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Philosopher At Play: The Twisty Epiphanies Of 'Memory Theater'

For a glimpse of Memory Theater in microcosm, it wouldn't hurt to flip first to the book's back pages. There, you'll find "a partial glossary of potential obscurities" — where the names of Italian Renaissance-era philosophers mingle with British post-punk bands, medieval Christian holy women and even a deceased cat called Frances, a moggy lauded for being "elegant, beautiful and fastidiously small."

There's also an entry for a man that reads, simply: "As far as I'm aware, he did not exist."

In the glossary, as in the book it follows, philosopher Simon Critchley is clearly having fun with his reader. Dancing from topic to topic, as interested in high scholarship as low culture, Critchley has little concern for categorization, and still less for stable answers. His book is either a loopy essay, an autobiographical novel or a memoir thick with fictions — or it's all of these things at once. It's difficult to tell, and anyway, trying to tell seems a bit beside the point.

And you probably don't need a microcosm; the book's already rather micro as it is. Clocking in at just about 100 pages — including that scattershot glossary — Memory Theater is so short, the brief dust jacket summary risks giving away the whole plot.

But that's all right. The plot feels kind of beside the point, too. It's about a guy who may (or may not) be Critchley himself, who has mysteriously been shipped a dead man's things. For the most part, though, that's just the frame on which Critchley hangs the real focus of his work: a winding dive into the nature of memory — the powers we ascribe to it, and the devices we use to bulwark it.

"Human beings seem to be persistently seduced by the idea that a theater, a palace, or a machine might be constructed that would hold the sum of knowledge in a way that would permit total recall," Critchley explains. "All we would need to do in order to attain absolute knowledge would be to enter the theater or machine and commit to memory everything therein."

While <em>Memory Theater </em>is Simon Critchley's first novel — if you prefer to call it that — the British philosopher has penned plenty of other books, including <em>The Book of Dead Philosophers.</em>
/ Courtesy of Other Press
Courtesy of Other Press
While Memory Theater is Simon Critchley's first novel — if you prefer to call it that — the British philosopher has penned plenty of other books, including The Book of Dead Philosophers.

That's where the glossary's potpourri of obscurities comes in. Critchley culls from a host of historians, philosophers and noted eccentrics to trace the shapes of mankind's various attempts to render memory outside itself in concrete forms. Of these, perhaps the most fascinating is Critchley's radical reimagining of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit — an early 19th-century work of philosophy so dense it could be mistaken for a black hole. But in Critchley's telling — presented as if discovered in a friend's discarded essay — Hegel becomes both lively and light, though no less provocative. Within a few pages Critchley deftly twists Hegel's philosophy into another memory machine (or theater, naturally), in which its succession of metaphors act out the world's historical development.

That is, if Critchley's serious — which remains an open question throughout his memoivel.* Sly and deadpan, so much of what's presented here could be said with a wink, as if we're all in on the same secret joke. Just what that joke is, though, is sometimes tough to figure out; at times it feels the joke was at my expense, for assuming there was ever any joke at all. As the protagonist spins further into hallucination and obsession, it shouldn't be a surprise to find your mind spins with him.

So it seems fitting that, elsewhere in the glossary, Critchley adds a quick note about one character: "Much of what is said about him above is true. Some of it isn't." That same enigmatic description could go for the whole book — not just the plot, but the theories and revelations it offers, too.

By adopting this twisty logic, Critchley drops the voice of authority that often adheres to works of philosophy, inviting his reader instead to come play at the (admittedly, sometimes maddening) game of truth. His answers aren't for you to accept wholesale on arrival, but rather to inspect and act out for yourself. Here, then, both meanings of the word "play" are apt in Memory Theater.

The result feels all too short and occasionally forced, but yes, it's always memorable. The book is well worth the afternoon it'll take to read — and the lingering questions it'll leave with you long afterward.

*Memoivel: (n.) 1. A hybrid between a memoir and a novel. 2. A word I just made up.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.