The philosopher Thomas Hobbes declared life in the state of nature to be “nasty, brutish, and short,” and then he lived to 91. For Seneca, philosophy was the practice of learning how to die, but he botched his suicide twice before succeeding. The skeptic Arcesilaus “died through drinking too freely of unmixed wine,” Jeremy Benthem had himself stuffed, Gilles Deleuze defenestrated himself, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau died of cerebral hemorrhage after being trampled by a Great Dane. Simon Critchley, who recorded the fates of these philosophers in his 2009 compendium The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage), is still alive (his own entry in TBoDP reads simply, “Exit, pursued by a bear”), but now, with the novel Memory Theater, out from Other Press this month, he has written his own death story.
Memory Theater follows a character named Simon Critchley. Like his author and namesake, Critchley is a prolific philosopher and lecturer who studied at the University of Essex in England. One day he receives a cache of mysterious boxes named after the houses of the Zodiac, which contain the unpublished papers of his late friend and teacher Michel Haar. In the first few boxes are Haar’s discourses on Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Rilke—but in the one marked Aries, Critchley discovers a stunningly original treatise on the memory theater, or memory palace, a concept discussed by Giordano Bruno in the 16th century, through which “the human being can achieve absolute knowledge and become divine.”
The contents of the Pisces box are even stranger: a prophetic series of charts predicting the exact time of death of Haar’s friends and colleagues, including Critchley’s. Realizing he doesn’t have much time left, Critchley sinks the money he made from The Book of Dead Philosophers into a more personal project: the construction of a full memory theater meticulously populated with statues and tokens representing his life’s work, to be remembered in full at the moment of his death, at which point (believes the doomed Critchley) he will be transfigured.
Memory Theater is supposedly the real Critchley’s first novel. But its form—part history of ideas, part playful philosophical inquiry—is not so different from books like his The Faith of the Faithless (Verso, 2012), in which the question of whether atheists can possess mystical faith is broached in Oscar Wilde–like parables, and 2014’s excellent Bowie (OR Books), which used an album-by-album consideration of David Bowie’s discography to examine what Critchley calls “radical inauthenticity.”
“It’s all been fiction” is Critchley’s own take, speaking from his sparsely furnished ground-floor apartment in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill (coincidentally, the same place where Memory Theater takes place), though he adds that it’s “just different kinds of fiction.” Conceived as an adventure novel “littered with debris,” the slim Memory Theater took 10 years to accrue its curious metafictional shape, which Critchley places in the tradition of indirect communication as practiced by Plato and Kierkegaard. And yet Critchley maintains that he has not taken liberties with the facts. “Everything I say is empirically true,” he says. “It’s not as if writing is just making things up. It’s a deployment of a shared canon that has to touch the real, to resonate with something true and hopeful. ” And in fact, Memory Theater comes complete with an exacting glossary of everyone referenced in text, from the historian Frances Yates, who wrote extensively on mnemonic devices like the memory theater, to the seminal Mancunian punk group the Fall.
Such a concern with accuracy makes sense given that Critchley is, by his own admission, a down-to-earth philosopher. “The curse of clarity” is how he describes his signature pragmatic approach to metaphysics, which has always favored outspoken engagement over esotericism or obscurity. He recalls meeting his friends in the student pubs during his time at Essex, which was then lacking in academic opportunities, and going over the big problems of philosophy. “We didn’t know much and nothing was at stake, so why not?”
Critchley’s style, unlike that of many of his contemporaries in critical theory, is bracingly lucid, his concerns almost uniformly practical. The problem of nihilism (that is, how to conduct oneself in a seemingly meaningless universe) is one that he returns to frequently, perhaps most trenchantly in 2007’s Infinitely Demanding; his contributions to “The Stone,” the opinion column he arbitrates for the New York Times, are often both politically attuned and disarmingly frank about the limits of knowledge. One pet concept is that of “the creaturely,” which is attractive to him in part because he is amused by the similarity between the word and his own name (which is only the case, of course, if you have Critchley’s unmistakably south English pronunciation). In his view, something creaturely is “weak, fallible, dependent.” He adds, “The creature is dependent on creation.” The memory theater, as built by Critchley (the character), is an assault on the creaturely—an “attempt to became equal to the creator” and transcend death, which is perhaps Critchley’s most prevalent theme.
Since 1999, Critchley and the novelist Tom McCarthy have been collaborating as the International Necronautical Society, or INS, a half-serious art movement (insomuch as two public intellectuals can be considered a movement) dedicated to plumbing the depths of the netherworld through manifestos, declarations, and the odd bit of performance art. The partnership between the two writers came at a time when, according to Critchley, he had become “becalmed in academia.” He adds, “It was all getting too easy, but Tom and I were able to think together in an uncastrated way. The INS revealed a whole different set of possibilities.”
Reinvigorated by the Necronautical experience, Critchley compiled The Book of Dead Philosophers, largely concerned with philosophy’s various attempts to, as he writes, “know the whole and thereby deny the singular reality of death.” He adds, “For the philosopher, death is nothing because we have an understanding of reality in its entirety.” At least such was the idea behind Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, written as the sixth-century C.E. Roman consul awaited his execution. His book ended where Memory Theater, perhaps Critchley’s best distillation of the philosopher’s grasp at immortality, begins: in Critchley’s words, “I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction.”
And yet even as Critchley the character attempts to mimeograph and dramatize the unknowable finality of death (not altogether unlike Critchley the novelist), there is something distinctly modern in the novel that stands apart from the classical tradition. It is, the author admits, the specter of the Internet, which threatens to turn the mind from the finely tuned instrument of scholastic antiquity to a remote hard drive. Both Bruno and Yates conceived of the memory theater as a means to tap what is divine in man and to tax the mind’s recall ability to its limit. But with the advent of social media, Critchley maintains, “We have been party to a decision to outsource memory onto the Internet. That is a fundamental civilization shift, from inward-ization, through reading and preserving and storing in memory palaces to great rhetorical effect, to the idea that memory is an external resource and it’s all out there. The consequences of this shift I think we haven’t begun to see.”
Memory Theater is an intriguing fusion, then, of not only fiction and the essay format, but of Critchley’s creaturely emphasis and his exhaustive knowledge of Western intellectual history (in 2001, he wrote the Continental Philosophy entry in Oxford University’s Very Short Introductions series). In the aftermath of the age of mechanical reproduction, the book-object may be the real theater of memory, a record where the temporary and the permanent are briefly joined with memory and place. A book-object is a machine, in essence, for recollection.
“What makes us sort of unrecognizable in relation to human civilization is that for most ancient cultures, what it meant to be educated was to have a trained memory linked to rhetorical training,” Critchley says. “Learning to talk in a way that was persuasive and internally organized around the filing cabinet of the mind.” Memory Theater, with its monomaniacal hero, voluminous reference points, and willful confusion of author and protagonist, is then a crushingly timely fiction. After all, it is only in the modern era, where life is longer, though still largely nasty and brutish, that “our minds are more or less empty most of the time.”
J.W. McCormack is a writer whose work has appeared in the American Reader, Bookforum, Conjunctions, Electric Literature, the New Republic, n+1, and Tin House.