A Static Form of Remembrance


Daniel Fraser reviews Simon Chritchley's Memory Theatre, in The LA Review of Books:

THIS YEAR’S NOBEL PRIZE for Medicine was awarded to three scientists whose neuroscientific work provided conclusive evidence for the interwoven relationship between the concepts of memory and space in the human brain. John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard I. Moser discovered cells referred to as “place” and “grid” cells, which together form a coordinate system used in the construction of mental maps and their memorization. These two cell types work together with neurons dubbed “time cells” that represent the flow of time in specific memories; together they reveal a structure of memory that is not only integrated with space but is in flux and repeatedly reconstituted.

Philosophical discourse is no stranger to the symbiotic relationship between memory and space. One of its most interesting conceptualizations of this relationship is the memory theatre: a physical space conceived in the mind in which knowledge might be stored in order for it to be recalled more easily. This spatial idea of memory has found expression throughout the history of philosophy, originating with the Greek Simonides: he supposedly could identify the remains of the guests of a party he attended after the roof collapsed and mangled them by remembering where each of them had been sitting.

From this fittingly macabre and humorous example comes Simon Critchley’s first novel, Memory Theatre: a postmodern, virulently metafictional blend of essay, autobiography, apocalyptic revelation and historical examination. The book centers on a university professor (a philosopher named Simon Critchley who shares an academic career and bibliography with his real-life counterpart) who receives a set of boxes, each labeled with a sign of the zodiac, containing the papers of a recently deceased colleague and friend (the French philosopher Michel Haar). In one of the boxes he discovers a set of memory maps that precisely chart the lives, publications, and deaths of a number of philosophical figures, including several who are still alive: one of them belonging to “Simon Critchley” himself.

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