Before the internet and before even writing, memory served as the treasury and the guardian of the past, as the imagination served as the vanguard and the promise of the future. Today, our memory is weakened by the onslaught of the new and the now, leaving us open to attack from forgetfulness and apathy. Well-documented techniques of the past exercised our “artificial” memory, over and above that of our “natural” memory. One such method was the use of a “memory palace,” a spatial geography or edifice that enabled a visualization and recall of structural sequence, ornamented by real or imaginary decoration to link things or words into this order.
The art listed four main constituents: the rules for the places (or loci), the rules for the images, and (rules for) the memories of the things or the words to be remembered. As the art originated in antiquity, the records of its use and evolution come to us only in written or printed form. Perhaps this is like trying to reconstruct a living, breathing life-form from the bits and pieces of its fossilized body. And so, perhaps this arcane art was nothing like what we imagine it is today, but something else, rich and strange, that enabled techniques and skills beyond mere recall.
- Rules for Places
- Rules for Images
- Memory for Things
- Memory for Words
And so as Plato recounts Socrates’ dialog with Phaedrus, wherein Thamus says to Thoth, inventor of the written word:
This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Frances Yates / The Art of Memory
Daniel J. Boorstin / The Lost Arts of Memory
The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1984), pp. 104-113