Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley. Fitzcarraldo Editions. 72pp.
Simon Critchley’s short and suggestive Memory Theatre sits uncomfortably somewhere between essay and fiction, philosophy and literature, enacting, perhaps, the porosity of those very boundaries, their kinship.
An English philosopher called Simon Critchley moves from Essex to New York after becoming disillusioned with the state of British academia. On returning to Essex to clear out his office he finds five boxes, each marked with a zodiac sign from Capricorn to Gemini (the Taurus box is missing), containing the unpublished notebooks and manuscripts of the great, recently deceased, Michel Haar.
Among the boxes is a text called “Le théâtre de mémoir selon G.W.F Hegel,” “an entirely original interpretation of Hegel’s monumental 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit.” Haar’s interpretation of Hegel is informed by a reading of British art historian Francis Yates’s The Art of Memory, a book tracing mnemonic systems from antiquity to the early modern period; in particular by her account of the Renaissance philosopher Giulio Camillo’s theatre of memory, a theoretical structure that “hold[s] the sum of knowledge in a way that would permit total recall.”
Having lost a great deal of his memory in an industrial accident, Critchley finds the idea of the memory theatre at once quaint and irresistible. Later he opens the fifth box—marked Pisces; his astrological sign—and finds a series of astrological projections. “They weren’t so much birth charts as death charts, necronautical rather than genethlialogical. Their purpose was to plot the major events in a philosopher’s life and then to use those events to explain their demise.” One of them, produced 18 years before Haar’s death, predicts that death to the minute. “Knowing his fate, he had simply lost the will to live. He arrived dead just on time.” As Critchley goes through the various charts he comes across those of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty—both of who died after Haar; both of whose deaths are predicted with total accuracy. Then he finds his own. He learns that he will die, in six years’ time, in the Netherlands.
Critchley puts the discovery out of his mind, reduces it to the status of a latent anxiety, and continues with his life as normal; all the while he is seemingly unaware that his life—with or without his complicity—follows the chart’s contours. Several years later the Taurus box arrives, containing a maquette of Camillo’s memory theatre. Critchley’s fear of death is reawakened. He starts to hallucinate and his body revolts. Channelling Cronenberg: “I would lie face down on the floor and feel the pain in my body move from organ to organ. Belly pain. Kidney pain. Brain pain. Lung pain. I felt like a body bag of organs.”
Critchley starts to construct a memory theatre in his garden, following the design of the maquette; he populates it with gnome-like puppets on which he inscribes the entirety of his knowledge; he learns to recite it, waiting for death to arrive.
With Memory Theatre Critchley seeks to deflate the fantasy of the heroic philosophical death, inaugurated by Socrates cheerfully downing his hemlock. Critchley’s philosopher doesn’t run toward his death; he watches it hobble away from him. His philosopher sits in a shed in Holland and eats processed cheese, has rotten teeth, and looks “like a Beckett character.” The serious obsessions of the philosopher are thus brought down to the level of the pathetic, laughable obsessions of the hobbyist, alone in his shed, tinkering with his gnomes. “It was the dream of the perfect death, the Socratic death, the philosophical death: absolute self-coincidence at the point of disappearance. Autarchy. Autonomy. Authenticity. Autism.”
But Critchley’s book isn’t simply an attack on the haughty pretensions of the tradition. By dramatizing its finitude, its necessary incompletion, its having been utterly invaded by literature, the book attempts to redirect philosophy; it is no longer understood as the solitary construction of the memory theatre, the self-possessed thinker learning how to die . . .
Critchley has said that the universe depicted in the book is a loveless one; this would make it a counterpoint to his other work of the last few years. But by turning away from love the book turns towards it; love operates in the text, but spectrally—as a kind of whispering, haunting presence. As an absence. Love, no longer as that which consoles the self but as that which calls it into question; love, not as comfort but something ineffaceable that can’t be erased.
There are clues. On this first page Critchley writes that the insomniac fear of death has been his lifelong “clandestine companion.” In a universe without love, all we would have is the tragic fact of our own death; all that would be left to do is construct the memory theatre. Trapped within ourselves, the best we could hope for would be the heroic death of the philosopher. To die meaningfully. This is the universe Critchley at once represents, and slyly undermines. The phrase quoted above is borrowed from Maurice Blanchot’s essay of the same title, where he calls philosophy his clandestine companion, one he has shared for almost 60 years with his friend, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. But, crucially, Blanchot is not talking about philosophy as a form of solitary system-building, nor as a form of edification at all; rather, for Blanchot (through at once becoming and resisting literature) philosophy becomes communal and responsive, a receptivity to the infinitude of the other, an inherently social activity whose proper name might be friendship.
Friendship, or love, would name the moment of the memory theatre’s ruination, the point at which it shatters. A moment, in this sense, inherently philosophical. Thus despite appearances, the story is not a fable about a life wasted philosophizing instead of loving. Critchley’s aim is more interesting. It’s an attempt to reinscribe love’s name into the work of philosophy. While etymologically intact, philosophy’s complicity with love has become obscured by the familiarity of that bond; like love itself it must be reinvented. Blanchot, in the aforementioned essay, attempts nothing less. And now Critchley—by attempting to show what becomes of philosophy when divorced from love.
In a sense Critchley’s work has already been done for him; his success lies in how he dramatizes this fact. Memory Theatre is littered with (unattributed) quotations from various writers and thinkers (Beckett, Heidegger, Blanchot—to name a few). This is never more so than when the protagonist bemoans the fact of his own inescapable dying. It’s as though, at key moments when trying to relate the personal tragedy of his own demise, the narrator can’t escape the communal context of his situation, can’t but fall back on the words of the others who have gone before him. The memory theatre, in this sense, is already shattered; the noises from outside that disrupt the harmony of the burrow—so painstakingly constructed; so brilliantly fortified—are the voices of the others. Voices which announce themselves in the very words with which one might seek to drown them out. Perhaps the paradox is best described as comic: the closer language comes to expressing the particularity of my own suffering, the more it strips that suffering of its very particularity by turning it into something universal. The memory theatre, in other words, is always already the echo chamber of influences.
Earlier in the book, when Critchley reads the chart which predicts his future works and, ultimately, his death, he says: “Funny, there was no mention of the text that you are now reading.” Literature, the will to narrate, communication itself, marks the moment of the memory theatre’s collapse; the book itself is that which interrupts the solitary finality of existence, the malady of death, the very story it seeks to tell. As Critchley says of Haar’s work: “On each occasion, he showed, with exquisite delicacy, the fragile force of poetic language as that which pushes back against hard reality and pulls free of flat-footed philosophy.” Pulling free of philosophy not simply to leave it behind, but to keep it on its toes: in transit, always, endlessly—like a lover.
Will Rees is a writer and book reviewer based in south London.
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