published 2.19.2019

Simon Critchley’s Athens in Pieces: The Art of Memory in The New York Times

by Simon Critchley

ATHENS — There is an ancient tradition relating to the art of memory, which legend says began with the poet Simonides of Ceos (556-468 B.C.E.). Simonides was giving a recitation in the dining hall of the house of Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, when he was called outside because two strangers wanted to speak to him.

When the poet exited, the strangers were nowhere to be found, and the dining hall suddenly and violently collapsed. Scopas and his guests were crushed to death and disfigured beyond recognition. But Simonides was able to identify each of the corpses by remembering the precise place where they were sitting or lounging before the calamity.

This is the first in a series of dispatches by the author for The Stone, tracing the past of Athens. Each post will focus on a specific object or site from Greek antiquity for insight into contemporary life and politics.

With this association of memory with place, or “topos,” the idea of mnemotechnics, or the art of memory, came into being. In order to recall something, one has to identify a locus either in the interior palace of one’s memory or by constructing an exterior, physical memory theater. Various attempts to build such memory theaters punctuate antiquity. It is a practice picked up again in the Italian Renaissance and continued into the architecture of Elizabethan theater — like Shakespeare’s Globe — and beyond.

The story of Simonides is somewhat grisly, but I would like to borrow the association of recollection and location it in order to build a tiny — and admittedly idiosyncratic — memory theater of Athens: a personal cabinet of memory spaces and places: treasures, oddities and curiosities. Every city, every “polis,” is a necropolis, a city of the dead; but it just so happens that Athens is a particularly ancient graveyard with multiple, interconnected and entangled layers of life that has passed away. It is also a unique place because of the way in which its ghosts continue to haunt our present, often in unexpected and unimagined ways. And obviously, for those of us who have spent their time trying to teach philosophy, Athens is a magical city, for this is where what we still recognize as philosophia really began.

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Athens in Pieces: The Stench of the Academy

Athens in Pieces: In Aristotle’s Garden