Yesterday we wrote about the memory palace of Tom Meseroll, the Master of Martial Magic, so it is fitting that this week’s Neuroscience in Fiction pick features a fictional memory palace: the mansion of reminiscence at the center of Hannibal Lecter’s brilliantly twisted mind.
The fragment that follows is from Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, where we learn all about Dr. Lecter’s unsavory past. The novel is not for everybody’s taste (pun intended), and I thought Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs were superior, but I did enjoy Harris’s lavish descriptions of Hannibal’s mnemonics:The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp. Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity. We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.
Check out Sleights of Mind for our thoughts on the intersection of magic and memory. We also recommend Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s account of becoming a memory champion through intensive training in mnemonic techniques, such as the memory palace (also known as the method of loci). Or read The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence, about the Italian Jesuit priest who taught this method to 16th century Confucian scholars in China.
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