History of Thought

Mnemonic Discipline

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Portraits des missionnaires jésuites Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell et Ferdinand Verbiest dans la Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinoise, 1735, par Jean Baptiste du Halde.

Recently, Aeon.com published a piece called “This ancient mnemonic technique builds a palace of memory.” I pricked my ears when I read “memory palace.” The last time– according to my memory– this notion was used was more than 500 years ago.

Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who arrived in China in 1583, had mastered the Chinese language by 1596. He was able to discuss his theory on memory and teach the Chinese people mnemonic techniques. In his little book on the art of memory, he explains in Chinese how to build a memory palace:

He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes; “the more there are the better will be,” said Ricci, though he added that one did not have to build on a grandiose scale right away. One could create a modest palace, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchant’s’ meeting lodge. And if one wanted to begin on an even smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.    

With this quote from the only surviving version of Ricci’s Treatise on Mnemonic Arts (Jifa, in Chinese), Jonathan D. Spence opens his book “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,” which he wrote in 1984. Ricci not only reveals to the Chinese how to construct an imaginary palace in which they were to picture successive rooms and apartments housing images that represented different types of knowledge. He also regards the whole device, based on European memory techniques that dated to antiquity, as an information retrieval system, one you could keep adding to.

In the final era without the internet, Spence’s was an incredible book to read; the notion of the memory palace is almost an anticipatory parallel to the Google search. In 1984, when I first read it, I wanted to know more about mnemonic techniques, read more on the background of Ricci’s memory palace, and perhaps even learn how to build my own. But I had to stop because, without the Library of Congress at my fingertips, I could not immediately pursue the reading beyond Spence’s book.

Even if I could, is it possible to build one’s own memory palace living in more than one place? Would it oppose, as Ricci said, “the order and sequence of the places ready for images inside each building that were crucial to the mnemonic art”? Because, as Spence wrote, “The real purpose of all these mental constructs was to provide storage spaces, for the myriad of concepts that make up the sum of our human knowledge. To everything that we wish to remember, wrote Ricci, we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to reclaim it by an act of memory.”

Or, as Timothy Brook noted in 1986,  “A memory palace is a mnemonic method that was popular in sixteenth-century Jesuits for retaining in memory all that we are now accustomed to storing by mechanical means. The memory was to be thought as a palace that existed in the imagination. In the rooms and the passageways of that palace, one placed the images, each image representing a different set of concepts. The economy of the system was that, rather than having to retain every datum of knowledge in the current memory, one needs only remember its location in the palace; once that location was reached the concepts would flood back into the consciousness.”

In other words, we no longer need a memory palace. Our post-Gutenberg generations are storing memories in books, online. After the invention of print, before the epoch of internet, it was enough to go to a library, find the right bookshelf and take the book down. Since the beginning of this century, even less effort is needed; we type a word into a search machine or click an app and the memory palace expands in front of us. But could Spence and Brooks know that in the mid-eighties?

Spence’s book remains enigmatic because not all of its content and his immense work made it to the web. Few know that “Memory Palace” is not a history of one particular aspect of Matteo Ricci, but it is also research on the mnemonics, correcting and revising the historic sources that contributed the method to Cicero; it’s a duel with Thomas Aquinas and the images of Dante’s inferno; it is an explanation of The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, developed for the members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. But Spence always loved to enter people’s minds. So while the Europe Union, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Ricci to China (he died in Beijing in 1610), spurred studies dedicated to his memory, Spence – I was told by one of his phd students – took his bundle of pencils and sat in his favorite coffee shop on campus, where he did most of his writing.

As John Gross pointed out in The New York Times, when the book was first published:

In trying to gain access to the world of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence takes the memory palace as his starting point. More precisely, he takes the one concrete example of imagery Ricci gives in the treatise, that of a reception hall with an image in each corner – a pair of grappling warriors, a pagan tribe woman, a peasant cutting grain, a maidservant with a child in her arms.

Along with this tableau Mr. Spence presents us with a second set of images – the four pictures Ricci provided for a Chinese friend who wanted to include some specimens of Western art in an anthology of graphics and calligraphy. The first three, which have an accompanying commentary, portray Christ and Peter on the Sea of Galilee, Christ on the road to Emmaus, and an angel smiting the men of Sodom; the fourth shows the Virgin holding the infant Christ.

What did these eight images mean to Ricci? What did he suppose they would mean to the Chinese? Revolving these questions in his mind, Mr. Spence moves back and forth across the whole of Ricci’s experience, from Macerata, the hill town in central Italy where he grew up, to Goa and southern India, from Florence and Rome, where he studied, to provincial China and Peking.

It is a complicated procedure, and in less adroit hands it might well make you wish that the author had chosen to write a straightforward biography of Ricci instead.

Spence anticipated the critiques of his method, writing in the book: “Since Ricci chose with care the images and pictures that have come down to us, I have chosen in my turn to build this book around eight distant fragments. Ricci told Chen Dayue in 1606, “the whole point of writing something down is that your voice will then carry for thousand of miles, whereas in direct conversation it fades at hundred paces.’”

Ricci and Spence both believed in the power of the written word. For five hundred years, we in the Gutenberg galaxy all believe our immortality rests in simply writing a book. Not just any book, but let’s say the Memory Palace, for instance. To me, it is this segment of Ricci’s mind that interests Spence most. He leaves to the others the importance of Ricci’s job, that is, to convert the Chinese into Christians. So-called Ricci Studies are full of the assertions on the importance of the Jesuit in building bridges between the West and China. As if there is a continuum between Ricci’s and present China.

But let’s turn back to the Aeon piece that was written by Lynne Kelly, of the most recent book on mnemonics, called “The Memory Code.” Kelly does not, at least to my knowledge (but I have not read the whole of her book) even mention Ricci. She uses the mnemonic technique as a tool to discover ancient, not yet recorded cultures:

Cultures without writing are referred to as ‘non-literate’, but their identity should not be associated with what they don’t do, but rather with what they do from necessity when there is no writing to record their knowledge. Cultures without writing employ the most intriguing range of memory technologies often linked under the academic term ‘primary orality’, including song, dance, rhyme and rhythm, and story and mythology. Physical memory devices, though, are less often included in this list. The most universal of these is the landscape itself.

To me, this sounds more or less like a one of the Dan Brown theories. I hope to be wrong, for the respect of Aeon.com and the fact that we live in a period in which it is rare to hear someone who still believes that ideas can change the world and is committed to spreading knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.

As for mnemonics, we’re welcome to try more, but in the age of clicks, we can hardly remember the birthdays of our relatives and friends. Facebook does it for us. And to be honest, my update on mnemonics tells me that it was good for storing and not for thinking. Good for reciting and not critical analysis, as we know from the diligently learned Chinese, who are not always creative thinkers, something known as a result of thousands of Chinese students flooding into western universities. Was it better for learning languages or anatomy, trying to remember all the bones and muscles of a human body?

Memorizing is different from examining; spiritual exercise is different from learning the Chinese language. It was at least, when, many years ago, I first started to learn Chinese in China: I was making little progress until I followed only Chinese repetitive and memorizing methods. It was the recitation of grammar, not the memory palace, that helped me out.  

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