Learning How to Die

Damian Tarnopolsky on Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre

Photo Credit:  Timothy Neesam , Courtesy of Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Timothy Neesam, Courtesy of Creative Commons

SIMON CRITCHLEY HAS a brilliant mind. His ideas sparkle in such a way that everything he produces is original, impassioned, worth disappearing into, liable to change you. There’s a rigour, passion and originality in his thinking that’s addictive. Although a serious and prolific academic philosopher, currently Hans Jonas Professor at the New School in New York, author of works on ethics, politics and deconstruction, he has written self-help and more historical books too, and runs a philosophy column in The New York Times. He’s deeply concerned with human problems – death, mostly - rather than esoteric academic ones.

Critchley has always been the literary kind of philosopher, in the Continental tradition. You see this both in his interests (he has written books about Beckett, humour, Hamlet, and Wallace Stevens) and his own writing. Critchley’s style is personal, occasionally informal, a little arrhythmical. He has a striking gift for the bullet phrase that, often abruptly, summarizes what he’s saying and pushes it in a whole new direction. Reading his works you find yourself rushing on to the next idea, even as you pick up the pieces of your old thinking.

Given his gifts and predilections, perhaps it’s not surprising that his new book, Memory Theatre, is a kind-of novella. It’s a meditation, a spooky mystery and fantasy, a semi-autobiographical chronicle of a total and utter meltdown.

The action mirrors certain aspects of Simon Critchley’s own life, at least at first. It begins in January 2004 with the narrator, Simon, moving from the University of Essex to New York to take up a job teaching philosophy. When he returns to England in June to clear up his old office and move his books out, a peculiar thing happens: He finds five mysterious boxes that he discovers are the unpublished papers of a friend and colleague, Michel Haar. The boxes include lecture notes, drafts of articles, along with “some absolute gems,” like a correspondence between Jean Beaufret and Jacques Lacan about what Martin Heidegger might like for breakfast when he and his wife stop with the Lacans in Paris on their way to a conference in Normandy. (Lacan was thinking specially imported Schwarzbrot from the Alsace, in case you’re wondering; but Beaufret felt sure that Herr und Frau Heidegger were looking forward to croissants and coffee.)

The search engine may be the ne plus ultra of human intellectual achievement, but it’s worth pondering the significance of questions you can’t get a good answer to by typing them into a box on a screen.

All these people really existed. The real Michel Haar taught philosophy in Strasbourg; Jean Beaufret was a French Heidegerrian. Heidegger really did give a lecture in Normandy in 1955. Simon Critchley really did move to New York in 2004, and so on.

Going through the boxes, Simon finds charts that he initially takes to be horoscopes – Michel was one of the few philosophers since Pico della Mirandola to take astrology seriously, he says. But looking more closely, he realizes that the charts don’t list numbers, planes and degrees as they typically would, but rather words, dates, facts. There is a chart about Plato that includes all the biographical data that’s known about him, including family relations, political involvements, moves from place to place, etc. The charts seem to be “a weirdly idiosyncratic technique for plotting and recalling the lives and works of the philosophers.”

The odd thing is that the charts zero in on each philosopher’s place and date of death. Simon realizes that their true purpose is to bring together death, memory, and knowledge: to plot the major events of a philosopher’s life and then to use those events to explain their demise. You can see a connection to Critchley’s own efforts to make philosophy answer to real people’s problems, to make it again what it’s supposed to be: a way of learning how to die.

Disturbingly, Simon finds a chart in someone else’s handwriting that accurately predicts the place and date of Michel Haar’s death. There is also a chart made by Haar, years before Jacques Derrida’s death, that accurately predicts the works that Derrida would go on to write after the chart was made. And then, most chillingly, deeper in the pile, a chart about Simon Critchley himself. It lists off events from Simon’s past that Michael Haar could not have known about. It predicts future jobs and yet-to-be-written books. It concludes with the facts of Simon’s death – by cerebral hemorrhage, in Den Bosch, Holland, on June 13, 2010, at 3:51pm.

THE “MEMORY THEATRE” from which Critchley takes his title is, first of all, a Classical mnemonic technique, most famously described by the brilliant, eclectic British historian Frances Yates. It works through visualization: by remembering facts as objects kept in certain places (in different places in a house, for example), ancient thinkers were able to summon vast tracts of knowledge. “Simplicius, a friend of Augustine, could recite Virgil backwards,” Critchley notes. Modern-day memory champions use this method to do things like memorize pi to over 65,000 digits.

In the 1500s, the Italian philosopher Giulio Delmino Camillo planned to make a concrete, physical, actual memory theatre in Paris, for King Francis I. Camillo envisioned a small amphitheater in which the spectator would stand on stage, gazing at images in the auditorium representing everything he knew. Camillo connected the memory theatre with the Renaissance ideal of human perfectibility: in his hands, it becomes not just one person’s intellectual storehouse, but an archive of all knowledge, a place to store everything that has ever been known. You could walk into his memory theatre, one of his contemporaries wrote, look around, and be able to talk about any subject as fluently as Cicero.

There’s a link between memory, hermeticism, architecture and hubris here: Critchley calls it “the occult humanist strand at the heart of the northern Renaissance.” To enter the memory theatre is to know everything, to remember everything and see it all at once; it is to become, in that moment of knowing, divine.

Camillo’s memory theatre was never completed, but the ambition behind it lingers in the encyclopedism of the Enlightenment. Critchley notes its continuing presence, via Haar, in an extended reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as memory theatre: the effort to grasp hold of the entire cultural history of the world, in order to make it new. You can see it today, perhaps, in the evangelical note in Google’s mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

We take it almost for granted now that we can find out everything we need to online—everything from how to rescue a burnt Bolognese, to the origins of the pentatonic scale, to Simon Critchley’s career path can be found out, instantaneously, through a search engine—and that this is a good thing. We don’t think too much about what this development means epistemologically or phenomenologically. Camillo might have considered the search engine the ne plus ultra of human intellectual achievement, but it’s worth pondering the significance of questions you can’t get a good answer to (for the moment, at least) by typing them into a box on a screen. Where was I on June 10th 1985? Why is my friend mad at me? Am I a good person? Is it possible to know so much that you understand nothing?

MEMORY THEATRE IS divided pretty clearly into two parts. The first half works so well because Critchley is such a terrific thinker and writer; much of it, when he’s riffing on Giordano Bruno and Shakespeare, could essentially come from one of his non-fiction books, a good one. It has the vigour and electricity of a great, impossible lecture, or dinner with the smartest person you’ve ever met.

This second part of the book is supposed to be a narrative, personalized version of the first part. The first half was theory, the second half is practice. Structurally this might work in interesting ways. The problem is that the narrative isn’t really lived, or told. It’s enumerated and laid out, but there’s a kind of detachment and coldness to the telling that inhibits its power as fiction. The breakdown and the madness is relayed in essentially the same voice that told us so expertly and lucidly about Hegel.

After discovering the date of his death, Simon goes on with his life, in a way that doesn’t quite make sense. Oddly, inexplicably, knowing precisely when and how he will die doesn’t profoundly change or affect him, a fact that is never explored. He just goes back to his life, but worse: “Pleased with myself,” after a fellowship at the Getty Research Institute, “I returned to New York for another round of teaching, commitment-free relationships, and vacuous socializing. I even started doing yoga.”

The characterization is inconsistent, too: on the one hand, Simon’s living an empty life; on the other hand he claims that he is being unconsciously consumed by anxiety. Neither really rings true because neither is really delved into, not as fiction. Not in language or experience. The states are just listed off.

Then, as oddly and inexplicably as his false calm, Simon receives a final missing box from Essex containing a small wooden model of Camillo’s memory theatre. Like an uncanny doll in a horror film, it sits by his bed and gradually takes over his life. Simon gets worse and worse auditory and verbal hallucinations, along with insomnia. He becomes convinced his computer is trying to kill him. He takes a leave from work and (as his chart predicted) takes a job at a small university in the Netherlands, where, a little like Richard Dreyfuss making the gigantic mud mountain in his living room in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he begins building his own memory theatre out of wood and papier mache.

Simon fills his memory theatre with gaudy figures to help him recall his books, his childhood, the history of philosophy, the lyrics of his favourite records. His plan is to align the moment of his death with the moment he remembers everything he’s ever known, and so to overcome mortality, humanity, teleology, everything.

There’s a kind of logic to this, to the idea that if you could somehow know everything in the last moment of your life you would know death itself, and somehow defeat it. It’s also completely fucking crazy, which is kind of the point. In TV shows, both the delusional and the detectives cover their walls with the same pictures, connected by the same red lines – because both are driven by a dream of order. The world doesn’t satisfy the dream, and the dream takes over. 

CRITCHLEY KNOWS PERFECTLY well that much of our thinking is done in images. Gothic cathedrals are garish not because of sculptural ineptitude, he says, but in order to help people remember sin by seeing what it looks like. He states in this book that that poetic language makes us see things anew. But his own writing, his own language, doesn’t do this. There isn’t enough writing in Memory Theatre. There isn’t enough seeing or garishness. It’s brilliant without being moving: it shines, without capturing the dark around, though it sometimes seems to long to.

The contradiction is that Critchley’s non-fiction writing is poetic, is musical, and it’s generous and bedeviling and inspiring and produces unexpected effects; it does much of what you want fiction to do. His fiction is more predictable – actually, for the first time, this is the book you’d have expected him to write.

Memory Theatre brings to mind a minimalist Umberto Eco, a fictionalizing Lawrence Weschler, a less melancholy W. G. Sebald. Sebald is the closest comparison. Critchley’s work tries to do many similar things to Sebald’s, intellectually and historically, but Sebald’s elegiac and restrained first person summons up worlds of affect and beauty, by means of its musicality and detail, its reality, its felt interest in history and ideas shaping and expressed by real people, spurred by recognizable human problems that people apart from the author might experience. It’s the difference between writing about death, or writing about madness, and writing death or madness themselves.

DAMIAN TARNOPOLSKY is the author of the novel Goya’s Dog and an editor at Slingsby and Dixon. His piece for Partisan on the novels of Javier Marías is here.

WHAT TO READ NEXT: "If your implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim is that Hegel got history wrong in locating its end in himself and not you, you’ll want to look good while making it."