The Art and Science of Travel

July 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

Reading now: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I’ve been traveling a lot this spring and summer (hence my very, very intermittent posts) — some for work, some for fun.  Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a great travel book, although it’s made me itch to do the kind of travel I rarely get to anymore: the unhurried, meditative, purposefully digressive kind.  (Only Revolutions, which so far as I’ve been able to glean is more or less a centuries-long allegorical road trip to no particular place, is not really helping to ease this itch, either.  Come to think of it, The Savage Detectives was also singularly unhelpful.)

In Autonauts, Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop spend a month in a VW camper van driving down the French “autoroute,” stopping at every rest stop along the way, two per day, and doing nothing else — seeing “the other autoroute,” the one that does not exist for those who just use it as a means of quickest-possible transport.  It’s the book’s playful, idiosyncratic, and finally bittersweet tone that makes it such a great read.  It’s made up of photos and captions, “travel logs” of meals eaten, “observations” made of the rest stop flora and fauna, short essays on the nature of travel and time and dreams and their journey, and flights of fancy in the style of a  scientific expedition.

(A digression: I’ve always wanted to travel around the country and live out of a homey little camper.  When I was maybe 13 or 14 I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley mostly because I found the idea of traveling around in an apartment-truck with your dog more or less irresistible — and the section of the book about Steinbeck getting his truck ready is one of the few things I still remember about it.  That was before I — or most people, really — thought about MPGs or carbon offsetting.)

It’s a book purporting to document the science of travel, but really it’s very much about an art: the art of memory.  If we think of the historical art of memory as Frances Yates examined it, with its imaginary theatres and palaces filled with rooms of memories, travel is like a kind of very elaborate landscaping: the decoration upon which the inhabitants of the palace gaze.  Isn’t travel a kind of device for making and recovering memories?  We all remember vividly our favorite vacations, road trips, destinations.  And while we’re traveling, can’t we see more perfectly than when we inhabit them our homes, and don’t we recall incidents from our lives with greater clarity?

I don’t know about you, but I also remember what I read when I travel much better than things I only read at home.  It must be something about being mentally absorbed in a different place, in unusual surroundings.  Some of my favorite memories are of reading something I love elsewhere: Ray Bradbury on a boat, Tom Jones in a Danish restaurant.  My choice of reading material always seems more important to me if I’m going on a trip.

The MS Word Paperclip-Helper: Pure Evil?

August 24, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Raw Shark Texts.

Reading next: Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard.

Part three’s probably my favorite section of the book. It’s rad. We enter un-space through a hole in the back of a bookshelf in a closed bookstore (the entrance is behind the “H”s in the literature section, presumably including this book by Mr. Hall, a nice Nabokovian touch), and the journey ends at a giant labyrinth made of tunnels and rooms made entirely of paper and books inside which it “smelled like the pages of a second-hand Charles Dickens novel.” The tunnel forms the letters “ThERa.” (It’s the first letters of the book; there are also tunnels called Milos and Ios. All three are names of Greek islands, too, some Googling reveals.)

This whole complex is behind the walls of a “huge library,” presumably of a university (maybe Oxford or Cambridge?). Cool images, these: the wild, uncontrolled mass of words, fragments of printed matter and jotted notes and forgotten books, like the protective and protected subconscious of the published world.

But the most interesting and surprising section of part three is “The Story of Mycroft Ward.” Now, whatever Hall himself might say about this (and from what I’ve seen online, he’s coy about it, which seems to me a fairly absurd and, again, self-consciously Nabokovian thing to do — “What, me know anything about what my text is doing?”), this is obviously a continuation of the word-play initiated in the book’s title (Rorschach tests=Raw Shark Texts). Mycroft Ward is, in part, a knock on Microsoft (Mycroft Ward=Microsoft Word). It’s also a kick-ass story.

The story reminded me of Yates’s The Art of Memory. I love these gropings, both real and imagined, after the concept of computation, the possibilities of external and internal memory. Hall brilliantly ties his art of memory (“The Arrangement”) to the desires for immortality and “self-preservation,” its true root, and updates Yates by pushing his narrative into the computer age. It’s the scale of things that has made this age scary; the ease with which millions — billions? — of people have been led, and have acquiesced, to using the same “programs” for recording their thoughts, for searching for information, for saving their findings, for running their worlds.

All of which leads me to the question: is that paperclip with googly-eyes that is supposed to “help” you in Word an agent of Mycroft Ward? If you actually click on this thing (does anyone ever actually need this thing’s help, or do anything but disable it as quickly as possible?), do you wake up minutes later, confused and missing parts of your brain? Is the googly-eyed paperclip, in fact, pure evil?

The Dream of Total Recall

May 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Art of Memory and The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo (part of McSweeney’s Issue 22).

Reading next: Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Even an intellectual historian like Yates, writing in the 1960s, had computers on the brain. A couple of times she mentions these “electric brains” as examples of the contemporary relevance of her research. And I was reminded of this in her final chapters, as she discusses the ways in which memory systems diverged into esoteric arts, in which “memory” became a kind of synonym for “imagination” and “knowledge of divinity,” and new sciences, like Leibniz’s invention of calculus.

It seems kind of hackneyed, by now, to talk about how technology has become embued with religious meaning. Doesn’t make it any less true. And the ways in which the art of memory blended art and science certainly do seem similar. Memory remains what’s behind it all, right? And we expect our newest mnemonic systems to help us cultivate both the art of memory and the science of memory. To an extent Yates probably didn’t expect, we anticipate an organizing and retrieving system for all knowledge, all information. Our collective conceptions of our new art and science of memory certainly partake of some characteristics of a Hermetic art, expected to help us unleash our hidden potential for divinity (or at least ability to connect to divinity), while also functioning as a coolly Aristotelian system of objective data retrieval. Like everything, those statements have elements of truth, elements of fiction.

To approach this from another angle: Oulipo is all about connecting science and art (mathematics and literature, to be specific), and Anne F. Garreta’s essay “On Bookselves” provides some thoroughly eccentric, non-traditional, illogical “principles” for organizing her personal library. My favorite is Principle #8, separating “homebound books” and “nomadic books,” then further dividing “books bought on one side or the other” of a given river, “books that have crossed an ocean at least once,” “books you missed, cruelly, one night at 3 a.m. because they had remained on the other side of the ocean,” etc. The quirkiness of these principles, she explains, is precisely the point:

-Could we order the outside world, the world of objectivity (real books) following patterns residing in our minds, the patterns according to which phantom books reside in our minds?

-You’d be out of your mind.

-Could we escape our misery by simply swallowing a computer and turning our minds into subsets of the Library of Congress Catalog?

-You’d be out of a mind.

Exactly: to leave all the systematizing work of memory to technology is to deprive ourselves of our selves.

The Theatre of the Closed Book

May 10, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory.

Frances Yates had this theory, okay? And it seems to have been a bee in her bonnet. I can imagine her attempting to explain it, in the necessary deep detail, to acquaintances at cocktail parties, who’ve shown a polite interest in her esoteric project. It involves Shakespeare in a tangential way, so of course it’s interesting. But like so many other attempted reconstructions of his life and times, it is wildly circumstantial, a theory built on great stretches of the imagination and wild postulations of four-hundred-years dead peoples’ associations, readings, motivations. It’s cool, but kind of unbelievable.

As Yates herself says, to take this theory out of the context of her book on the development of the art of memory from classical rhetorical skill to occult Renaissance ritual for approaching divinity is to make it seem… kind of incomprehensible. But here are the basics. The English philosopher and mystic Robert Fludd developed a memory system, building on the systems of Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo. Actually, Fludd describes two arts of memory: the “round art,” similar to Bruno’s occult use of astrology and images symbolizing the zodiac, and the “square art,” more like the medieval system of using images of “corporeal things” like men and animals placed in memory rooms.

Like much of the discussion in this book on the Hermetic Renaissance philosophers, Yates’s discussion of Fludd is based somewhat on conjecture, because so much of what they wrote seems (to us, at least) willfully obscure, as if withholding a secret or writing only for the initiated, a secret cabal. But she seems right in saying that Fludd proposes to combine these two arts, and to do so in rooms which Fludd calls “theatres.” Engravings of such theatres are included in the second volume of his gigantic work Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris… (1619). Fludd does seem to say, at one point, that he intends his art to be done using “real” places, not imaginary ones (like the grand imagined cathedrals of medieval memory I speculated on in an earlier post).

Therefore, Yates believes Fludd’s theatre engravings are based on actual theatres — or, to be more specific, the stages of actual theatres. Through a torturous series of associations, she convinces herself that Fludd has given us an image of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I don’t really buy it, although it’s a really cool theory and you can tell how excited she was by the idea. At least the theatre-rooms Fludd included in his work do seem to give us some sense of how an Elizabethan and Jacobean stage might have looked (assuming the engraver, probably a German, was given adequate instructions).

But the really fascinating part of Yates’s argument is what she extrapolates from the physical layout of Fludd’s book. On two facing pages there are engravings of the zodiac symbols and spheres of the planets (a round image), and Fludd’s main theatre-room (thought by Yates to be an image of the Globe). (See both images here, figs. 25 and 26, a little over halfway down the page. Sorry, I struck out looking for a better image of the full pages.) If you know your Elizabethan stage history, you know that the ceiling covering the rear part of the stage is thought to have been painted with an image of the night sky, or other representations of the stars, and was called “the heavens.” Drawing on this tradition, Yates speculates that the position of the two engravings is meaningful: when the book is closed, the round image of the heavens will cover or be on top of the square image of the stage, just as the heavens of the stage cover the lower realm where most of the action took place. The round and square arts of memory are thereby combined, just as the position at which some scenes took place in Shakespeare’s plays can be meaningful and symbolic — think of Prospero in the Tempest, appearing ‘above’ in one scene: the magus, his superior knowledge keeping him above the fray of human foibles.

I can’t remember seeing the position of text and image in a work used in this way before. That the position of the text when unread could be important! Great idea, and I love the symbolism, and it is certainly tempting to think about the influences the Hermetic ideas going around in England at the time might have had on Shakespeare and the Kings’ Men and James I himself (to whom Fludd dedicated the first part of his book). Speculation, but fun speculation.

Memories and Specimens

April 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory and The Wet Collection.

A serendipitous pair, these two. I’m enjoying bouncing back and forth between them. The Wet Collection, at least so far, is all about memory, nature, travel, personal codes of conduct, and the connections among these things. In more obscure and historical ways, The Art of Memory is about the same things, or at least how they were seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The most interesting thread in TWC so far deals with memories and impressions of travel. “A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory” records “specimens” found in nature: a damselfly “like a Christmas ornament,” a spider’s silky web encountered “One night, walking through the woods” (a nice mystery packed into that scene-setting), black opals owned by a couple in Oregon, retrieved from a mine in Nevada, a Costa Rican butterfly. There’s a nice paragraph then, transitioning to echoing memories of travel: “The iridescence of memory happens when one image (physical) illuminates another (imagined): not quite a reflection, but a refraction. These visions, these flashes of color come again and again. How then must I live?”

This juxtaposition, of memories and specimens, so nicely illuminates The Art of Memory. I’ve been reading about the art’s transformation by the thirteenth-century thinker Ramon Lull, often thought of as a magician, mystic, or alchemist (Yates disabuses me of most of my preexisting ideas of Lull, although he still seems something of a magus and was certainly seen that way during the Renaissance). As Yates explains it, Lull “introduces movement into memory.” He created this incredible system, intended to encompass all possible knowledge, based on Kabbalistic ideas of the names of god and medieval theories of the hierarchies of life and human knowledge. By linking God’s traits or “names” to the levels of being (angelic, celestial, human, animal, etc.) and the forms of human learning in mystical wheels-within-wheels which could be spun to match any of the three names with any of the levels, Lull devised a memory system he thought could be used to unlock the mysteries of the universe and, as a special bonus, reach out to Jews and Muslims and show them the truth inherent in Christianity, since aspects of his art drew on their own theological teachings.

(As a bookish aside: Lull’s books were among the first to use volvelles, those toy-like discs found in some early books, for a non-astronomical purpose.)

As Yates explains it, there’s a shift here from the eminently static art of memory encouraged in the ancient world and by rhetoricians, in which images were placed on sites to be recalled through the impact of the images and the familiarity of the sites, to Lull’s emphasis on memorization through repetition and the use of mnemonics which could be moved to keep one’s memory of the levels of knowledge sharp, and to move one up the “ladders” of the mystical Lullist art toward knowledge of the Trinity. Isn’t it interesting, then, how Joni Tevis contrasts the term specimen, with its connotations of pinned butterflies, taxidermied trophies, and precious stones, all eminently dead, with the fluidity of memories, always shifting as our perspective changes, as they recede or are “refracted” off of other experiences, other memories? (Interesting, too, but perhaps misleading, how Tevis also writes, in the section of this story entitled “What I Want,” “To know what it means to live a biblical life, uncloistered every day. This is my book of new ritual…”)

The arts of memory persist, in ways profound and banal. Since it’s so much on my mind lately, advertising occurs to me as an obvious (if lame) application. Aren’t most commercials intended to provide a mnemonic — a jarring, memorable image which carries a “message” embedded within it? There’s a truck campaign on the air now that is based on the placement of figures embodying one truck trait, like “smooth,” with a place that embodies another, like “rough.” (Here’s one example.) Perhaps this is one reason why Lull seemingly disapproved of the use of powerful mnemonic images, preferring memorization and contemplation of symbols: images are very, very powerful, but easily misused and misunderstood.

To return to TWC. Tevis is very good on Janus-faced travel. “Travelling Alone,” a very short piece, captures the time-murdering that happens in airports every day (I’m especially interested in this, having written a story some time ago setting a man’s personal purgatory in the Phoenix airport), but also the magic of air travel, the strange mixture of non-being and deification to be experienced in an airplane: “The moon burns cold behind my ear.” A couple of stories later, in “Everything but Your Wits,” revisits memories of past travel destinations, each marked as a “Gate/Platform.” There’s a gorgeous memory of growing up in South Carolina, cleaning up a movie theater after closing and watching a passenger train roll through town: “I wondered about the people on the train, where they were going, if they felt the excitement I did, whether any of them looked out their windows at the town, my town, that must have looked nondescript, to them.” This might seem pedestrian or boring to some readers, but if you grow up in a small town — mine was in Nebraska — you know the complicated texture of memory and emotion evoked by the sound of a night train rolling through town: its loneliness, its wanderlust, its nostalgia, and its promise. It is all a matter of perspective: likely none of those passengers have the memories to unlock the beauty and importance of that small town, likely a young girl in that small town does not have the experiences to know the feeling of being in transit, at the mercy of a train’s speed. But she will, we’ve already learned: she will. We are reading her own art of memory in this book.

The Cathedral of Memory

April 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory.

This is a dense, dense book.  We’re talking analysis of how the rules for the ancient “art of memory,” applied explicitly for students of rhetoric, gradually evolved in the middle ages into a similar set of rules appearing in scholastic summae as part of the Christian virtue of prudence (remembering virtues and vices in order to prudently avoid eternal hellfire, goes the basic logic).  But things are getting really interesting as Yates ties the art into its potential to unlock some of the mysteries of late medieval and Renaissance art and iconography.  Why are there all those grotesque allegorical figures and personifications of various sins or virtues in the art of this time?  Why are there rows of figures bordering scenes, why such a strange emphasis on kabuki-like gesture and fetishistic rendering of saints’ symbols?  It all jibes eerily well with the rules for the art of memory, which emphasizes the creation of memorable images, and especially human forms, the more grotesque or remarkable the better, in striking poses to aid mnemonic recovery of the figures’ messages.

Anyway, this somewhat fanciful suggestion, specifically, was a total payoff for me:

The high Gothic cathedral, so E. Panofsky has suggested, resembles a scholastic summa in being arranged according to ‘a system of homologous parts and parts of parts.’  The extraordinary thought now arises that if Thomas Aquinas memorised his own Summa through ‘corporeal similitudes’ disposed on places following the order of its parts, the abstract Summa might be corporealised in memory into something like a Gothic cathedral full of images on its ordered places.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat obvious that medieval art and, specifically, the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral, were intended to impart moral lessons and to impress on the memories of their viewers concern for their eternal souls.  On the other hand, it is an amazing to me to think of ideal, glorious, vibrant cathedrals of the mind (of Thomas Aquinas’s mind), with row upon row of stained glass windows depicting all of the virtues, all of the vices, their various epitomes in saints and sinners, their various reminders and lessons and reasons for being.  And dividing these windows, columns carved with allegorical figures identifying each section of the hierarchical medieval scholastic system of knowledge; and on the walls at the front and back of the cathedral, giant scenes of heaven and hell, the reasons for all of this knowledge to exist; the floor, the ceiling, the architecture itself holding meaning.  The artist of memory creating his cathedral, choosing the lighting, building stone by stone the system which will remind constantly of the moral structure of the world, to be recalled for a sermon, a homily, a devotion.

Yates does mention that the art is encouraged in the 14th century and forward as a devotional exercise, which certainly seems more logical to our modern brains, which can’t fathom the practicality of attempting to store so much knowledge in the brain.  This is leading to the hermetic, humanistic, and mystical uses to which the art will be put in the Renaissance.  Things are going to get really interesting.

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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