building a lecter-like memory palace

When I look down from my balcony in the middle of the afternoon, early evening, I notice that most of the people going by on scooters or skateboards or foot are wearing surgical masks over their mouth and nose (half or more of them coupling the ensemble with purple plastic gloves) and I’m hoping that this is because they’re going from one semi-social event to another, and they need protection from one-another, rather than for fear of just inhaling the coronavirus out of the wind, as I imagine I’d have done by now int he couple hours I’ve been spending out there each day now, reading. (I’m getting a lot more reading done thanks to this quarantine. Small gift of the coronavirus.)

Today’s book is Hannibal Rising, the fourth installment in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series, about a cannibalistic serial killer of the same name. When Lecter’s not killing people, he’s enjoying high culture.

He drives a nice car, labors over the choice and presentation of wines, sits in opera boxes and reads the sheet music as a symphony unfolds, marking the changes from page to stage.

There’s a scene in the halfway point of the third book, Hannibal, where he gets on a cheap and cramped flight, dressed as and surrounded by hockey fans, to escape the police and some thugs who wanna tie him up and feed his feet to pigs (long story).

So this guy who’s hyper-educated and -cultured, snobbish about everything and accustomed to luxury, is trapped in a confined space with people who are being loud and obnoxious, they’re farting and arguing and passing around nasty food.

He’s not enjoying himself.

Finally he leans his head back, closes his eyes, and retreats into what Harris refers to as his “memory palace.” He wanders into various rooms of his palace and experiences old events that’re kept so vividly in his super-human memory, or maybe he prepares himself for the mimetic sketches and eloquent letters he’ll later write, ponders the breadth of his reading, the fruits of his connoisseurship.

Lecter’s beyond a character of fiction; he’s a character of fantasy. And while I do know two or three people who are that refined and mannered and rounded and bright, they aren’t usually equipped with those same powers of self-composure (nor Lecter’s curious prowess in combat).

But I’ve been spellbound all afternoon by that idea of cultivating a sort of “memory palace” of my own, which finally just means that you’re so busy of mind, you’re so relentlessly curious about world and arts, that whenever there’s a moment of downtime, or whenever you need to flee from a certain hazardous train of thought, you can just walk into any one of the many many chambers in your memory palace and start thinking about whatever’s in there.

I’ve always wanted to cultivate that sort of headspace, which accounts for a life of reading and moviegoing that’s probably more frantic than it is enjoyable, but I’m reminded too of Cormac McCarthy remarking in one of his few interviews that, when it comes to creative work, you can have a very productive day just watching a line of ants go marching across the ledge of a window. That there can be some everyday image that strikes you at the right moment and totally uncorks a bunch of long-brewing potential.

Applying that McCarthy remark to this memory palace: it’s cool, too, if some of your rooms are totally empty. If you can walk from one room of busy unpleasant thought and go into another one that’s totally unfurnished, unencumbered, and just shut the door and dwell in its silence. Meditative.

So I’m wondering too if I might not have more interesting things to say if I spent that balcony time looking at the masked bicyclists in the road instead of the book in my lap.

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