"For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinee idol, but say what you will about me, it's been a real human life!" Mickey Sabbath, in Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My own favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and Muddling through Life after Life.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My Memory Palace

            I'm in the process of memorizing Phillip Larkin's poem "Aubade." It's fifty lines, and I'll never forget the shock I got when I first read it. I frequently wake in the middle of the night and find myself worrying about how quickly life slips by. That's what the poem is about. I decided to memorize it because at the beginning of this semester I used a trick I learned in "Mind Performance Hacks" to remember my students' names. The memory palace was first developed in classical Greece by orators who needed to remember their speeches. What I did was review a large house I have countless intimate memories of and place a celebrity with the name I wanted to remember each to a room. Thinking I'd have to rehearse the list a couple times, I was amazed to find myself writing down all twenty-two names on the first try. Check it out on wikihow.

            I've been searching for other things to memorize since then. What is worth having in mind at all times? One of the things I put in my palace was fifteen questions from "The Sharing Game" developed by relationship researcher Arthur Aaron. That could come in handy the next time I find myself in a superficial conversation. But fifteen questions only took a little while to remember with the help of the memory palace. I've tried to use it at the restaurant where I work, but so far I found that it interferes with other mnemonics I wasn't even aware of using. (Eleven people at a table--no problem. In fact, that was last week, and I think I can still recall what everyone had for dinner.)

            A poem is more difficult because you have to remember the exact sequence of words. It's not just fifty lines (two to a room and out the front door), it's a few hundred words--though of course they're not random. One of the unforeseen consequences is that I'm finding each room resonates with emotions from the various experiences I had in it. This actually helps the process because it makes abstract ideas emotionally salient. But the more time I spend in my memory palace the more acquainted I am with the long period of time I lived in that house--from age 16 to 27, with a few hiatuses. So if you're going to use a memory palace, choose it wisely; it's not just a tie to new memories but also to old ones.
(Also check out my review of Joshua Foer's book on mnemonics, Moonwalking with Einstein.)
Here goes:

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking a four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
--The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off used--nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear--no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And the realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape.
Yet can't accept. One side will have go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

--Damn, don't quite have it yet (it's only been a few hours since I started). But I cleaned up all my mistakes.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great poem. Thanks for opening my eyes to it.

Dennis said...

Glad to. Still one of my favorites.

Anonymous said...

What a spetacular ending!