How much memory do you need?

Victor Hugo, in his 1831 Notre Dame de Paris, famously made a connection between architecture and the printing press: “Il existe à cette époque, pour la pensée écrite en pierre, un privilège tout-à-fait comparable à notre liberté actuelle de la presse. C’est la liberté de l’architecture”.

In Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre an equivalent but opposite idea underlies the narrative. While this is a tale of discovered manuscripts themed around the houses of the zodiac and a maquette of the sixteenth-century Venetian memory theatre of Giulio Camillo, it covers a whole range of what Hari Kunzru has called “the technologies of remembering”. This is formed as a book, and the writing, reading and analysis of books makes up much of the text. Publishing also comes into play at times.

Like Hugo, Critchley’s narrator points to architecture: “In a cathedral, time became space, fixed in location, embodied in stone. It was a vast time capsule. Decline from Gutenberg onwards. Fuck the Reformation”.

But publishing itself now seems to be dying. When he first receives and explores the manuscripts of his old close friend and former philosophy teacher, Michel Haar, the narrator “instantly thought that many of these texts could have been published, if I could interest the increasingly flagging and beleaguered French and Anglophone academic presses”. The archive ends up unpublished but safe in a university library, and the narrator goes to UCLA to write his “book on how philosophers die”.

“It was funny, full of impressively wide reading, and utterly shallow. Prior to the financial collapse of 2008 and the withering of the publishing industry, I made decent money on book deals and rights sales.”

Michel predicts the writer’s future career and death, but it doesn’t work out as he expected. The memory theatre does not fulfil his “dream of the perfect death”, and after a breakdown of sorts he starts a new project to harness the power of the tides so that eventually “all the elements of world history would combine…and form an artificial but living organism.” He starts his quest by going to the local library.

It seems that while publishing may be moribund, ideas to collect all human knowledge and make something that “would be like a second fictional sun in the universe” are alive and well. There are people in California who have given a new life to the term architecture, and have already planned it all out, a gigantic digital edifice to rival even the most ambitious memory theatres of the past.

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre, 2014

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