fit in his canon. As with the Plato chart, the data was organized in a series of circles. In the outer circles, there was all the biographical data, information on family background, parents’ occupations, education, teachers, number of children, affairs, marriages, scandals, political intrigues, etc. etc. In the inner circle, there was a chronological listing of works, complete with one or two annotations or quotations. On the Nietzsche chart, Michel cited the final words of his final book, Ecce Homo, “M’a-t-on compris? Dionysos contre le Crucifié.” It was unclear to me whether Michel, the avowed Nietzschean, perhaps finally identified more with the Crucified Christ than with the ever-playful Bacchus. Has Michel been understood? Have I?

In the bull’s-eye center of the circle, the date of death was marked, sometimes together with the cause and location and occasionally a short comment. In Heidegger’s chart, Michel wrote, “Le 26 mai 1976, après une nuit d’un sommeil réparateur, Heidegger s’endormit à nouveau et ne se réveilla jamais!” Clearly, Michel envied Martin his final night of refreshing sleep and his peaceful demise.

Michel had obviously discovered some weirdly idiosyncratic technique for plotting and recalling the lives and works of the philosophers. But then my mind cast back to Michel’s essay on Hegel and to Yates’s The Art of Memory. These were not standard astrological projections at all. They were memory maps, spatially organized devices like the memory theaters Michel had discovered in Francis Yates’s book. They weren’t so much birth charts as death charts, necronautical rather than genethlialogical. Their purpose was to plot the major events in a philosopher’s life and then to use those events to explain his demise. Much of the script was simply illegible or had faded and many of the charts had odd, vaguely occult-like geometrical designs that resembled crayon drawings I had seen by schizophrenics when I was visiting my friend Samson in hospital after his suicide attempt (crayons were dispensed rather than pens and pencils in order to avoid suicide attempts or attacks on staff). I had no idea what the designs meant.

Beneath the initial eleven memory maps, I came across another, very dog-eared chart that was clearly written in a different hand. I peered hard through the magnifying glass. The chart was signed with a flourish with the name printed underneath in uppercase in the traditional French fashion. It read “Henri MONGIN” and it was dated 1985. I knew that name. I wracked my brains and recalled a conversation I’d had with Elizabeth on one of our drizzly Welsh walks. I’d asked her where Michel’s interest in astrology and the occult had begun and she said that he’d learned it at the hands of one of his philosophy teachers, also an early follower of Heidegger, Henri Mongin. Clearly, Mongin had projected Michel’s memory map and Michel was the inheritor of a technique that Mongin had either discovered or also inherited from a teacher. Who knew how far back this occult tradition might extend? If I could produce an heir, then maybe it would continue.

Looking more closely at the map, all the events in Michel’s life were carefully recorded: his family background in the Alsace, the occupation of his father, who was also a philosophy teacher in a lycée in Strasbourg, the birth of his younger brother, Roger, his marriage with Elizabeth in Rhinebeck, New York, in 197o, and so on. But the strangest thing was that the map also predicted the events of Michel’s life after the date of its composition. It mentioned his elevation to full professor at Paris XII (Créteil) in 1991 and subsequently at the Sorbonne in 1995. It also listed the titles of the books that Michel would go on to publish: Nietzsche et la métaphysique and Heidegger et l’essence de l’homme, his most impressive published work. After La fracture de l’histoire, from 1994, there followed an increasingly mediocre series of essay collections that finished with Par-delà le nihilisme from 1999. It was the most productive period of Michel’s life. I remembered him excitedly saying to me in his apartment in around 1996, “J’ai trois livres en chantier!” He had three books in production. No children were named on the map.

Michel knew that he was doomed. Did Elizabeth know too? Is that why she left him? She saw from the map that he would have no children. Michel could see the date, time, cause, and location of his death: “o421 h, le 18 août 2oo3, La Verrière (Yvelines), crise cardiaque.” I checked the precise details with my friend Beatrice in Reims, who had been a student and close friend of Michel. La Verrière was the little town to the southwest of Paris where Michel had spent his final years in a sanatorium. Knowing his fate, he had simply lost the will to live. He arrived dead just on time.



From Memory Theater. Used with permission of Other Press. Copyright © 2015 by Simon Critchley.

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