I Imagine the Book as a Building

The notion of a text as a building has its origin in the art of memory. The art of memory belongs to classical rhetoric and concerns the memorization of texts and speeches. The memory techniques are based on places and images. The text is broken down into images which are linked to a fictitious or actual place in the mind. The images symbolize topics and words and phrases. The places should be easy to envisage, preferably from one’s own life and work. Public spaces and buildings and private houses and homes. Baths face west and bedrooms and libraries face east, writes Vitruvius in his ten books on architecture. Rooms for paintings and the like, where the light should not shift with the sun, face north. The same building may be used to memorize various texts. The building is the form and the content is shifting. The progression through the building is the course of the narrative. The speaker moves from image to image through the rooms, first to commit the text to memory and then to reconstruct it. A long story demands many rooms or large rooms with space for many images. The rooms should not be too bright or too dark, and the images should not be placed closer or farther away from one another than thirty feet; for we do not see clearly what is too bright or too dark, too close or too far away. This is how art imitates nature. The images are more mannered. They must be out of the ordinary, for the everyday is forgotten, while the extraordinary remains in memory. Naked bodies, bloody and filthy, with crowns and cloaks. A solar eclipse instead of a sunrise. Striking resemblance. These are recommendations and not examples. There are no example collections relating to the art of memory, just an odd explanatory image in scattered rhetorical handbooks. The following is from an imagined defence speech, from the textbook Rhetorica ad Herennium, attributed to Cicero but not by him. A man has been accused of murder by poisoning, the motive is presumed to be inheritance, and there are many witnesses. Image: the poisoned man is lying ill in a bed. The defendant is sitting at the bedside, he has a cup in his right hand and wax tablets in his left, and a ram’s testicles on his ring finger. The cup symbolizes the poisoning, the tablets symbolize the inheritance, the testicles symbolize the witnesses—the Latin 'testiculus' is a derivative of 'testis', witness. A scrotum is evidence of virility. Imagine an entire house of such images. It resembles more a cabinet of curiosities from the Baroque than a harmonious whole from Classical Antiquity. Purses were made of rams’ testicles in Roman times. It may suggest that the witnesses have been bribed. The author leaves it open. I imagine the book as a building. A page is a room. The front is the façade. If the following are the only words on a page:

loves me

Then there is nothing else in this room. You may stop and consider this, or move on. Images in other rooms will throw light on images in other rooms again.

loves me not

This is not about prose, but poetry, and not the individual poem, but the collection or suite.


Jørn H. Sværen, Queen of England, Black Square Editions, New York, 2017