Memory Theater Simon Critchley  (Other Press, Nov. 2015)  Reviewed by  Rosie Clarke

Memory Theater
Simon Critchley

(Other Press, Nov. 2015)

Reviewed by Rosie Clarke

“Death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit,” the Committee of the International Necronautical Society (INS) says in the first line of their Founding Manifesto, before explaining that  the INS intends “to bring death out into the world . . . In the quotidian, to no smaller a degree, death moves . . . Our very bodies are no more that vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.” I mention the INS, intriguingly described by the Society’s co-founder Tom McCarthy as a “semi-fictitious organisation,” because Simon Critchley is listed as its “head philosopher.” And “semi-fictitious” applies, too, to Memory Theater, Critchley’s first official, albeit markedly experimental, work of “fiction,” that word being vexed by the text’s disparate elements of autobiography, fantasy, theory, and philosophy.

Critchley teaches philosophy at the New School and at the European Graduate School. He has written extensively on thinkers ranging from Derrida and Beckett to Hegel, Nietzsche, and Blanchot—yet death recurs as a perennial theme within his writing. His early The Book of Dead Philosophers collected quasi-fictional stories regarding the deaths of 190 thinkers, with Critchley considering how these individuals thought about death beyond their own inevitable demise. Now, Notes on Suicide examines the sociological and literary history of the act, before performing an unflinching self-examination of Critchley’s own relationship with the choice between life and death.

Perhaps closest to Memory Theater is the essay anthology Very Little . . . Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature, a work of mourning framed by the illness and passing of Critchley’s father; a death he calls “the perhaps ultimately senseless source of the book’s attempted sense-making.” With this in mind, Memory Theater can perhaps be seen as an exercise in sense-making of the author’s own inevitable death, a contemporary entry within a long philosophical and literary tradition.

Critchley begins the book with an arresting statement: “The fear of death slept for most of the day and then crept up late at night and grabbed me by the throat.” His relationship with mortality thus cemented, the tone is set for the novel’s remainder. The trigger for its particular investigation into death is Critchley’s discovery of a mysterious collection of papers belonging to his deceased friend, (also a philosophy professor) Michel Haar. Ranging from correspondence between Lacan and Jean Beaufret about Heidegger’s breakfast habits, to academic manuscripts, superficially these papers appear innocent. Delving further, he finds an odd set of hand-drawn charts, resembling astrological maps, but plotting the lives, times, and (crucially) deaths of philosophers:

These were not standard astrological projections at all. They were memory maps, spatially organised devices like the memory theaters Michel had discovered in Francis Yates’s book. They weren’t so much birth charts as death charts, necronautical rather than genethlialogical.

Ominously, Michel’s chart accurately predicted events in his own life occurring after its completion, including, troublingly, his death in a sanatorium in 2003, with Critchley concluding that, “Knowing his fate, he had simply lost the will to live.” Such composed reflection is rapidly dispelled upon discovery of a chart bearing his own name, comprising intimate and private details of his and his family’s life, and, with alarming exactitude, the time, date, location, and cause of his death.

Initially, this discovery inspires a quiet calm in Critchley. What follows is a brief summary of his professional career, with each publication and appointment apparently fulfilling Michel’s prophecies. However, in 2008 he receives a tiny scale model of Guilio Camillo’s memory theater, setting into motion an entirely more macabre and disturbing sequence of events, with Critchley becoming increasingly reclusive, plagued by hallucinations so vivid they would not be amiss in a horror film: “A cacophony of voices engulfed me and then the furniture in the lecture theater began to elevate. I became convinced that everyone in the room, including myself, was dead. I could smell my own flesh rotting.” While the matter explored here is not particularly unique—what one would do if presented with the precise date and time of one’s death—it is Critchley’s response to this information that forms the fascinating narrative crux, making the novel a singular response to an unremarkable query.

Rather than taking every effort to avoid the place Michel named as his terminal location, he in fact seeks it out. Although the fatal knowledge drives him to the edge of sanity, Critchley feels, in a way, more in control of his life than before. He initiates his obsessive quest to build his own memory theater in which to first preserve his identity, then recount it, and finally die as a “completed” being: “At the instant of my death, I would have recalled the totality of my knowledge. At the moment of termination, I would become God-like, transfigured, radiant, perfectly self-sufficient, alpha and omega.” Such grandiose hopes betray a significant element of narcissism in Critchley’s quest. Not content to die humbly, he longs for transcendence, as if preservation of all his philosophical knowledge, Greek grammar, and critical theory could make him more than a man.

The book’s eponymous vessel, built painstakingly by Critchley in the Dutch town Den Bosch (birthplace of Hieronymous), appears to exemplify the INS’s “ultimate aim”: “the construction of a craft that will convey us into death in such a way that we may, if not live, then at least persist.” A footnote in the manifesto highlights that the term craft “must be understood in the most versatile way possible”; one of these understandings is embodied in both Critchley’s psychological and architectural reactions to his advancing demise. He traces the etymology of the “memory theater,” from the Greek poet Simonides through Italian Renaissance occultism, Hermeticism, and Hegel’s seminal The Phenomenology of Sprit, to nineteenth-century historian Frances Yates, and her influential book The Art of Memory.

Yates, a relatively unknown figure, plays an important role. Her book, published in 1966, is a study of the methods used to store vast quantities of knowledge before printed texts were invented. In it, she traces the “art of memory” from Ancient Greece to the Romans, the Middle Ages, and onwards through the Renaissance and seventeenth century, and Critchley deftly summarizes her findings:

Yates shows how this ancient memory tradition is powerfully reanimated in the classicism and occultism of the Italian Renaissance  . . . When the art of memory met the new teachings of the Renaissance with their belief in the divinity of man, then recollection became the via regia for recalling the entirety of knowledge from its first principles. With the mastery of the right techniques of memory, total recall would be possible and the human would become divine. The memory theater was the microcosm of the divine macrocosm of the universe.

Critchley offers a brief but insightful reading into Yates’s text, illuminating humanity’s persistent quest for a kind of divine immortality through the preservation of thought, and uses this as a strong framework for his own concept of artificial memory.

Aside from Yates, the book is studded with a jumble of disparate references, ranging from German philosophers and Greek thinkers to the post-punk band The Fall, and the obscure character Jilted John, created by English comedian and actor Graham Fellows. When juxtaposed with philosophy’s big names, the pop-culture references momentarily distract from the book’s academic leaning, but overall the effect is distancing, and for those of us who enjoy our literature without a side helping of Hegel, somewhat liberating (particularly since the sections concerned with the Phenomenology, while well written, are somewhat dry). This US edition collects Critchley’s references at the back, perhaps in anticipation of future readers who, many decades hence, will find these references superannuated. The intended audience for Memory Theater seems clear; well-read literati, versed in Greek philosophy; Critchley’s academic peers; fans of theories of death and the absurd, and so on. If one is not so inclined, wading through the book’s allusions may prove off-putting.

Although Critchley is no stranger to turning himself––and his life––into texts, his character struggles to establish himself strongly enough to balance Memory Theater’s fiction with its academic tone. Only when he focuses on the human side of this story––a man struggling with his own mortality, and the grief of his friend’s death––does the novel become a novel, not an essay. When he invites us to inhabit his own psyche rather than those of long-dead philosophers, he finally establishes with his readers an intimate, beguiling connection. One particularly evocative section takes the form of a sensory and aesthetically stunning dream sequence, with Critchley floating around a Gothic cathedral:

I floated into the chapter house, with stone carvings of three-headed kings, veiled women, fighting lions, and tumblers, directly over the dean’s throne. There were many, many monkeys and the carving of a vast serpent eating a cat. The angle of a vault entered the cranium of the Green Man and went out through his mouth. There were mouths everywhere. Fiercely oral architecture. Eucharistic gluttony. Eat the bready body of God and wash it down with his sweet blood—like Leopold Bloom with a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.

The respite offered here is all too short and sweet, and those longing for more of the same may feel disappointed at the scarcity of such beautiful writing. Memory Theater is always interesting and never truly dull, but one cannot help feeling teased by such limited glimpses into Critchley’s imaginative vision.

Another example of such vision being given space to breathe is his personal meditations on death. As is appropriate to this investigation into the “staging” of death, Critchley makes reference to Beckett—a regular figure in his academic research (see Very Little . . . Almost Nothing)—and indeed certain sections of the novel seem directly influenced by the Irishman’s prose:

it’s not death that terrifies me, but life’s continuation, its stretching into a distance that recedes as we try to approach. No purpose, aim or goal. That is the most difficult thing to endure. Not death, but dying. Death will happen. Yes. It is certain. But not now, and life cannot be consumed in the now. The now of nows. It is forever not now.

Now consider Beckett’s Worstward Ho:

Gnawing to be gone. Less no good. Worse no good. Only one good. Gone. Gone for good. Till then gnaw on. All gnaw on. To be gone.

All save void. No. Void too. Unworsenable void. Never less. Never more. Never since first said never unsaid never worse said never not gnawing to be gone.

In this late-career piece, characteristic of Beckett’s increasing obsession with the insufficiency of language to communicate the notion of death and experience of dying, he speaks of an “Unmoreable unlessableunworseable evermost almost void,” of which Critchley’s “now of nows  . . . forever not now” epitomizes. Critchley’s failure to capture his own death was inevitable, as the “evermost almost void” will always be just that—unreachable, untouchable, inexplicable.

That the fear of death inspires such prodigious desire for a grain of permanence in the face of a vastly indifferent universe that even Critchey’s staunch atheism wavers is not entirely unsurprising. It is difficult to criticize such a change of tune, and one of the strengths of this novel is how it inspires us to confront our own hypothetical reactions to such life-altering knowledge. And while the obsessive quest laid out in these pages is unlikely to represent the lengths many would go to in order to secure a sense of immortality, Critchley’s revelations following the failure of his plan are far more relatable:

We do not make ourselves. We cannot remake ourselves through memory. Such was the fallacy driving my memory theater. We are not self-constituting beings. We are constituted through the vast movement of history, of which we are the largely quiescent effects.

Memory Theater is a somewhat uneasy mixture of the philosophizing Critchley is best known for, and a fantastical, almost Gothic plot, evocative at times of Poe and Lovecraft in its torturous detail. Beckett, Nietzsche, and Hegel visibly inspire the novel as befits Critchley’s academic background, but these influences frequently overwhelm the narrative and overshadow the far more engaging human story. Despite his lapses into rather dry philosophizing, Critchley is undoubtedly a skilled and inventive writer—as a first novel, this shows promise for what could come in the future, and is, for the most part, an enjoyable meander through well-researched, interesting, and engaging concepts. While doubtful that Critchley will ever find himself shelved in the fiction aisles, it is just as unlikely that his intention here was to cast off the robes of his profession and pursue a best-selling career. Memory Theater fulfills many possible purposes: the entertainment of Critchley’s existing fans, the broadening of his repertoire to include “novelist,” and preservation of the critical thought one would expect from a scholar such as he.


Rosie Clarke is a writer and critic who works for Asymptote. Her writing has appeared in such places as The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and Electric Literature.