Thursday, December 22, 2016

To wander unchecked through a garden of bright images [1000 Things to Memorise Before You Die]

I am disappointed in you, Sherlock fans. You are being wrong on the Internet. Across a plethora of misinformed websites, you insist that the "Mayfly man" chatroom interviews in "The Sign of Three" episode¹ are part of the Holmesian Memory Palace or Mind Palace, when any fule kno that what we see here is an example of a Memory Theatre.
The confusion is understandable, for you invest your attention into imagining nudge-nudge hints from the scriptwriters that confirm your slashfic speculations about the Holmeoerotic relationship with Watson. I know better than to expect minutiae or punctilios of detail.

So this is Giulio Camillo's Memory Theatre, as reconstructed from the eyewitness reports of Camillo's visitors who entered it.
Finer details are recorded in Frances Yates' reconstructed plan. Don't bother to thank me for this nice fresh scan from the 1978 Peregrine reprint, that is just part of the usual Riddled service.
And a CGI rendition, for no extra charge!
Now the classical Memory Palace, as featured in the Ars Memoriae of antiquity, was all about the 'Method of Loci', and it was all about the serial retrieval of information. This is all commonplace knowledge now, with TED talks and National Geographic infographics and a chorus of Explaining Voices from bloggers in their scores, so you should all be familiar with the concept and it may well come up in the end-of-year exam.

The mental Palace provides a series of Loci -- niches, stations -- that you circumambulate in imagination, visiting each in turn to retrieve a series of facts or memories in the sequence that you filed them there. You stored them in each distinct locus along the route by mentally placing an Ally Gorical tableau or scene or statue there... vivid and theatrical, to make it both easier to visualise and more memorable once imagined.

Each detail of the tableau is chosen to embody one salient point of that mnemonic 'chunk'... the ram's testicles, the cup of poison, the salted pineapple, the splash of red paint... all comprising an image of Surrealist weirdness or Grand Guignol excess, a crime scene out of 'Hannibal'. Or in Cicero's example, "Aesopus and Cimber [two actors] being dressed for the roles of Agamemnon and Menelaus in Iphigenaia".²
Below: Typical crime scenes memory images

So the images and tableau are unique to your own associational needs. The architecture or landscape that you populate with them is equally customised. A Memory Garden or Church or Gallery or Museum will work just as well as a Memory Palace, as long as you know it so well as to navigate its corridors or promenades in your mind, and it is punctuated with stopping points or Stations of the Schloss that vary enough in their circumstances to keep the images distinct and non-overlapping. You can use it again or again for different narratives of information sequences, so it does not need to be immense... Hannibal Lecter is credited with mnemonic architecture that "is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity" -- but Lecter is just showing off.³

Something about the Memory Palace conceit resonated with the Neuromancer tropes of cyberspace -- virtual but spatial metaphors for representing data, stored or in motion, in human terms. So now Memory Palaces are everywhere, they probably have their own Lonely Planet guide, and we hipsters who were reading Yates' book 40 years ago before they went mainstream, it is all tiresome for us, now we have moved on to reading Mary Carruthers' "The Medieval Craft of Memory" and other histories of mnemotechnics that you probably haven't heard of. Everyone quotes "The Art of Memory" but no-one memorises it. If they did, they would recall that the classical Method of Loci is covered in the first two chapters, while the bulk of the book traces its medieval mutations and Renaissance excrescences, in which the convenience of a retentive memory features hardly at all.

So Giulio Camillo's Memory Theatre is not a Palace. Its amphitheatrical tiers are stocked with symbolic, talismanic images (between them the images encompass all possible human experience), laid out for simultaneous scrutiny from the central "stage" in Panopticon array4... arranged in a weird syncretic Hermetic / Kabbalistic grid, emanations of the Sephiroth radiating out. The idea now is all random-access retrieval. Comparisons are made with hypertext, and with information-overload data-immersion interfaces like Bush's Memex desk or the Microfilm Machine. Thus its appearance in a Laundry novel cannot be far away.

Symbolic image
These later mnemotechnic theorists were not well-pleased with the idea of practitioners choosing their own personal imagery and stage sets; this struck them as undisciplined, anarchic, laissez-faire. It made more sense to them that there should be a universal pictogrammarie of recollection, optimised to the First Principles and Platonic driving forces behind the cosmos -- an Enochian sign-language, as it were -- which you should spend months or years committing to memory before the minor task of improving your memory could begin. Otherwise what point is there of having a theory? Every theorist deduced a different universal language, as they do.
The first letter of the
Name has been uttered
The first appearance of the Memory Theatre in the fictive domain was in Terra Nostra. Fuentes imagined it as a tool for remembering Alternity, events in alternative time-lines that didn't happen. He reconstructed its terraces of statuary as mobile -- sliding, rotating, animated by shifting illumination and by projective slide-shows -- rather than frozen in hieratic stillness. But Fuentes' methods are unsound.
Below, right: Frozen

Left: Rotating
The second letter of the
Name has been uttered
The second fictive manifestation of the Theatre, in Sherlock, is where we began.

The last letter of the
Name has been uttered
The third appearance in fiction is closer to canon. The images are fixed in Critchley's version. They are made of papier mâché... "white and anonymous, looking rather like vulgar gnome-like garden ornaments." Though it may be that Camillo's notion was that the internalised version would move. In imagination the tiers would slowly revolve in the manner of a circular slide-rule or the volvelles of the Lullian art, creating new combinations.

Perhaps the user was intended to encode information in the form of a manhunter detection wall, by visualising a spiderweb of colour-coded strings to connect the relevant talismans.

But each fictive manifestation of the Theatre makes the next manifestation easier and more likely (according to the iron laws of the Morphogenetic Field): the successive intervals are shortening, the rhythm is accelerating. The third case marks the tipping point of the avalanche, Bellman Logic applies and the slippery slope becomes steeper. Extrapolating the curve, we only have two years left before every single work of literary or cinematic fiction is about a Memory Theatre. After that, as the Morphogenic Flux propagates backwards in time, past works will be recognised in retrospection as descriptions of Camillo's theatre.5 Memory Theatres will be the only culture we have.

I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne's Urn Burial.
1. Filmed in the Debating Chamber in County Hall in London, which used to be the headquarters of the Greater London Council. Until Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC on the principle that local democracy is incompatible with Freedom... leaving County Hall to be occupied by a succession of fly-by-night tourist attractions. The Debating Chamber is now available for corporate hire.

2. Lengthy footnote goes here about Locus Solus as Canterel's memory palace. Tl;dw.

3. There's a plaque on the wall of Literature Street in Vilnius honouring Thomas Harris... not in recognition of his contributions to the literature of Memory, alas, but rather because Lecter is also credited with a Lithuanian background.
It is not known whether anyone is using Literature Street for the Method of Loci.

4. The stage is small, with room for one or maybe two people at a time, so the stairway leading up to it from behind narrows to a eye-of-the-needle entrance. There is nothing in the written description about the corridor being bedecked with banners and messages.

5. Just saying, Inferno.

Was the Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer device from Joe-90 designed not so much to implant memories and skills, but to awaken them through anamnesis? I could not possibly comment.


Emma said...


I quit watching Sherlock during the second season, because it is: 1.) Badly written, 2.) Visually haphazard in ways that are not consonant with the source text, which I actually like, and 3.) Eye-wateringly bigoted. And also I have gotten so tired of almost-gay fanbaiting that I either want to consume gay-only narratives, or stories in which all the characters match up mathematically with members of the opposite sex. Also: Fandom. No.


Would it be very racist of me to assume that you are, in fact, Gandalf? Or at least some sort of a wizard? I know you're from New Zealand and everything, but... this must've been written by at least one wizard. How could it not be a wizard's work? Wizard. That's one of those words that loses meaning when you repeat it end-to-end for a surprisingly short interval of time.

I did try to make a memory palace when I was learning Japanese, though -- but my brain doesn't work like that. I used to have the same problem with math, in school.

I feel like that ought to have been a joke! But it isn't.

Smut Clyde said...

I can only use my powers for good. Well, good and incomprehensibility. Mainly the latter.

H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

Reginald Reynolds, in "Beards: Their social standing, religious involvements, decorative possibilities, and value in offence and defence through the ages" cites a clergyperson who would fork his fingers through his prodigious beard while sermonizing and after each bullet point was made, transfer the beard segment to the other side of the finger. Alas, i no longer have the book (or the beard) to hand.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

If these loci serve to stimulate the memory, allowing one to recall facts, it stands to reason that they would have a beneficial effect on the intellect, making them- WAIT FOR IT- genius loci.