Of that which is remembered: Memory Theater by Simon Critchley

Philosopher Simon Critchley’s curious fictional debut, a detour down a pathway that blurs the lines between essay, fiction, and what might  almost be considered speculative memoir; opens with one miserable protagonist pursued by a relentless insomnia and an abiding fear of death. Our narrator, who shares both name and profession with his progenitor, has been been possessed by terror and sleeplessness for three years by this point and is, quite frankly, “exhausted with exhaustion”. And rightly so, he has put himself through quite the ordeal. In the tale that follows in the brief novel, Memory Theater, he invites the reader to join him on a journey that combines a reflective review of the history of the philosophical fascination with memory and a strange discovery that fuels his own descent into madness.


The story begins with the protagonist’s decision to relocate to New York from the UK in search of a more accommodating academic environment. However, first he must clear out his office at the University of Essex, and in the process of sorting through his books and papers, he comes across a stack of five boxes tucked away, half hidden. Upon investigation he discovers that they contain the unpublished papers and notes of his friend and former teacher, Michel Haar, who had passed away the previous year. In keeping with his friend’s predilection for astrology, the boxes are labeled with zodiac signs, from Capricorn to Gemini. For some reason Taurus is either missing or absent.

In the boxes he finds letters, manuscripts, maps. He is especially entranced by a treatise entitled “Le théâtre de mémoire selon G. W. F. Hegel”, an original reinterpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, informed by the notion of the memory theatre as explored in the writings of historian Frances Yates in her classic book, The Art of Memory – a reading of Occidental history as a quest to develop mnemonic systems to capture, contain, and retrieve knowledge.

“Artificial memory machines litter history. Human beings seem to be persistently seduced by the idea that a theater, a palace, or a machine might be constructed that would hold the sum of knowledge in a way that would permit total recall. All that we would need to do in order to obtain absolute knowledge would be to enter the theater or machine and commit to memory everything therein.”

At this point, Critchely’s hero sets off on an overview of the philosophical attempts to realize this ambition, starting with the ancient Greek poet Simonides and moving forward through to the ambitious efforts of Guilo Delmino Camillo in the first half of the 1500’s to obtain the funds to construct a full size theater based on a model he reportedly built and described, culminating ultimately with speculation that the Globe Theatre may have been conceived with similar designs.

The notion of the memory theater enchants the protagonist, especially his friend’s reading via Hegel of memory, not as a static arrangement of information set out on the steps of an amphitheater and viewed from the stage, but as a series of moving images, a history of the Spirit coming into being… memory as process, to be viewed from any spot in the theater. Yet he is troubled by his own experience of memory loss as a result of an accident earlier in his life, recalling that: “My self felt like a theatre with no memory. All the seats were empty. Nothing was happening on stage.”

Overwhelmed by his findings, he retreats to rest for the night before opening the fifth and final box. That night he is visited by a fantastic dream in which he floats through a Gothic cathedral. Magical, vast and vivid in its imagery this dream sequence marks the transition of the novel from the drier, firmer ground of of the academic essay turned memoir, into a space where the impossible is possible. It also provides our first indication that our narrator is more unstable and neurotic than his philosophical lecturing may have suggested.

The following day, on his way back to the university the dream haunts him:

“I… 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.”

But the metaphor quickly expands… a town, a city, the globe, the night sky. He comes to wonder if everyone is their own memory theater, tossing and playing with the idea until he arrives at the office and opens the Pisces box. Inside, at the bottom of the container, he finds a stack of circular charts reproduced on stiff cards. He takes them to be astrological charts but, at closer inspection, he realizes that they are, in truth, memory maps: circular diagrams working inward from biographical details, through an individual’s works to, at the very centre, the date, location and cause of death.

Making his way through the charts, he finds that Michel had drawn up a map for each of his favourite thinkers, and then, moving further along, for various colleagues and contemporaries. What might seem a fancy is rendered prophetic by the fact that a few of the charts assigned to individuals who themselves died after their creator’s death were chillingly accurate in their predictions of the exact details of the subject’s demise.

And then, the fictional Simon finds his own map. The central circle is inscribed: “le 13 juin, 2010, 1551h, Den Bosch, hémorragie cébébrale.” His reaction is cool, cerebral hemmorhage when he would have expected lung cancer. “But where the fuck is Den Bosch?”

Moving on to the United States armed with this knowledge, our protagonist seems to be relaxed and comforted by the certainty of a date and time for his own impending passing. He is productive, and as happy as any philosopher obsessed with dying is likely to be – that is, until the missing link, the box marked Taurus arrives.

Inside he finds a small wooden model of a memory theater, presumably after that which Camillo was purported to have created. And then things get very weird. He begins to experience extreme phantom pains, he starts to hallucinate, anxiety consumes him, he becomes isolated and ultimately ramps up into full blown mania. Tracking down Den Bosch, home of one Hieronymus – master of a memory theater worthy of the totality of heaven and hell if there ever was one – he relocates to the Netherlands and begins to construct a life sized memory theater of his own. A place to die and become god-like at once.

It is quite impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to come to this work without an interest in philosophy. There is a glossary that closes out the work that lists the key personages and concepts that appear in the preceding pages so detailed knowledge is by no means a prerequisite. But it would not hurt. I confess that I arrived with some background, including a degree in philosophy and my own yellowed copy of Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory.

I have also had a longstanding interest in the nature and limitations of memory. I spent a decade working with adult survivors of acquired brain injury; an opportunity to become well acquainted with the range of memory impairments afforded by accident or illness. Our clients included several individuals with severe anoxic injuries that left them with no ability to transfer episodic experience into short term, and ultimately, long term memory. Two had been professionals, one a young lawyer, the other a doctor, prior to injuries that had occurred decades earlier. Given a chance to expound facts from their respective areas of expertise, recall was impressive, if outdated. But leave the room and return a minute later and neither would know they had ever seen you before. With a ten second memory, a memory theatre is an absurd notion, it’s more like a room at the end of a long tunnel with blank walls. A tunnel that grows ever longer over time.

I imagine that this background is, in part, what drew my attention to this book when it was released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo last fall. At the time though, I could not know what would lie between my initial awareness of Memory Theater and my opportunity to read it. With respect to the obsession with death that entertains Critchley, fictional and, apparently, actual as well; I cannot say it ever was a source of particular concern for me. That is until a few minutes after midnight on the 27th of July this year – the anniversary of a marriage which is long over but never ceases to be the harbinger of strange occurrences for me. I had fallen asleep, still exhausted and fighting what I assumed to be prolonged jet lag after a long flight home from South Africa, when a pulmonary embolism nearly claimed my life. By an eerie set of coincidences, my adult son heard me struggling to breathe and was able to call for support and start chest compressions in time.

I was fortunate. No prosaic dance with death that one, no necronautical conceit. I had prepared for the fact that my plane could fall out of the sky or that I could be mugged on the streets of Cape Town (which I very nearly was), but to die in my sleep at that moment? No I was not ready to accept that fate. And apart from the days immediately before and after the event, I survived with my memory intact.

So of what worth the notion of a memory theater? We cannot look forward, we can only look back, and, if there is time, the theater I wish to construct is one that I write into being – for myself and for those I love.

Memory Theater is now available in North America through Other Press.