How can we best encode the dead?
The business of memory is mostly to forget. It proceeds by dereliction. It generalises and discards, leaving us only the indigestible teeth and jewellery, so to speak, of people or places or times we have known, so much disjunct cannibal ornament.
How then, can we best encode a living person, such that after their death and with the passage of time we are not left with a hotchpotch voodoo scarecrow, stitched together from ill-matched anecdote, floating in a vague non-landscape?
I am talking of the dead, but the dead are only a case study. To repeat my question in more general terms: how can we better encode a current set of variables, whether that set of variables be a person, an experience of love, a place, a time, a period in our lives, such that, at a later date, we can not only make useful enquiries of it, understand it better; but, on demand, to some limited extent, reconstitute it?
How can we in other words remember well?
In 1979 my father decided to write his memoir. He produced an enormous red and black desk diary and in his small, neat, intelligent hand, wrote a single line:
It is said that in every life there is one book. This is mine.
One line a night, he said. That was enough.
Perhaps it would have been, but years passed and nothing was added. My brother and I occasionally took the diary down from its shelf to revel in the aptness of its total blankness, its solitary cliché; my father, in turn, would weather the squall of ridicule, good-humouredly threaten to finish it.
He never added another word. I think in truth he was nonplussed by the experience of looking out over half a life and more, setting himself to organise it in his usual methodical way, and failing utterly.
Memory is encoded in stories, and he had plenty of those. But this book had to make its start in the deep blankness of the world before he could remember any of it. He needed to start not by accessing his memory, but by writing a book on to which his memory could be grafted.
And this required different codes, and a little technique.
The well-ordered memory as described by classical rhetoricians is an imagined architectural space furnished with strange objects and incongruous tableaux.
We are for instance to imagine that we are lawyers, tasked to recall that a man is accused of poisoning in order to gain an inheritance, and that there are many witnesses in the case; we should imagine the victim an invalid in bed, the accused standing before him holding a cup (the poison), tablets (the Will, or inheritance), and a pair of ram's testicles (testes = witnesses)1.
The real and mundane is represented by the arcane, the ludicrous, the peppery, the strange. And in this way the unmemorable—your life, your experience, the totality of all knowable objects—can, against the cosmic odds, be made to stick in the mind2.
I recall, perhaps imprecisely, that in the room of quattrocento sculpture in the Louvre, lined up with the portrait busts of Filippo Strozzi and Dietisalvi Neroni and the rest, there is an odd relic of Florentine interior design: a terracotta death mask of a woman in a scalloped decorative niche (perhaps Battista Sforza, perhaps not).
It is a rare survival. From a remark by Vasari, it seems that Florentine palazzi were filled with such objects, typically set high-up over doorways, cornices and windows, not unlike the elevated portrait elements on tombs in Florentine churches. You would glance up and see the illustrious dead of the family not only commemorated but virtually present, contributing to the weight and consequence of a family’s current estate.
The placement of the Louvre death mask among the portrait busts is not accidental. A death mask is a portrait made without the agency of human hands, and vouchsafes a quasi-miraculous transmission of detail3. Even to us they have something of the photographic about them, a greater fidelity than the intervention of human sensibilities can guarantee, as here for instance, in the death masks of Lorenzo de’Medici and Brunelleschi:
Conversely, Florentine portrait busts, while often done from the life, were frequently also done from the death, using death masks as sketches. The death mask is a portrait bust in the raw, it guarantees a certain verisimilitude. These are no longer mere objects of stone, but real, petrified humans.
For all that his house was a vivid mausoleum, it is unlikely that the Florentine grandee going about his business took much notice. His furniture—for all we know, like his memory4—was a formal and functional system, not a source of anxiety and regret.
And this is true also for us. Your own house, while it is most likely supplied with a useful sub-structure of rooms, furniture, and incongruous knick-knacks, makes for a poor memory palace.
We move through it as through a palace of forgetfulness, and regard its ever-shifting multiple surfaces of dishes unwashed, clothes unlaundered, dust undisturbed, its cyclical litter and toil, its scurvy tide line of unmemorable endeavour, with unseeing eyes.
But this is not the case in someone else's house. The burglar or the cat-sitter will confirm the paradox that a house stripped of its genius loci, its owner or customary inhabitant, while it may be inert, is nonetheless curious, memorable, spectral; the objects left lying around seem purposefully, even symbolically rooted, subject to a double-gravity, a thrilling, petrified object of memory.
I have been spending a lot of time in Hunter Sidney's house. Veronica de Viggiani, his friend and confidante, with whom I shared his death watch, is staying at the house, hanging on. And we are conducting a love affair in it.
For some weeks we have been gliding between Hunter Sidney’s belongings, leaving them for the most part untouched, as though they were totems of an actual memory place. It is our mnemonic refuge.
In 1558 Pieter Bruegel produced a drawing, subsequently realised as an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden5, of Everyman, or (Elck). Like a quattrocento Jesus, Everyman is doubled and redoubled across the insane narrative, searching, like senility in an attic, for he knows not what.
It is a memorable image. The objects which he inspects and by which he is surrounded—a lantern lit in the day (emblem of folly), cards and chessboards, sieves, scales, an orbis terrarum cracked like an egg, another lantern, again the lantern—tell him nothing useful, relinquish nothing of value. He returns to them over and over, it is not a search but a reflex searching. Properly inventoried, this pile might make a good mnemonic system; as it is, it is like the rubble of some memory place, a Ciceronian dementia made visible.
In time, Everyman’s inspecting will become sifting, sifting will become sorting; these defunct objects will take on associative meaning, will find their use and their place. His search will yield a pattern of sorts. It is inevitable.
Just so, Veronica and I, as we move around in Hunter Sidney's inert house, start to generate a little gravitational flow of our own. We use dishes and wash them up, find corkscrews and glasses, water orchids, puff cushions. And we know that in time all of this will be woven into the broader patterns of our life, normal space-time will reassert itself.
It is as if the handling and the use and the arrangement of familiar objects on the one hand, and the workings of the memory on the other, are linked. And Veronica and I have stumbled into a neutral space, spared for a time this sifting, sorting, this truck with objects; we are dissociated from the current and flow of our own life, hence from memory, hence from the knowledge of consequence. We are cut off from the past and touch only lightly on the present. No wonder we seem to ourselves to be in love.
Classical and medieval memory was conceived of as an ambulatory space in which direction was immaterial. Once the order was fixed, information could be read off both ways without any ramping of difficulty.
Thus the elder Seneca could repeat two hundred lines of verse that had been given to him at random by his students either backwards or forwards—it made no difference to him once he had them properly stored.
He could not, however, marshal all his information simultaneously; he could not compare like with like and make intuitive leaps and connections, except against the grain of his system.
And this was a limitation. The memory, after all, was not merely a handmaid of rhetorical delivery: it was the seat of invention.
Thus it was that Giulio Camillo Delminio (c.1480 -1544) built his once-celebrated, now-forgotten memory theatre.
Camillo was a conventionally bumbling magus—he spoke Latin very poorly, and stammered, and he must have been very fat since a story is related of a visit he paid to a menagerie in Paris in the company of the Cardinal of Lorraine during which a lion escaped, and everyone ran away except Camillo, who stood rooted to the spot 'because of the weight of his body which made him slower in his movements that the others'6.
He was, however, immensely famous in his life time and for a while after his death, on account of his extraordinary Theatre. It is not very clear whether the memory theatre was an actual structure you could enter, and if so what it looked like—descriptions vary from a building in the form of a classical amphitheatre to an elaborate chest-of-drawers; but either way, great quantities of knowledge of every sort were visible at a glance and centrally organised around a complex mnemonic scheme radiating from a conflation of the Sephiroth, the Pillars of Wisdom, and the Planets.
The knowledge was visible at a glance because it was represented not in words but in peculiar and memorable images.
The image, and in particular the hieroglyphic, was to the sixteenth century nearer to the truth of what it represented than any description. Thus the theatre not only showed you where any given bit of knowledge was and how it related to all knowledge in the cosmos; but actually showed you that bit of knowledge. The order and its representation were proper to one another: the one was, in a sense, the other. To memorise was to understand. To see with the mind’s eye (once this vast structure had been internalised, digested) was really to see.
And yet the theatre remained a shabby material object animated only by the yearning of its creator. Every magus must sooner or later accept that the world does not conform to his knowledge or alter to his spells. Camillo’s system of universal knowledge, memory and understanding was mumbo-jumbo. It might fool the King of France, but it would not fool the cosmos.
Camillo spent his life working on it, tinkering with the arrangement of its little drawers, always promising its completion, and the completion of a book that would lay out its operations. But the theatre was never perfected, never fully laid out to Camillo’s satisfaction; the book was never written. Just a few years after his death the theatre was a thing of legend—had it ever existed? Camillo rapidly became an object of ridicule, his theatre, his ramshackle splintery prototype of universal data storage, a mirage constructed by a mountebank; and then both were utterly forgotten.
To be sure, we know our way around knowledge and memory better than Camillo.
We know for example that knowledge is a network, that it has its nodes which are variously connected, and that it is the number and variety of connections which is interesting, not their static location.
We represent our knowledge accordingly, and our memory theatres encode networks, not taxonomies.
Thus our paradigm of knowledge and understanding is not a Roman or Palladian theatre, but an incident board.
To map and understand human activity is to construct a spidergraph, a genealogy of crime. We sit and look, and each picture concentrates our knowledge of a given node. Like an orator, we could if we wished expand each node extempore (and actors in detective shows occasionally do), but we do not need to, because we understand the interconnectedness at a glance, we see the connections immediately.
The beauty of the incident board and its cognates is that we can and must move pictures or visual objects around, we can and must annotate, the better to model the growth of our knowledge, its beard-scratching mobility.
At the point where the truth behind an incident board is sufficiently well known that, say, a prosecution holds water, the agent of detection—the detective, the writer, the actor—dismantles it, takes down the photographs, files them away out of sight and out of mind.
The photographs on the wall were never a representation of the facts; they were a contemplative field, an aid to meditation. They represented not what we knew, but how we were thinking about what we thought we knew.
If the manipulation of an incident board is as I suspect a literary or filmic device rather than a routine of actual detective work, then it is unsurprising that it is also beloved of writers.
Hunter Sidney was a writer, or more precisely an administrator, of a meta-detective novel buried in the deep net which he knew as the Love Filter (see Bureaucratic starting roughly here). He once told me that he had a map of it, but never showed me that map.
After his death I discovered that it was not a map at all but an incident board, or a miniature memory palace, located in one of the rooms on the first floor of his house.
The artefact ran along three sides of the room. There were cork boards densely pinned with sheets and half-sheets and scraps of paper, both printed and hand-written, matted in deep layers which entirely obscured the bottommost sheets.
Black marker pen zoned off the boards into irregular provinces. There was evidence of colour-coding, spot stickers of different colours with numbers written in them in biro, and variegated post-it notes, festoons of ribbons and twine of different colours interlinking the various elements, as though the structure of the work were its ornamentation, its decorative element.
Here and there on the wall Hunter Sidney had stapled printed images, in various categories of my own derivation, as follows:
animals extant (dolphin, leopard, greyhound, fluttering blackbird, elephant) imaginary (minotaur, cyclops, mystic lamb, beast of El-Adrel IV) and extinct (auroch, glytodon, megatherium)
places real (Venice, Jerusalem, etc.) and imagined (Dis, Jericho; not, disappointingly, Norbiton)
photographs of people living (Viv Richards, Monty Don, Roy Hodgson) and mostly dead (Francis I of France, Scott of the Antarctic, Gene Kelly, Pope Pius II)
objects useful (spade, lamp, and less useful (a lyre, a sextant, backgammon board, winged helmet, a loom)
Some of these images were part-smothered by layers of sheets of paper, pinned in place I suppose by events; others not obviously bound into the system of ribbons and pins, but able to move freely over the strange surface of their world.
Other than the boards, there was a table under the window on the fourth wall, one swivel chair with steel castors, and on the table an Anglepoise lamp. There was no computer; this was an analogue space.
In the days leading up to Hunter Sidney's death and at his request, Veronica de Viggiani had started to dismantle the room. The Love Filter was her inheritance and she would need all this material. Her vision was to start by reconstructing it at her own home in Italy, and to this end she had taken dozens of photographs, and was removing the various elements layer by layer, like an anatomist or restorer, and placing them in cardboard boxes she had bought for the purpose.
It was slow going for her. She been contributing to The Love Filter for almost as long as Hunter Sidney, so peeling back the layers was like reading back through twenty years of her own life, prismatically. She would stop and read for hours as she went; uncover buried photographs of characters long dead, subterranean ribbons which she would trace in their obscurity around the room, noting their points of connection or deviation; then return to photographing, and stripping, and placing, recording the stratification of stationery, how the printed images gave way to pictures cut from magazines, or to polaroid snaps, as an archaeologist might note alterations in pottery types.
If this is a mnemonic system, she said to me as she leafed helplessly through a particularly thick bundle of notes, and in response to something or other I had said, then so is my entire life.
Would Hunter Sidney have found this wall hard to explain, like Camillo in his memory theatre, stuttering at the attempted transition from clear mental picture to clear verbal form?
I did not ask Veronica to make the attempt, just watched her at work from time to time. But I did —aloud—if she was not in fact missing an opportunity to do something extraordinary, and unwrite the Love Filter, reversing the order in which it had been written with the aid of the mnemonic wall.
I reasoned it thus: the whole thing could be said to have reached a point of maximal expansion, so that it should now gradually collapse under its own weight, as though Hunter Sidney’s death were some sort of catastrophic singularity in the space-time of his creation; characters should retrace their steps, be reborn in memory, wander off the spectrum of the narrative, working their way from the high-water mark of ordered relations as expressed by the final state of the wall, to their disordered starting point, where they did not yet know anybody, had not yet done anything.
It would take on now the form of an hourglass. A reader coming to it fresh would not only set the hourglass in motion, but would at some invisible point pass through the neck of the glass herself. It would be like the Divine Comedy with its inverted Hell and Heaven.
It would be, in the end, properly remembered. It would be, for a reader, like Veronica's own careful and wistful unmaking of the memory wall. We could only dream of such an act of remembrance of our own life.
For a moment a flicker of the old Ideal City animated me; I glimpsed the Love Filter as a failed object, an egregious bubble of order and activity deep within the World Wide Web, that would be perfected in its own serene and logical destruction, would find its ideal form in its own pre-existence; but Veronica I knew was content just to push on in search of a conclusion, if one could be found, and only tutted lightly to herself at my panicky and irresolute nostalgia.
Between 1484 and 1493, Antonio del Pollaiuolo produced a tomb for Pope Sixtus the IV (1471-84). The tomb is a floor-standing high relief, with an effigy of the pope lying on a bier, with panels representing the virtues and the liberal arts—in the words of Giuliano della Rovere, nephew to Sixtus and the future Pope Julius II, who financed and largely conceived the construction of his uncle’s tomb, the tomb is ‘ornamented with the virtues’.
Giuliano della Rovere clearly had opinions about funerary monuments. His own would be long in the planning and incomplete in the execution, a vast marble confection ornamented with various drooping slaves and otherwise doleful individuals.
But his conception for Sixtus’s tomb, almost certainly amplified by the ambition of the artist, was altogether nimbler. Rather than the mourning and wonder that he wished to elicit for himself, it presented an array of tools for the reconstruction of the Ideal Sixtus, Sixtus as he might have represented himself to himself: the humanist, the man (quite literally) of parts.
There he lies, toothless old bird, his intellectual attributes and humanist credentials piled beneath him like a hoard of despoiled weapons and trophies.
It was, in effect, a mnemonic aid. Francis Yates has speculated that Giotto’s iconography of the virtues and vices in the Arena Chapel in Padua was derived at least in part from medieval mnemotechniques—the painted figures were, in other words, examples of the sort of strange images that a trained mind would store away.
So too with Pollaiuolo’s tomb. Both it and the tomb which Julius II originally designed for himself were properly ambulatory memory systems. You had to take a stroll around them, either in fact or in imagination, in order to remember their proper object.
The question remains what that proper object was. Not the individual whose bones lay within. His memory was cast in terms too conventional to conjure the actual man. Rather it conjures, say, the best of a culture which found itself nearest to accomplishment when it approached and circled for the umpteenth time these odd insoluble iconographies, like strange attractors, hieroglyphs of beauty.
This seems to us now a recipe for loss—the individual is submerged in a welter of conventional gesture. But perhaps it is best to subsume the individual after death into the pattern of the time. When we die, we are accepted into a whole culture and history, no matter what we were in life. There is no desperate clinging to the quiddity of an individual, as though to the last drops of water on earth. What sticks in the mind sticks in the mind, and is sufficient.
And if that seems to signal a lack of ambition—Pollaiuolo, after all, made use of convention to forge something new, drew something strange from the wholly typical—then I should perhaps add a codicil to the story of my father’s memoir.
I recently examined the 1979 desk diary for the first time in many years, and found, to my surprise, that there was a continuation. Late in life he had fleshed it out a bit in note form, devoting a couple of pages to each year of his life.
There is not much that I did not know. But something is always gained in precision7. The stories are tagged to years, addresses are noted. These are not stories, they are facts and dates. And the red diary is transformed in the process into a useful aid to memory.
I made that diary the centrepiece, now that I think of it, of the oration I gave at my father's funeral (and which, incidentally, I lacked the technique to memorise). I do not think I misrepresented him—we dwell in memory on things known—but in the end he represented himself better. He slightly and momentarily baffled his own imperceptibly eroding memory.