Monday, 6 October 2014

The Art of Memory

We know that the Ancients could write, we get the word Alphabet from the names of the first two letters they used to transcribe the sounds of speech.  We also know that to have something to write on, they had to kill a sheep, treat the skin with lime, scrape off the fur, stretch it out and dry it. Not quite as handy and immediate as picking up and scribbling on a post-it. But the Greeks and Romans had poets and playwrights, lawyers and politicians and these chaps (it was always chaps in those days) had to commit to memory long screeds of text: the whole of the Iliad, the case for the defense of Milo, a just right eulogy at the funeral of Caesar, the lines for Antigone in the theatre at Syracuse. They had to speak without notes and they didn't want to forget any of their best themes, ideas and arguments or mangle Homer.

They developed a methodology for committing stuff to memory and these were taught to young men as part of his education to become a fully functioning and articulate member of the democracy in which they lived. The same techniques were presumably also taught to those who lived under other forms of government but used less in political argument and more in verse and song. Tradition had it that the technique was invented by a poet called Simonides, who hailed from Keos (not Chios/Χίος but Kea/Gia/Tzia/Τζια about 60km SE of Athens).  He was famous in his day and long afterwards, and is reputed to have composed the epitaph for the 300 Spartans in Thermopylae:
Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι. 
The story goes that he was invited to compose and recite a puff for a magnate in Thessaly and after striking a pose and singing the patron's praises, he was called outside to talk with two young men who wanted a word.  As he left the building it collapsed behind him and everyone at the celebratory banquet was crushed beyond recognition. Simonides was able to help allocate the corpses to the grieving relatives because he could remember where each one had been sitting before the catastrophe. There is nice second thread in this story that gives it the ring of truth. In his poem, Simonides had spent rather a lot of time talking up Castor and Pollux and the magnate had been miffed that it hadn't been All About Him.  Accordingly, he paid only half the fee to the poet and suggested he ask the heavenly twins for the balance. The gods had a crushing riposte to such meanness.

The idea that a gentleman was educated in the Classics, and so should be expected to equal Cicero in his ability to marshal his thoughts on the fly, persisted for many years in the deprecation of reading any contribution to parliamentary debate in the British House of Commons. Other members would barrack the reader with cries of "paper, paper" until the Speaker of the House noticed the misdemeanour.  The tyranny of the iPad has only recently put paid to this tradition.

I'm writing this all today, partly to indicate just how expensive was my own education, but mainly because it is the birthday (6th Oct 1552) of Matteo Ricci. He was an Italian Jesuit who was sent to convert or at least communicate with the heathens in China, where he arrived, at Macau, in 1582. He's a wildly interesting chap who deserves to be much more widely tribbed. After he'd settled a couple of years and learned how to speak, read and write classical Chinese, he created the first Western style map annotated with Chinese characters. There are only 6 extant copies of copies of his original map which was known as Kūnyú Wànguó Quántú or much more romantically as The Impossible Black Tulip in reference to the book by Alexandre Dumas and the map's exoticism and rarity.  It was the first map in China to show North and South America, was 1.5m high and 3.7m long and it deeply impressed the Chinese intelligentsia. Being a deft hand with a telescope and having a copy of the Alphonsine Tables and De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Copernicus, Ricci was able to predict eclipses which made him very useful out in the astrological East.

The Mandarins were much more deeply impressed by the extraordinary feats of memory that Ricci performed for their amusement. To him it was pretty much what any educated chap back home in Europe would have been able to do, but it was new to the Chinese who valued scholarship but had evolved no formal techniques for memorising the canon of Confucius and the other masters. Ricci was happy to teach them The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci which was the title of a discursive book that came out in 1984. Joshua Foer has reprised the basic technique more recently in his book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. If you only have 20 minutes to change your life, there is a TED talk. The skill depends on creating in your mind an imaginary building, divided into a number of rooms. For each idea that you wish to retain, create a graphic image (the saucier, uglier and weirder the better) that you associate with the concept and then place the image in a particular room in your mind's eye.  You place the first group/sequence of ideas in the first room; the next set in a second room and so forth. Our word 'topic' comes directly from the Greek topos, a place. Having impressed the contents of your imaginary building and its ludicrous and unsettling images upon your mind, it is easy to recall the whole sequence merely by re-walking through the "palace" knocking off each idea in turn until you leave by the scullery door (which you ensure looks suspiciously like a sauna because it is Fin[n]ish!

It's a twofer day, see below for adventure.

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