Death Becomes Him

Memory Theater BY Simon Critchley. Other Press. Hardcover, 64 pages. $15.

The cover of Memory Theater

In philosopher Simon Critchley’s Borges-ian novella Memory Theater, the narrator, who happens to be named Simon Critchley, discovers the papers of one Michel Haar, “a close friend and former philosophy teacher” who has recently died in a sanatorium after taking early retirement from the Sorbonne. Michel, like one of his heroes, Martin Heidegger, had the long-pedigreed and quasi-mystical idea that poetry can emancipate us from the flat-footed language of philosophy and bring us closer to the truth. This scenario allows Critchley to embark on a tour of philosophical thought and at the same time to tell a fascinating story of a scholar on a dangerous, quixotic mission.

One of the manuscripts Critchley’s narrator finds is particularly compelling and perilous. “Michel’s simple but brilliant idea was to read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a memory theater, namely as a continuation of Yates’s tradition of the art of memory.” The Yates in question is Frances Amelia Yates, a twentieth-century historian who worked on mysticism, its relationship to memory, and the old idea that we discover truth through recollection. As the narrator excavates the esoteric mines of his former teacher’s convoluted scholarship, he learns that Michel has constructed “memory maps,” which take him deep into astrological and occult investigations of the lives, and especially the deaths, of some of our greatest philosophers. The driving idea of the memory theater is that through the pursuit of the knowledge of the past one can arrive at “absolute knowledge,” at a complete understanding of the universe. This means that Michel’s maps can also predict the future: They foresee, for instance, the deaths of the philosophers and friends Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty, both of them from the same disease, pancreatic cancer.

Michel has also charted the narrator’s existence, predicting Critchley’s publications (including The Book of Dead Philosophers) as well as his death. In 2004, our narrator learns that on June 13, 2010, in a place called Den Bosch, he will die of a cerebral hemorrhage. The narrator takes the revelation of his looming demise in stride: “Initially, the news didn’t affect me much. Rather like Wittgenstein receiving word of his terminal cancer with great relief, I found some solace in knowing exactly when I would die.”

But the calm doesn’t last for long. Paranoia develops. The narrator hallucinates on the subway. He can smell the decay of his own flesh. A psychiatrist doesn’t help. He stops taking his medication and welcomes the terrifying but beautiful visions that overwhelm him. He experiences simultaneously a dark night of the soul and the vast understanding of the universe that comes with cosmic consciousness, much like Philip K. Dick’s pink laser beam that transmits all knowledge (Dick and many other mystical writers also figure in Critchley’s complex genealogy): “My body was a buzzing antenna into which radio waves flooded from the entire cosmos. I was the living switchboard of the universe. My skull was a magnetized globe.” He has become one of the philosophical visionaries that fascinated his teacher. And so he decides to build his own memory theater and investigate his own death.

Despite the conundrums raised in this work of metaphysical metafiction, Critchley’s prose is charming, funny, and clear; his voice is strong and honest; his self-lacerating narrator is awkwardly irresistible, as though Jerry Lewis had suddenly found himself to be one of the world’s more prominent philosophers. In trying to give a bit of the plot and flavor of the novella, I have made it sound as arcane as its subject matter: Just the opposite is the case. It is entirely readable, even, I feel sure, for someone who is new to the philosophers, poets, and poet-philosophers Critchley invokes (there is also a humorous but usually reliable and helpful “partial glossary of potential obscurities” in the back of the book). Like the characters of Beckett—one of Critchley’s favorite authors—this narrator is obsessed with the question of his own death. Memory Theater opens: “I was dying. That much was certain.” But Critchley’s narrator is, unlike Beckett’s, lively and lovable. His knowledge of his death has a bracing effect, one that makes the search for knowledge more important, more worthwhile. In fact, Memory Theater very much reminded me of Malone Dies—if, say, Beckett had written his masterpiece in a playful, lighthearted mood, with the goal of entertaining rather than demolishing his reader.

We don’t know what will happen to us when we die, but maybe that shouldn’t puzzle us so very much; we don’t remember what happened when we were born, either, or even in the first few years of our lives. For Critchley, these unknowns are a prompt for not just philosophical inquiry but also whimsical surrealism: His narrator’s memory theater has a childish, almost comical quality (his final version of the machine will be “moon powered,” and is designed with “little drawings in crayon”). Critchley’s own memory theater is, of course, the book we are reading. By the end of this refreshing novel—in part a catalogue of its author’s intellectual obsessions—we suspect that the truth is not so much hidden in memory or soothsaying abilities as it is revealed in the pleasure of reading and of contemplating mystery. In reality, Critchley’s book doesn’t pretend to have reliable death dates, but instead offers something much more valuable: an author’s idiosyncratic version of the truth.

Clancy Martin is the author, most recently, of the novel Bad Sex (Tyrant Books, 2015).