All Kinds of Trouble (Gender and Otherwise)

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Molloy.

Reading Molloy gave me that uncommon feeling — half exhilarating, half unsettling — of knowing I wasn’t getting it all, and enjoying it.  (A lot of “known unknowns” here, as well as the inevitable “unknown unknowns,” to be Rumsfeldian about it.)  It’s as layered, dense, and fecund as the soil in a very old graveyard.  As Beckett/Molloy himself puts it, in a typically metafictional moment, “That movements of an extreme complexity were taking place seemed certain, and yet what a simple thing it seemed…”

In my last post I mentioned the insanity in the book as well as its “moments of clarity.”  But — and I’m correcting myself here — this simplifying sane/insane dichotomy is precisely the kind that Molloy exists to complicate.  Both Molloy and Moran exhibit signs of mental illness or at least temporary bouts of madness, but as in Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, the telling of the tale complicates these signs, especially in Moran’s case.  (See here for the first of my series of posts on Schreber’s book.)  The lucidity with which the tale is told confuses the reader, who expects his narrator either honest and invisible or duplicitous and foregrounded, but not confused about his/her own state of mind, not carefully recollecting a deranged state of mind.  In the case of Molloy, Beckett inserts an authorial meta-narrative, especially in the case of Molloy’s monologue, to further complicate matters.

As with Schreber’s Memoirs, difficulty in identifying objects and events as one kind of thing or another is a key sign of the protagonist’s illness — or, to view it from another angle, is the distinguishing characteristic that elevates the supposedly mad to a higher level of understanding.  That nature resides on a continuum, rather than exclusively in the socially constructed either/or relationships to which we relegate it: this is Beckett’s point, and also something that would have struck, say, Victorians as the kind of thing you’d say before they cart you off to Bedlam.

There’s trouble with gender, of course.  Moran at one point says his kneecap feels “like a clitoris”; Molloy finds himself dressed in a woman’s nightgown at one point, and confuses the gender even of his sexual partners.  The body is a site of great confusion, as it is to Schreber: it really is “the body’s long madness,” as Molloy puts it, and it is unclear how much of the trouble that goes on here with toes, legs, eyes, and just about anything else is mental and how much physical.

But beyond that, Beckett muddles other dichotomies such as living/dead, conscious/dreaming, truth/lie, and self/other, as well as playing with tense to disrupt our sense of past, present, and future time within the narratives.  It’s as yet unknown to me whether Beckett read and was fascinated by Schreber’s case, or if the resemblance between the books is an accident.  I tend to think that Beckett must have read Schreber, what with the references to Moran’s “bellowing” here, a distinctive symptom from Schreber’s work.  It is amazing how the material of Schreber’s tortured mental state is transmuted, though: some of the most beautiful, oneiric passages of Molloy could be seen as based on Schreber’s waking nightmare of God’s confusion of living and dead.

Molloy is a dream-book of sorts, taking part in dreams’ malleability and endless possibility but also in their maddening anxiety, tension, and relentless desire.  Dreams make themselves up as they go along, just as Molloy seems to; and just as in dreams, it is never in fact clear who the “I” of the story is, or if there is an “I” at all.  Are Molloy and Moran aspects of the same person on different quests, or opposing sides of a single archetype, or what?  Do their tales simply simply partake of similar images and symbols as dreams tend to do? Or is the central false dichotomy author/reader — do we fail to recognize ourselves as the protagonists and joint creators, and the narrative our shared dream with the author?

Dreams, Brains, Art, Symbol

October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

“This is a major step toward reconstructing internal imagery,” said [Jack] Gallant.  “We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”

“[N]o previous study has produced reconstructions of dynamic natural movies,” Gallant’s team pointed out on their website.  “This is a critical step toward obtaining reconstructions of internal states such as imagery, dreams and so on.”

-”Scientists Glimpse Images In Your Mind,” Carl Franzen, 9/23/11, idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com

18. Contemporary intellectual follies, part two: neuroscience.  Or rather, the glib wholesale transferral of the logic of neuroscience to the realm of culture.  Another trump card in a narrative of progress that presents itself as absolute, “objective”: the belief that art and literature can be “explained” by a discourse that has no bearing on them whatsoever.  As though the endless complexity of thought and interpretation demanded by Hamlet could be substituted by the act of taking a biopsy of Shakespeare’s brain, or the interminable challenges and provocations posed by Inland Empire neutralized by placing electrodes among Lynch’s strangely coiffured hair.  Meaning takes place in the symbolic, is constantly negotiated through language (be this spoken or visual), through the dynamism of metaphor, structured by desire, power, gender, and the rest.  This process is open, ongoing, and — most important — contestable.  That’s why we have art in the first place.

-”Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future,’” The International Necronautical Society (Tom McCarthy), The Believer, Nov/Dec 2010

The Rabbit Family, Inland Empire

“Right.  I wanted you to tell me something.  That’s why I called,” Sumire said.  She lightly cleared her throat.  “What I want to know is, what’s the difference between a sign and a symbol?”

I felt a weird sensation, like something was silently parading through my head.  “Could you repeat the question?”…

I sat up in bed, switched the receiver from my left hand to my right.  “Let me get this straight — you’re calling me because you want to find out the difference between a sign and a symbol.  On Sunday morning, just before dawn.  Um…”

-Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami

Telephone booth at night, courtesy http://www.nmcclellan.com/travel-blog.php

She’s at the top of a tall tower.  So high it makes her dizzy to look down.  Lots of tiny objects, like airplanes, are buzzing around the sky.  Simple little planes anybody could make, constructed of bamboo and light pieces of lumber.  In the rear of each plane there’s a tiny fist-sized engine and propeller.  Sumire yells out to one of the passing pilots to come rescue her.  But none of the pilots pays any attention.

-”Sumire’s Dream,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Miu’s mind went blank.  I’m right here, looking at my room through binoculars.  And in that room is me….

I’ve felt this way for the longest time — that in a Ferris wheel in a small Swiss town, for a reason I can’t explain, I was split in two forever.

-”The Tale of Miu and the Ferris Wheel,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Ferris wheel in Basel, Switzerland, from gottofr's Flickr feed.

The answer is dreams.  Dreaming on and on.  Entering the world of dreams, and never coming out.  Living in dreams for the rest of time.

-”Document 1,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings.

-”Document 1,” Sputnik Sweetheart

Trying to Eat All the Boat’s Food

July 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Pale King.

Reading next: The Third Book of Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais.

This month in national politics has seemed like a nightmare, no?  Or one of those terrible anxiety dreams where you know what needs to get done, you want to do it, but you cannot make yourself move or do the necessary thing, and all the while terror builds and builds of some unknown disaster or monster awaiting you, as you continue to try to do or remember this very simple thing that keeps escaping you…

So yes: the debt ceiling crisis has played out, at least from my perspective, like some horrible emanation from the unconscious mind of the country.  (That description fits the hardline Tea Partiers pretty well, actually.)  And Obama is the avatar in the dream who cannot seem to do or remember the simple-but-impossible thing.  I suspect and kind of hope that he must feel like this at some level himself.  But it’s also felt like a personal nightmare.  There is in the citizen within me (and many others) a wish to wake up and take the government supposedly doing my/our bidding by the lapels and shaking, hard, and slapping forehand and backhand across the cheeks.  And knowing that the hardliners holding up the whole show do not care about my wishes; do not care about any of our wishes, if we do not agree with their ideology.  That’s a kind of nightmare, too.

Economics, government, civics, and nightmares have all been on my mind thanks to The Pale King.  I’ll say more about nightmares in another post.  For now, just let me say that it’s very worthwhile to read and reread section 19 and think about the discussion and/or debate therein, driven by a thoughtful, cogent, apparently conservative high-ranking IRS official, about the role of government, of taxation, and of civic responsibility.  And now I’ll shut up and just let a few excerpts do the talking.  (Except for saying that it’s somewhat useful to keep in mind that the excerpts take place in the very late 1970s, as a Reagan presidency is becoming a possibility.)

Americans are in a way crazy.  We infantilize ourselves.  We don’t think of ourselves as citizens — parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities.  We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.  We abdicate our civic responsibility to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality.  I’m talking mostly about economics and business…

Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them.  Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think — of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality.  Cleverness as opposed to wisdom.  Wanting and having instead of thinking and making.  We cannot stop it.  I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster — depression, hyperinflation — and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly.  Like Rome — conqueror of its own people….

Of course you want it all, of course you want to keep every dime you make.  But you don’t, you ante up, because it’s how things have to be for the whole lifeboat.  You sort of have a duty to the others in the boat.  A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food….

I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty….

There’s something very curious, though, about the hatred.  The government is the people, leaving aside various complications, but we split it off and pretend it’s not us; we pretend it’s some threatening Other bent on taking our freedoms, taking our money and redistributing it, legislating our morality in drugs, driving, abortion, the environment — Big Brother, the Establishment… With the curious thing being that we hate it for appearing to usurp the very civic functions we’ve ceded to it….

We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie.  So who makes the pie?

Corporations make the pie.  They make it and we eat it….

What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude.  That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves.

The [Internal Revenue] Service’s more aggressive treatment of TPs [taxpayers], especially if it’s high-profile, would seem to keep in the electorate’s mind a fresh and eminently disposable image of Big Government that the Rebel Outsider President could continue to define himself against and decry as just the sort of government intrusion into the private lives and wallets of hardworking Americans he ran for the office to fight against….

The new leader won’t lie to the people: he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves.

Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

July 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

[Editorial note: And now for a departure.  I wrote the piece below in 2000.  It's the work of a young guy in love (with the woman he'd eventually marry) who'd clearly been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace.  I've made a few minor edits but left the major faults unchanged.  Looking back over it recently, I decided to post it here before heading back to Nebraska to visit family: a paean to the Midwest, to summer, to Jaime, to hope.]

Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

Well there’s a Memphis down in Tennessee and a Memphis in my dreams, and there used to be a Memphis over in Egypt, back when it was the Memphis, and even if you don’t believe it there’s a Memphis, Nebraska. How much of each makes up the one in my dreams? The world may never know.

So I Had This Dream

a couple of months ago, before I was really aware of any of the Memphilia about to break through to my daily consciousness.

The dream took place in Memphis, it was understood, in that perfectly succinct way dreams have of establishing place — and, well, of establishing practically everything else, too. A lot of the dream is unimportant for these purposes, although I’m pretty sure my parents were around and I know my girlfriend was at least a figure in the dream, if not physically there. (It would help this whole thing gel a whole helluva lot better if Jaime were physically there, but such are the spoils of living apart.) Point is, I’d gotten myself to Memphis, somehow.

Memphis in my dream was a magical city. A holy city, perhaps the holy city. For some while I simply rode around in a car, looking out the window at the buildings (I got a feeling of dilapidation) and the sky (senses-heightening blue), hearing music in the background, always music. Then I was walking down a street, surrounded by green everywhere. The city was full of vegetation, lush, rich, overflowing, Hanging-Gardensish. Fertile. It was spring. I missed Jaime.

The music picked up here, as I recall: organs, ethereal dream-instruments. I was suddenly on what I’ve come to think of as Cathedral Row. There were massive temples here. They were stunning, and when I think of them even now I am struck with a profound sense of how truly gorgeous they were, in my dream. One was all stained glass, purple, made entirely of turrets and steeples and windows and Baroque and Gothic elements, rising high into the sky, a sacred Tower of Babel — so, perhaps not a Tower of Babel at all, but its antithesis. Another contained gorgeous sculptures everywhere, flanking the pulpit, jutting right up into the faces of overeager parishioners in the first rows. There were more: I have sinned, I have forgotten.

Duke Chapel, Durham, NC. Photo by Adam Gerik.

What’s Your Point? #1

I’ve never been one of those people that rolls their eyes at people who want to share their dreams. Seems to me that if you’re not interested in what people are dreaming, you’re just not interested in people. Perhaps I oversimplify.

But this dream most definitely had a point, which is, in a way, the following:

I remember writing to Jaime about it, about what a great dream it was, about how bizarre, to dream about Memphis. I wrote a short piece trying to capture the feeling of that dream, the kinds of things I was actually thinking in the dream. It was a “deeply spiritual” dream, if one is allowed to call anything “deeply spiritual” anymore. Put it this way: the Memphis in my dreams was not the kind of place where you have to put “deeply spiritual” in quotes, to show that you know how hackneyed and flaky you’re being, to show how worldly and un-naive and, well, godless you really are.

I love Jaime very much. We have grand plans to live quietly, happily, peacefully together forever after two years of living apart — right now she’s in St. Louis, I’m in Lincoln. I tell her my dreams; she tells me hers.

And it was on my way to see her, when she was home for the summer in Nebraska, that I ran across a sign for Memphis, NE. The sign (MEMPHIS 10) is posted on a shortcut to her house that I’d just recently begun to utilize. When I noticed it, I quite suddenly wanted to go there, to see the town, to write about it (never thinking even once about the dream I’d had, months before; that connection came later). Nothing glamorous, nothing all that smart, even. Just a piece about Memphis– or rather, Memphises.

How to Find Memphis, NE

From Omaha, take I-80 out of town to the Gretna exit. Go through Gretna, take Hwy. 6 down to near Ashland, then catch 63 through Ashland. After a few turns, you’ll be in Memphis.

From Wahoo, just catch 77 South to the turnoff for 63 East, right before you go through Swedeburg; 63 will take you right to Memphis’s doorstep. (But watch out for the turn, to the right; sneaks up on you. Look for the Country Keno sign.)

From Nebraska City, you’ve got a hike, but not too bad! Just take 75 N to Union, then hop on 34 E for a ways (25 mi?) ‘til you get to the intersection with 63 N (there’ll be a sign for Alvo), and take that right ‘til it ends, breaking off into 6 roughly E and W. Take E ‘til that same Ashland turnoff, 63, up to Memphis. You know the rest.

Or, if you’re coming from Lincoln, like us: you can take the N 14th St. shortcut to 77 (no gravel necessary!), or you can just get on I-80 E and take that to 77, go through Ceresco and Swedeburg to that 63 E exit. Skip Ithaca; get to Memphis.

Failing that, head toward Ithaca, Ashland, or Mead. You’ll find it eventually.

Some Interesting Connections

“Memphis,” the word, can be translated a few different ways (hieroglyphics being a tricky medium for even the most skilled Egyptologist), but it’s most likely that the name means “White Fortress” or, more poetically, “White Walls.” Memphis was the original capital of the unified Egypt, the city which brought together the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, perhaps 15 miles south of the apex of the Nile delta. As such, it was the home of pharaohs and, correspondingly, a religious center.

Temple of Isis at Philae near Memphis, by "Son of Groucho."

Elvis Presley, whatever there might be to say about his (un)originality or mimicry of black forms or rather simple and/or derivative sense of rhythm, was one hell of a singer and did much to unify the Northern and Southern halves of this country in a sound, in rock and roll (however short-lived it was). Would the Beatles have happened without Elvis? What about rap?

Elvis loved Memphis. He built his own White Fortress there, Graceland, a complex structure which allowed him to be simultaneously worshiped and utterly alone behind his many different walls.

Graceland, Memphis, TN, from discoveringelvis.wordpress.com

Most intimately linked to the ancient Memphis was Ptah, a creator-god (but so much more!) who had his main temple there. Ptah seems to have always been an anthropomorphic deity, but his humanity was almost completely concealed within a skullcap and tight-fitting cloth which resembled a leotard. Only his face and hands remained visible. One is somewhat reminded of Elvis’s sequined-jumpsuit Vegas days.

It’s tempting to consider Ptah as the very first rock god, predating Bacchus and Christ and Liszt and Elvis. Ancient Egyptian love songs often call upon him to bring lovers together at night — what more rock-and-roll sentiment exists? In those same songs, Ptah is often known by one of his many appellations, “Ptah Beautiful of Face,” attributable to the fact that Ptah’s skin was made of pure gold. It virtually begs for hieroglyphic newsreels of Ptahmania sweeping the Nile basin, girls swooning at his dreamy eyes, his full lips, his gentle-yet-powerful hands.

Then there are the representations of Ptah themselves, which offer perhaps the most perplexing and intriguing evidence of Ptah-as-superstar. The god is usually shown grasping a narrow staff which symbolizes royalty and which is topped with an ankh (life) sign. The whole thing, held close and directly in front of him, comes to roughly chin-height and is eerily similar in design and appearance to an old-style microphone — such as the one Elvis swings to the side in that very famous photograph, face contorted mid-croon, pelvis swiveled, knees buckled, hair pompadour’d. Ptah as king of rock and roll? Maybe so. Elvis as life-bringer and sexual liaison? Too obvious to expound upon.

The young god Presley, from (yes!) http://www.jesus-is-savior.com

Annoying (but Crucial) Autobiographical Information

We drove to Memphis, Jaime and I, on one of the hottest days of the year. July; mid-afternoon. We escaped from the hot tin box in which I lived and sweated, took off with windows down and radio up. That’s our sort of thing to do.

Embarrassingly, I have never been to Memphis, TN. Or Memphis, Egypt. I first saw the Atlantic Ocean last year. I have never seen the Pacific. I have flown on a plane exactly three times — each time to Boston, within the last year, to visit Jaime. This is, I think, not a terribly unusual state of affairs for a kid from Nebraska.

I’ve lived here my whole life, first in Norfolk (pop. 22,000 or so), then in Hastings (pop. 23,000 or so), then in Lincoln (pop. 150, 000 or so). I will more than likely be leaving it soon, quite possibly for a city with a pop. in the millions. I’ll miss it; I feel a kinship with this place, its people, its sky, its land, even though I’m not a farmer or a farmer’s son. (However, one doesn’t need to travel far here — either geographically or ancestrally — to feel that connection to place, to country.)

So this would be my first Memphis — at least, my first physical Memphis. It seemed fitting. I’d like to go to Tennessee, see Graceland, hear some blues — I’d like to go to Egypt, sometime, maybe, for a while — but Nebraskans like me, for better or worse, filter life through these tiny towns.

But so could I be more in love with this girl Jaime? It was the first summer we’d had together, and the trip to Memphis started, at least in part, as just an inkling of something I would like to do with her. She enjoys exploring such places as much as I do, I think. At any rate, we would get to ride around together, talking, listening to the radio, sweating.

We were doing just those things as we neared Memphis proper, and we actually missed the turn to the town, and had to turn around. As we did so, we found a radio station (I think it was NPR) broadcasting an interview with Charles Brown, the great blues musician.

And wouldn’t you know it, he was talking about meeting Elvis, the King.

What Memphis, NE Has to Offer

There are quite a few very beautiful trees standing in the midst of cornfields around Memphis. One gets to be a connoisseur of such things on the Great Plains; there are some fine examples of the phenomenon in the vicinity of Memphis. The road we took also has a lovely stretch upon which both shoulders are covered in vibrant purple wildflowers, the grass coming right up to the white lines. The flowers — and, hell, Highway 63 in general — are highly recommended in the early hours of summer mornings.

Memphis is also very near the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center, which may not sound like a whole lot but is really a pretty big deal, taking up whole bunches of land for ruminant, porcine, and bovine studies, forestry training and research, innumerable crop yield projects, and Lord only knows what else. The site seemed to emanate a kind of mad-science vibe, for me. I think this comes partly from my own ignorance if not outright timidity when it comes to agriculture, and partly from the aura which surrounds the idea of Memphis. To me, the town’s name stands for magic, mystery, alignment with things I don’t or maybe can’t understand.

University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center.

As not-one-but-two signs point out at the turnoff to Memphis, the town also has “Methodist Church Worship” at 9 AM. I’m not sure if that’s everyday or just Sunday. In any case, worship services are available if you should want to visit: fear not for your soul’s constitution.

And while we’re on the subject, that same Methodist Church Worship is presumably held in the town’s dominant (and loveliest) structure, the Iliff Methodist Church. It is a simple, white, steepled chapel with some lovely painted-glass windows and a charming lack of improvements such as aluminum-and-glass doors or a message board bearing embarrassing inspirational messages.

Town hall in Memphis, NE. Photo taken in 2000.

Memphis has a town hall that looks an awful lot like a storage shed, but this seems to be the unofficial town hall; the other one is just a normal, modest structure, with an old, rusty basketball rim in the driveway.

There are those black sans-serif sticker-letters (the kind that usually advertise things like drink specials on Bud banners in the windows of bars) everywhere in town, including on the advertisements for Methodist Church Worship at 9 AM. Someone’s got a truckload of ‘em, but we never did ask who.

Memphis has a green rectangular sign proclaiming the existence of itself and its 117 inhabitants.

For the residents’ correspondence needs, there is an absolutely tiny post office in the middle of town which flies the American flag proudly, if not really all that high. One gets the sense that the flagpole is short so as to draw attention away from the size of the post office itself.

Memphis, NE post office. Photo taken in 2000.

But as bucolic as all of this might seem, Memphis surely sees periods of heavier traffic, for the town is also home to a state recreation area — a lake, in other words. The lake is man-made, and was created for the booming (now ailing, maybe dead) ice factory the town housed in the early twentieth century. It’s a small, peaceful, pretty lake which comes right up to the road and says hello. On the night we visited, it was completely untouched, completely still.

Near the lake, on the outskirts of town, is a big pink ranch-style house with a huge lawn. Jaime and I both found the house intriguing, partly because of the color and partly because of the proliferation of lawn ornaments (miniature porcelain gauchos, horses, a flamingo or two; oversized porcelain frogs) and partly because of the fertile garden in the backyard, replete with flowers and vines climbing the walls of an enclosed porch. It conjured images for me of the town’s “crazy lady,” living there for unknown reasons, generating gossip and willful tolerance in the other townsfolk. Tending her plants, talking to her lawn sculptures.

The town’s bar — Don’s Bar — is a nice enough place, with fairly good food and a prime rib buffet on Saturday nights. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood, maybe, but listen, don’t go just for Don’s. It’s standard-issue small-town Nebraska.

Memphis has some streets named after places from antiquity or related to its namesake — Cairo St., for instance, but sadly, no Beale — and some that are just odd, such as Gahala St.

One of those streets leaves an indelible image on my mind’s eye. We turned onto this street, only to find it abruptly ending before us in a wall of wild grasses, trees, and brush. A fire hydrant poked out of the scrub near where the side of the road should’ve been, had the road continued; a cardinal perched on the ruins of an old foundation. How to explain such a scene? Perhaps as the place where a town simply ended, where the walls were erected when its capacity was reached.

What’s Your Point? #2

Perhaps there is no exact point, but a thought did occur to me, while trying to understand the significance of these Memphises. I was thinking of how a piece on Memphis, NE, might be perceived, and the imaginary catchphrase I kept attaching to it was “a travelogue from Real America.” And it kept ringing false.

Because, hey, look: if a fake America exists anymore– and by fake I mean an unseen, Dream America — if it even exists anymore, it is embodied in Memphis, Nebraska. Everything else has been made real, or has made itself real — and by real I mean visible, mediated, artificial — simply by showing itself to us again and again and again, over and over, via innumerable sources. The country is rapidly turning (or has turned) into a big dumb cruelly elitist entertainment complex, and Memphis is just about all it has left of a dreamworld. Not in a fantastic sense, or in an On the Road sense: in the sense of being simply unattainable. Mars, New York and every city on down the line, Tibet, the ocean deep, etc., etc. — everything else is far too real. But Memphis, NE — well, no one looking to make a buck has ever gotten Memphis quite right. Not many have tried. And not many will, more than likely. It’s a hardscrabble life in Memphis, and there’s no bureau of tourism to send out glossies of the buffet at Don’s Bar.

The white walls of this Memphis, while perhaps not intentionally erected, are certainly real and exist in the marrow of every villager. It’s not a matter of avoiding the world. It’s a matter of needing those outer walls to feel safe enough, perhaps, to dissolve those inner walls. Not easy to survive at the center of the universe; not easy to cope with depression and loneliness; not easy to live with the same 115 people every day; not easy to commune with the ones you love.

Why do I love and treasure that dream I had? Getting inside the walls. The walls of Memphis, my own walls. And to me, Memphis will always be a matter of love.

What I Wrote Right After My Dream (Which I Just Recently Rediscovered)

…Memphis is unbelievable. There’s all this greenery (just like You said Everything was so green You went Down South after I left and You loved how green everything was and You said Maybe someday we could live there and I laughed) and the weather is beautiful. Memphis is a revelation. (I expect Graceland…)

Suddenly I’m alone in Memphis (thinking I miss Her, She would love this) and surrounded by the most incredibly beautiful cathedrals. They are enormous and tall and I feel like a very small child looking up at them.

This one is painted green, yellow, and purple (purple Purple’s your favorite color how you would love this) and the whole building is covered in sculpture and it’s like Memphis is suddenly Oz.

This one is huge, wide, creamy brick with metal corners and somehow I know that it is alive.

This one is almost completely stained glass and there is a purple stained-glass fountain inside which makes me want to cry.

There are riots of flowers outside.

(I am not laughing anymore.)

When I Think of Memphis

my thoughts start to wander, and I end up thinking about all of them. It becomes a conflation of my impressions of those cities, centered on the small town I visited.

I think of Elvis, in his pink castle on the outskirts of town, not terribly unhappy, putting together lyrics from those black sticker-letters and strumming a guitar, sitting on his back porch, amid the gauchos and gigantic frogs and the other kitsch he’d strangely become related to in another world far away. The alchemists and oracles in the ARDC laughing madly over their magics, creating cows that never stop giving milk and ears of corn as big as Cadillacs. Pyramids on the floor of the lake, buried beneath water, their stone guardians and sloped walls defending their inhabitants from intrusion, violation. A jukebox in Don’s Bar playing Charles Brown’s blues. Kids coming together to walk after midnight, guided by Ptah to the Church at the heart of town, to walk the streets and hold hands and make love their own. The trees in the cornfields spreading their limbs over the cornstalks like revival preachers blessing their congregations. The white walls, too tall to climb, at the place where the streets end in a profusion of weeds. The whole town set down in the middle of the plain, encased, like the City of Gold, Jerusalem.

And I think of love, Jaime, and wanting to make those walls between us disappear. I think of times when they do, when they have — when we have walked the streets of Memphis together, amid the riot of flowers and through the towering cathedrals.

She’s in St. Louis right now. It’s only four hours from Memphis, Tennessee, she tells me. Will we get there? I can only hope; I can only hope we go together, hand in hand.

The American Nile floods Memphis, TN, 2011.

Dream Hunting

January 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Reading next: The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.

Pavic (there should really be an accent on that final c, but I can’t seem to find it among the symbols) died in December, spurring me to finally get around to reading this, his first book.  I loved Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel inspired by crossword puzzles, able to be read “Across” or “Down.” He’s like the Serbian love-child of Borges and Kafka.

I’m afraid I haven’t loved Dictionary of the Khazars as much, though it certainly has interesting elements (maybe a few too many, actually).  As was the case with Landscape, reading it is both an education and an entertainment: I knew nothing about the existence of a people known as the Khazars before I started reading this, and thought them an invention of the author, when they really are a historical fact, dominant in Eastern Europe from the 7th to 10th centuries (just as I never knew of the existence of the monasteries of Mount Athos before reading Landscape).  Of course, Pavic is using both groups — and many other things we never get taught in school in the U.S. — as devices for his literary concerns, furiously embellishing and inventing.  But it gets you peeking into encyclopedias, poking around the Internet, and you find, not only that you don’t know much about much, but  that you don’t know as much as you think you do about what’s made up and what’s not.

The dream hunters are an invention, but what an invention!  In their entry in the Dictionary, they are introduced like so: “A sect of Khazar priests whose protectress was Princess Ateh.  They could read other people’s dreams, live and make themselves at home in them, and through the dreams hunt the game that was their prey — a human, an object, or an animal.”  This thread of the “plot” woven through the novel’s entries — especially the interconnected tales of Avram Brankovich, Yusuf Masudi, and Samuel Cohen — is what I’ve enjoyed most about the book.  The core of the dream hunters’ essential mission is explained to Masudi by an old mystic:

“The goal of dream hunters is to understand that every awakening is just one step in the many releases from dreaming.  He who understands that his day is merely another person’s night, that his two eyes are another person’s one, will search for the real day, which enables true awakening from one’s own reality, just as one awakens from a dream, and this leads to a condition where man is even more wakeful than when conscious.  Then he will finally see that he has one eye as opposed to those with two, and is blind compared with those who are awake….”

This is not only some real pre-Matrix metaphysically deep shit, it also seems to be a core tenet of the (limited amount of) Eastern European literature I’ve read, as practiced by Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and their ilk.  The importance of being “even more wakeful than when conscious” — of paying attention to dreams as something which can awaken us to a truer reality than our mundane lives — and of realizing that there are layers of meaning, connection, and “reality” among the many forms of life and consciousness: I do not know why, but these seem to be central to the concerns of the Eastern European fabulists.

Pavic puts his own spin on these ideas, by expanding them into the idea that the true, impossible goal is the reconstruction from “all human dreams” of Adam Ruhani (also called Adam Cadmon in the Jewish portion of the dictionary — both real concepts in Islam and Judaism, respectively, though extensively embellished here).  Adam Ruhani “thought the way we dream,” before his fall.  The dream hunters try to put Ruhani back together, finding and tracking key elements shared in people’s dreams.  Awesome idea.

Welcome to the Dream-Factory

September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dangerous Laughter.

Reading next: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki and The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.

Libraries and their ilk play a surprising large role in this collection, starting with “The Room in the Attic,” maybe my favorite story in the book (either that or “A Precursor of the Cinema,” which is just rad).

The title of this post is taken from “The Room in the Attic,” and spoken by Wolf, Dave the narrator’s super-cool, iconoclastic, book-addicted friend.  Here’s the full passage:

“A book,” he [Wolf] declared, “is a dream-machine.” He said this one day when we were sitting on the steps of the town library, leaning back against the pillars.  “Its purpose,” he said, ” is to take you out of the world.”  He jerked his thumb toward the doors of the library, where I worked for two hours a day after school, three days a week.  “Welcome to the dream-factory.”

Of course, this is not an orthodox argument for the American public library system, or for research libraries, for that matter.  Library administrators, organizations like ALA, and well wishers are forced to base arguments for the importance of libraries on things like early literacy and young adult after-school programs, continuing education, provision of internet access for the poor, and arts programming.  Mostly libraries are getting away from promoting themselves as places that hold books, which seems hopelessly retrograde and static.  (Instead they, especially those that deal with “youth,” are all about ridiculous promotions like hosting gaming nights and making sure they have a presence on Second Life.)  Books?  God, how embarrassing!

And yet, there it is: “Welcome to the dream-factory.”  This plays out in a rather literal sense in many libraries: college kids, preschoolers, the homeless napping and (one would think) dreaming.  We in libraries, for whatever reason, resist the idea that we are places to dream.  We have been singularly bad about instilling a sense of wonder in our patrons about what libraries make available to them.  This is perhaps a self-defeating argument: libraries as public resources are an American concept, and Americans insisted on them because they were efficient means of equalizing availability to information and creating an informed citizenry.

Something in me has always bristled at the idea of libraries as merely information repositories, and, indeed, at the naming of my own chosen field as “Library Science.”  Wolf goes on to make clear that he sees books as his way out of the world he finds boring and worthy of contempt; and yes, there is something subversive embedded in the idea of the library, as it now exists in America.  It is where you can learn whatever you want to learn — not what anyone tells you you must read.  It is where you go to make your own world.  It is where you go for dreams, fantasies, utopias; knowledge and wisdom, not (just) data and information.  Libraries are some of the few places left in America that create and cultivate idiosyncrasy, free thinking, and, yes, dreams and visions.  They deal with the crackpots and the geniuses that will not be dismissed as crackpots for long.  These are valuable services.

At the other end of the collection is “Here at the Historical Society.”  This is one of a handful of rather Borgesian stories here.  Its unnamed narrator explains the recent changes in his Historical Society’s curatorial and exhibition policies: because “the present is the past made visible,” the staff now “go out each day to observe and classify a world that is already a part of the historical record.”  In other words, everything belongs in the Historical Society; and candy-bar wrappers and other bits of trash are equally worthy of curation and exhibition as historical artifacts as are arrowheads and other more traditionally “historical” materials.  This is rather the opposite of Wolf’s “dream-factory.”  (Or is it that idea’s logical conclusion?)

The story is the archival equivalent of the headache-inducing idea of the universal library — Borges’s “Library of Babel.”  And frankly, Millhauser is not far off: there has certainly been a shift toward collecting more of the materials of daily life in special collections and archives.  Where everyone once wanted the papers of world leaders, they now crave the diaries of frustrated housewives and the letters of the few literate slaves.  Where the mission was once seen as documenting history, it is now seen as documenting life.

As someone who tries to make these kinds of decisions — what’s worth keeping?  How much more valuable is a 400-year-old document than a 4-year-old document?  Will anyone care about a current organization in 10, 100, 1000 years? — this is a profoundly frustrating thought.  Millhauser’s narrator talks about the Historical Society’s initiative as a way of seeing the world in full, of being enthralled by the world as its own museum, everything a priceless connection to the past and future; but of course, the story is also a satire, and this is closer to the reaction that many people have to this kind of work: Why in the world would you want to save my papers?

For me, at least, the story comes off as satirical at first, but somehow gets more sincere but also more troubling the more I think about it.  Do archives, museums, libraries help people better understand their world?  Do they function well either as a dream-factory or as a knowledge generator?  Or do they merely present a distorted view of the world — an inevitably and unavoidably incomplete picture of an instantly bygone world?  As a librarian, I’ve obviously made my decisions on these questions, at least at a practical level; they nevertheless need to be kept in mind.  It is always important to remember that we are much closer to knowing (and to preserving) nothing rather than everything.  (See also: Rumsfeld’s immortal “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”)

The Unheimlich and the Uncanny

April 16, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.

There’s a fantastic etymological tangent in S.S. Prawer’s chapter on “The Uncanny.”  Trying to pin down what he means by the term “uncanny,” he focuses on the German word unheimlich.  He provides two common understandings of the term:

(a) the ‘un-homely,’ that which makes you feel uneasy in the world of your normal experience, not quite safe to trust to, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.  In this sense, unheimlich has frequently been used as the equivalent of a word that would seem to be its opposite, the word heimlich, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’..

(b) the ‘un-secret,’ that which should have remained hidden but has somehow failed to do so.

He goes on to translate from the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology: “Uncanny [unheimlich] is a term for everything which should remain mysterious, hidden, latent and has come to light.”

Why do German words always seem to have these awesome subtleties and gradations of meaning?

This is really fascinating to me, this Gothic and proto-Freudian sense of the uncanny being the forbidden intrusion of the secret or hidden into the world — and the connection to the home, the connection that heimlich seems to have with both the hidden and the cozy, the comfortable, the homey.  (Those madwomen in the attic again; those horrors in the basement; those extrusions of the id.)  The seeming simultaneous opposition and equivalence of unheimlich and heimlich is also perfect, somehow.  Think of the way your name, or any common word, starts to sound really weird when you repeat it to yourself over and over.  (Best cinematic representation of this phenomenon that I can think of off the top of my head: Kicking and Screaming.)  Both canny and uncanny.  It’s hidden there all along, that weirdness, that divide between meaning and meaningless symbols.

Or think, more to the point, of the Doppelgänger.  The doppelganger (forgive my lazy Anglicization), as Prawer points out, is the consummate example of the uncanny/unheimlich.  And yet it’s so close to home: the double, the other self.  Weird like the world in the mirror is weird, and will spook you if you stare too long.

Atmospheric Disturbances is shaping up to be one helluva doppelganger story: a psychiatrist who “senses” one day that his wife is no longer his wife, but a simulacrum, or a double.  This “sensing” is the trademark of the uncanny, as well as one of the stock devices of the horror genre: “something doesn’t feel right here.”  But Galchen is doing great things with it here, by destabilizing our relationship with our narrator/psychiatrist, making us question his stability, this supposed practitioner of mental health.

All fiction is uncanny in that anything, really, can happen: writers can be as strange or as normal as they choose to be (although, of course, the unconventional ones — those who do not follow conventions, intentionally or not, skillfully or not — have a harder time getting anyone to read them).  I am loving the way that this book is making me question what’s going on: I do not know what kind of story I am being told.  It could be a story of mental illness or a story of supernatural phenomena.  Or a story of hidden lives and domestic drama.  Is it a Borgesian puzzle or a kind of parable of marriage?  Or all of the above?  (Well, it is definitely of Borges.  That’s for sure.)  Isn’t that another quintessentially uncanny feeling — the feeling, as in many dreams, that you don’t know where you’re going?

(An aside on this last comment: a couple of months ago at the Nevermore Film Festival here in Durham I saw this movie from New Zealand called Blackspot.  It’s really stuck with me: the empty nighttime road played for its full uncanny potential.  It’s imperfect, and pretty difficult to track down at the moment, it would seem, but really, really worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the best kind of Twilight Zone fright.)

The Dreams of Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit

January 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Reading next: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.

Dickens gets really dark in the last third of this book: given how muddled the resolution of the supposed “main” plot of the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits is, I think he simply became more interested in the unremittingly dark, selfish, horrified and horrifying character of Jonas, and his path toward the murder of Montague.  (This seemed, by the way, to happen to Dickens a lot: e.g., Fagin and the Artful Dodger as opposed to Oliver, in Oliver Twist.)

Reading Dickens psychologically is tricky at best, downright dishonest at worst, especially for a layman like myself.  But Dickens, here, does seem to be more interested than in many of his books in the self, and its makeup.  There’s the whole question of how we come to care about other people, and value them as actual people like ourselves and not as obstacles, comforts, or other satellites of the self — one of the central questions of the book.  There’s also the explorations of identity inherent in the non-character of Mrs. Harris, the creation of Mrs. Gamp, who approves of Gamp’s every impulse, notion, and thought; the cipher-characters of Nadgett the detective and the porter of the Anglo-Bengalee Company, whose entire existences are based on being inconspicuous and conspicuous, respectively — entirely internal and external; and the social adventuring and posing and self-creating of Montague Tigg and Bailey Jr.

It somehow seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Dickens was fascinated by his attraction to the worst aspects of his world and (perhaps) his self: the way his writing explodes to life when exploring London’s seedy underbelly, the way he seems most masterful — to me, anyway — when seeing the world through the eyes of those driven on by their basest instincts to horrible acts.  Did Dickens always see the miracle of his avoidance of that life, after the imprisonment of his father and his despair at going to work at age 12?

At any rate, nothing in this book feels as personal for Dickens as the two nightmares: Tigg’s, in chapter 42, shortly before his murder, and Jonas’s, in chapter 47, right before committing the act.  You get the feeling, reading each dream, that they were real: that Dickens had experienced nightmares very like these, that they are not created but remembered.  Tigg dreams of the door in his hotel room: there’s a “dreadful secret” about this door, and it nags at him in that he feels he both knows and does not know this secret, and this aspect of the dream is “incoherently intertwined” with another, in which the door hides “an enemy, a shadow, a phantom.”  The way this door is one thing and another, and the way it maddens him with its known/unknown secret: this smacks of truth, to me.  Although it works perfectly for the fiction, it’s also much messier than it necessarily needs to be.  This is the way real nightmares work, not fabricated nightmares.

The really brilliant thing about this dream, though, is the way “Nadgett, and he [Tigg], and a strange man with a bloody smear upon his head (who told him that he had been his playfellow, and told him, too, the real name of an old schoolmate, forgotten until then)” work to drive “iron plates and nails” into the door to make it secure.  But “the nails broke, or changed to soft twigs, or what was worse, to worms,” and the door crumbles, splinters, and refuses to accept nails.  A footnote tells me that one Joseph Brogunier suggests that the “strange man” is Tigg himself, and the “old schoolmate” is Tigg, too: keep in mind that he’s known at this point as Tigg Montague, and has raised himself from a begging, swindling, scrubby scoundrel into the dandified head of an insurance company (still a swindler, but on a grand scale, and therefore worthy of respect).

The nightmare works brilliantly on different levels: for in reality, the door connects to Jonas’s room, and Tigg wakes to find Jonas hovering over his bed (which is some scary shit, frankly, and would’ve made my heart explode in that situation).  Tigg has already become ambiguously afraid of Jonas, who creeps him out in hard-to-define ways.  But besides fictionally effective foreshadowing of murder, there is also the free-floating anxiety of getting found out: of Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague always afraid he’ll be found out, both as a fraud (although I think he could deal with that alone) and as a kid, a “schoolmate.”  I think Dickens — leaving things really mysterious, ambiguous, and unresolved, here, for once in his life — taps into some of that anxiety we all feel in dreams, and it makes an incredible counterpoint to the self-centered monstrousness of both Jonas and Tigg: the fear we (or at least I) often have in dreams that we are somehow not valid people, not adults, never to escape childhood or the people we once were.

Then there’s Jonas’s dream.  This whole chapter, incidentally, is a work of genius: it’s frenzied, blood-red, taut, surreal in the way you feel surreal when you’re about to do or have just done something terrifying or climactic.  Jonas, riding in a carriage to murder Tigg, dreams he’s in his own bed and is awakened by the old clerk, Chuffey (whom he abused so often).  They go into “a strange city” with the signs written in a strange language, but Jonas remembers he’s been there before.  The streets are at various levels, connected by ladders and ropes connected to bells.  There’s a huge crowd, and Jonas learns it’s Judgment Day.  His companion keeps changing from one person to another.  A head rises up from the crowd, “livid and deadly, but the same as he had known it,” and blames Jonas for “appoint[ing] that dreadful day to happen.”  Presumably, this is Tigg.  He tries to strike him down, but they struggle without a conclusion, and he awakes.

Again — in the protean companion, Jonas’s anxiety about the way he’s dressed, and the brilliant dreamscape of streets at various levels, for the social rising and falling of urban life — we see a kind of verisimilitude of dreams, I think.  We also see anxiety about the self, about identity, about being found out.  And, while it’s easy to see the “livid and deadly” head as that of Tigg, you could also see it as that of Jonas’s father, or his own.  What’s meant by “deadly,” after all?  Is it deadly as in dead, as his father is?  Is it deadly as in potentially fatal to Jonas, as he sees that Tigg could be?  Is it deadly as in having murder on its mind, as Jonas himself does, constantly, to the brink of paranoid insanity?

I’ll write a little more about Jonas and the murder in the next post.  There’s just so much that’s great about this section of the book.  It really is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, especially Crime and Punishment: it’s similarly claustrophobic.

Head in a Pot, Heart on a Plate: The Fourth Day

June 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

We’re under the dominion of Filostrato, the tortured lover, on the fourth day, and he’s insistent that the stories told be tragedies: love ending unhappily, the more cruelly the better. It’s the most interesting day so far in the interaction of its ruler to the stories told, and in the interjection of the teller into his or her story.

The day starts off with a surprise: Boccaccio tells a story of his own, addressing himself to “dearest ladies” just as his ten often do in introducing their stories. He’s responding to critics of the earlier stories, and my cheapo edition doesn’t say anything about the dissemination of the text to explain why this step would have been taken in the middle of the work, or if this was likely a preemptive measure by Boccaccio responding to anticipated criticism (which seems plausible, given how raunchy things got on the third day). What’s remarkable is that Boccaccio is responding to the charge that he’s too fond of women (and, by extension, sex), unseemly in a man of his age. He is, he says, “secure in the knowledge that no reasonable person will deny that I and other men who love you are simply doing what is natural.” I’ll hope to find out more about this.

It’s an odd introduction to this day, in that, while Boccaccio remains defiant in his own voice, the stories Filostrato demands are brutal in their punishment of lovers. It is made clear that Filostrato is enamored of one of the women in the group, but feels spurned by them or unable to declare his feelings; through stories of tragic love, he seeks to “feel one or two dewdrops descend on the fire that rages within me.” He scolds Pampinea, the second storyteller, for daring to tell a mostly comic story in an attempt to lighten things up. (She’s defended by Boccaccio, in the introduction to her story: Pampinea, he says, knew that “her own feelings were a better guide than the king’s words to the mood of her companions.”) Everyone else — except Dioneo, of course — falls in line, telling the worst story they can think of. In terms of straightforward plot development, it’s the best use of the framing device so far: we search for clues to the object of Filostrato’s passion in the comments before and after stories, in his reactions to them, in the conclusion (when Filostrato sings a song and one of the ladies is said to blush).

In the tales themselves, things get really bad. These are very earthy, bloody stories, of people screwing around and getting killed for it. There’s a lot of dismemberment, a lot of body parts, culminating in Filostrato’s own story, the final tragedy of the day, in which a husband kills his wife’s lover (his former best friend), cuts out his heart, and serves it to her at supper.

Two of the more mysterious stories, the fifth and six, seem very much like folklore embellished by Boccaccio. Both pivot on dreams. Filomena’s story, the fifth, tells of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. Lisabetta’s brothers secretly kill Lorenzo for bedding her; he appears to her in a dream, telling her how he was killed and where he was buried. She digs up his body, cuts off his head, and puts it in a pot, using it as fertilizer for a basil plant watered by her tears. Her brothers discover this and take her beloved plant away from her. This, we are told, is the story behind a popular song about a villain stealing a pot of herbs. Okaaay.

Panfilo continues the dream motif, in a very strange way. He tells a strangely anticlimactic story in which two lovers both have a dream of impending doom. Andreuola dreams of she and her lover, Gabriotto, having sex in their usual place, a beautiful garden; but then — and I wonder how many different ways this has been translated — “she seemed to see a dark and terrible thing issuing from his body, the form of which she could not make out.” It somehow takes Gabriotto below the ground, never to return. As it turns out, Gabriotto had a dream the same night, in which he captures a doe. As it sleeps with its head upon his chest, “a coal-black greyhound appeared as if from nowhere, starving with hunger and quite terrifying to look upon.” The greyhound starts eating him, gnawing to his heart, “which it appeared to tear out and carry off in its jaws.”

I’m impressed by Boccaccio the horror writer. These are terrific depictions of dreams: I found the strange dark force from Gabriotto’s body, and this starving greyhound, remarkably effective images, things that ring the true tone of nightmare logic. But it’s weird what Panfilo does with them: the next time the lovers meet, Gabriotto dies from a taste of a poisoned sage plant, then Andreuola dies of the same cause in the process of defending herself from an accusation of murder. Turns out there was a giant poisonous toad at the root of this sage plant, poisoning it with his breath. Whaaa? Panfilo said that the dreams in this story would be prophetic, and they are, in the loose way of presaging death: but the sage-plant plot element seems weirdly out of place. There’s something very cryptic, emblematic, and folkloric in this story.

Our Simonidean Times

April 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates.

I’ve wanted to read this for years, and am finally indulging my nerdiest impulses. This is a more or less legendary scholarly study, published in 1966, of organized systems for enhancing the memory, from the ancient world to the Renaissance. I’m only a chapter and a half in, but let me tell you: this book has got it going on, as scholarly treatises go.

Some fascinating tidbits:

The book starts with an account of Simonides, a fifth-century B.C. poet in Greece, and the “cult hero” who is credited on a marble tablet of some 200 years after his time with inventing “the system of memory-aids.” Anyway, this story of Simonides being saved from certain death at a banquet by the intervention of the twin gods Castor and Pollux, then identifying the victims of a roof collapse by recalling their places at the table, is totally awesome, but the thing that especially caught my eye was this: “He was said to have been the first to demand payment for poems; the canny side of Simonides comes into the story of his invention of the art of memory which hinges on a contract for an ode.”  (How has this not become a common adjective?  Meaning artistically mercenary?  “I love Pop Art!”  “Really?  It’s all so Simonidean.”)

I think the really cool, really challenging thing for any intellectual history is to recapture the mental workings of earlier times, and this book is really succeeding on that level for me. The mention of Simonides as the first poet-for-hire somehow crystallizes that for me: it’s somehow amazing to be taken back to a time when poets were realizing that their services might actually be monetarily valuable, and that money might actually be important to their survival, and back to a time when people were ruminating on this hip new thing called “memory” which apparently “stored knowledge” about the “world” in their “minds.” (But apparently there’s been some speculation that the art might actually have originated in Egypt. There’s always a before, I suppose.)

There’s some cool stuff about Aristotle in here, too. (I know, I know — all the cool kids are so over Aristotle, but I think he’s still underrated, myself.) I’d never heard of his De insomnis, but it sounds really great. In it, “Aristotle says that some people have dreams in which they ‘seem to be arranging the objects before them in accordance with their mnemonic system.’” Glimpses of what ancient dreams would have been like fascinate me. This seems like an ancient anxiety dream: you’ve been trying to memorize your images symbolizing parts of your speech or recitation for the next day, and when you nod off there you are again, putting these symbols in their places, getting them mixed up, words and pictures jumbling in your head.

Anyway, I’m amazed by how this idea of an “art of memory” seems simultaneously familiar and even mundane and utterly mysterious, magical, and foreign. I mean, retracing one’s steps is trite advice for remembering or finding something: having the ability to do so mentally seems like little more than human nature. But at the same time, the argument Yates seems to be building — that the method of abstracting that concept to an imaginary realm, constructing a place in which to store information and a system of images to trigger memories or pieces of knowledge as one mentally walked through that place, was a profoundly important and influential tool for thinkers in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, a foundational mechanism of thought for many great thinkers and perhaps a kind of key to consciousness itself, forgotten until reconstructed in the 20th century — this seems so amazing, hard to believe.

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