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TRANSCRIPT: Notes on an Imagined Plaque… (The Memory Palace, Episode 73)

[Listen to the original episode here.]

This is “The Memory Palace.” I’m Nate DiMeo.

Notes on an imagined plaque to be added to the statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, upon hearing the Memphis City Council has voted to move it and the exhumed remains of General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their current location in a park downtown, to the nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

First, it should be big, the plaque, not necessarily because there’s so much to say, though there is so much to say, but big enough to be noticed on the side of this rather grand monument, after they move it and the bodies beneath it across town to the cemetery. And not just big for the sake of bigness; it needs to stick out as something off, something that disrupts the admirable balance of the statue, currently so tasteful, regal even. This bronze man on this bronze horse. Goatee. Square jaw. You get it. You’ve seen it before, even if you haven’t seen it before.

The statue faces north. The sculptor wanted Forrest to face south, to better catch the light, but people complained, said it would imply that the General was retreating, and he wasn’t a man who retreated. He surrendered once, but if the sculpture faced north, maybe people would forget that part, I guess.

So, anyway, the plaque has to be big enough to catch your eye when you’re checking your cell phone or walking your dog or eating a chicken Caesar salad from a plastic box on a bench, whatever people are doing there in the cemetery, and whatever they might do there in the future. Because that’s why we make these things, right? Plaques, bronze men on bronze horses: we want people in the future to remember, but first we want them to notice.

So let’s think about material for this imagined plaque. Maybe the plaque should be garish. Not intentionally ugly, but necessarily, but like titanium, maybe. A patch of frank, eerie futurism on this stayed, stately old thing. It would catch the light. It would catch the eye. In contrast to the northward-facing brown-green man on his brown-green horse. Or a grey pigeon, alit on his brown-green epaulet.

And I like that the eerie of it all, the futurism, is not at all futuristic. It’s millennial. A decade from now, it’ll be dated, literally dated. Bilbao or Disney Hall or whenever will seem so late-90s, so 2000s. And you’ll scoff. And I want that. I want this plaque to be fixed in time, to let people know when it went up, let people know what was up at the time, because that is the point here. The point of this plaque is to make sure that these future people realize that this lovely old statue wasn’t always old and wasn’t always here in this cemetery.

And, moreover, I want the reader, standing there in the shadow cast by the late, somehow still lamented, Nathan Bedford Forrest, on some future summer Sunday, to know why it wound up in a park on the other side of town in the first place. Because memorials aren’t memories. They don’t just appear upon death. A letter of surrender, signed in some farmhouse at the edge of some battlefield, doesn’t come complete with a historic marker affixed to the door.

The monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest was put in that park downtown for a reason at a specific moment in time. And, at that time, General Forrest and Mrs. Forrest were already buried in Elmwood Cemetery, the same place the city council recently voted to put them. His body and her body were originally dug up from the ground because a group of prominent Memphians thought they were better off somewhere else. That was 1905, 40 years after the war, 30 years after Forrest’s death.

They felt the city needed Nathan Bedford Forrest right then because they had seen that city fall from great heights. Memphis had been left relatively unscathed by the war but not by its outcome, not by the end of the slave trade, that had been one of the economic and cultural pillars of the city. Without the slave market selling men and women and children, without the river boats and crews and suppliers and dock workers sending them up and down the river, Memphis was hardly Memphis anymore. And then there was the Yellow Fever that had swept through the city some years before and killed so many and drove many more away, people who never returned after a mandatory evacuation.

And now it was the turn of the next century and the city was increasingly – let’s just say it, let’s just stop not saying things – increasingly black, and increasingly tense. White businesses did not like competing with black businesses, black people did not like being lynched. This move to move Forrest started not long after Ida B. Wells, a Memphian too, had started writing, rabble-rousing – boldly, bravely – against lynching, after her friend Thomas Moss was improperly imprisoned; after a fight between children over a game of marbles escalated until adults were threatening to burn down a store; and after Moss wound up being pulled from that prison and strung from a tree. And Wells was threatened so much, so often, that she moved away and the paper she had written for burned to the ground.

So wealthy, white Memphis, at the beginning of the 1900s, found all of this unpleasant. So they raised money – $33,000 – not to rebuild that newspaper office, or build a police force that would properly protect all of its citizens, but to make a monument to a man who they thought best represented the Memphis they had lost. A man who had risen from nothing, a blacksmith’s boy, who became a millionaire, and then believed so strongly in the Confederate cause that he enlisted as a private, and went on to prove himself perhaps the most brilliant military man born on American soil, even if he didn’t fight for America. Those are facts. That’s a true story. And they like what this story said about the American dream, even if it wasn’t technically American, even if Forrest’s million was made by buying and selling human beings, and selling cotton raised and picked and cleaned and packed by enslaved human beings, even if the cause for which he employed that military genius was to ensure that men like him could rise up from nothing and make a million dollars buying and selling human beings and stealing their lives and their labor.

In 1905, they held a parade at the unveiling of the new statue and made speeches to honor the northward-facing General. They said nothing of slavery. They said much about heritage and honor and chivalry. They said nothing of how Nathan Bedford Forrest had been the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, nothing of the terror it had wrought. Nothing of the assassinations or the lynchings. Nothing how it sought to undermine and overthrow the nation’s political order, the nation that they celebrated there in Memphis in 1905, when they played the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” right alongside Dixie. They might not have mentioned any of it but they knew it, knew about Forrest and the Klan. They certainly had read “The Klansman” – it was flying off the shelves that year – a novel about heroic men hidden beneath bedsheets out to save white virtue from black barbarians. It was a historical romance – that’s how it billed itself – that looked back longingly to a time not long before when people were still chivalrous, who would stand up against barbarism and miscegenation and instability, and stand up for order, private property.

Who better to represent what they had lost than Nathan Bedford Forrest? They talked about his heroism in battle, though they didn’t talk about the Battle of Fort Pillow, where Forrest ordered the massacre of hundreds of American troops attempting to surrender, most of them former slaves. They talked about his faith instead, his strapping build, and about their own hopes, that future Memphians would gaze upon Nathan Bedford Forrest and be inspired. They even raised some extra cash for a skating rink so that the white children of Memphis could play nearby, in the shadow of this great man, and learn from his shining example, though the bronze wouldn’t shine for long, would brown and green as the symbol of all that was good was exposed to the light of the sun and washed by the rain.

There is debate – there is always debate – about what the Klan meant when Forrest was its Wizard, about his intentions at Fort Pillow. They say Forrest repented his sins and his crimes in his deathbed. Should that be on the plaque? Should it note his regret? I say no. May it have ruined him. May it have corroded him, like rain on bronze. May it have choked him like smoke from the crosses in homes and churches, burned by men who revered him decades and decades later. Revered him, at least in part, because some influential Memphians decided they needed to revere him in this way, in that park, in 1905.

So the plaque should be big, but it can’t be big enough to say all that. Maybe it should just say – maybe they should all say, the many, many thousands of Confederate memorials and monuments and markers, that the men who fought and died for the CSA, whatever their personal reasons, whatever was in their hearts, did so on behalf of a government formed for the express purpose of ensuring that men and women and children could be bought and sold and destroyed at will. Maybe that should be enough.

But I want people to know about those Memphians in 1905 who wanted people to remember Forrest and why, who wanted a symbol to hold up and revere, to stand for what they valued most. I want people to know that that statue stood in downtown Memphis for 110 years, and to remember that memorials aren’t memories. They have motives. They are historical; they are not history itself. I want them to know why it was moved, that in 2015, after Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, and Ethel Lance, and Susie Jackson, and Cynthia Hurd, and Myra Thompson, and Daniel Simmons Sr., and a Depayne Middleton-Doctor, were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. There were people in Memphis who were done with symbols and ready to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest for good.

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Memory Palace

I’ve often wondered if my poor memory is just a narrative I’ve told myself about something I’ve never committed much effort to improving. For the past eight weeks, I’ve been in a class that is notorious for its demand on exhaustive memorization, and it presented me with a opportunity: why not try something different than the standard flash cards and repetition?

I think I first heard about memory palaces in BBC’s Sherlock. The name makes it sound silly and, at the time, I didn’t take it very seriously, chalking it up to a quirk of the fictional character. But the idea returned to me while preparing for this class, and after watching a few instructional youtube videos, I decided to give it a try. Would using a memory palace be easier and more successful than simple rote memorization at retaining random sets of information?

The class was divided into four units. We were tested daily on all of the numbers we had received so far, culminating in the overall unit test. When we started a new unit, some previous numbers carried over, but some did not. New sets were added as well.

I “set” each unit in a place I was very familiar with. Each group of numbers represented something I was “looking” at, in my mind’s eye, in that space. Recalling the numbers meant moving through the space in my imagination and systematically focusing on each object which represented a set of numbers. Here is an example:

Three hawks circle overhead. The oldest one is the bully hawk. He comes to steal food from the critters on the deck during certain hours of the afternoon. His brothers have to scout the place out in the morning before animal control tries to capture them all.

Weird, right? But it stuck out in my memory. Even when I couldn’t remember the particular numbers attached to these ideas, I always remembered the images themselves: hawks, bully, critters, deck, animal control. The rest was just details.

This method did demand effort. Thinking up with ways to apply numbers to an imaginary physical object took a surprising amount of creativity. In fact, after we got each new set of numbers, my classmates would usually go to lunch while I stayed behind for a while. I needed quiet to concentrate, scribbling down a nonsense story to tie the numbers together. This was probably the hardest part of the whole process, but it paid off: once I had some context in my head which united seemingly random data, it stuck. After returning from lunch, I found that I remembered a lot of it even without a committed effort to studying. I filled in the blanks for a few hours and left each day with a clear picture in my head.

For the first two weeks, that was all well and good. One unit, one location. When we started the second unit, though, I had a decision to make: do I put everything all in the same place, or do I separate each unit by location? Each choice, I think, had its own benefits and limitations. I ended up going with the latter and put the new unit in a new place.

I think the memory palace method would be extremely useful for someone who is trying to memorize something that will always be in the same order: the digits in pi or a chapter of a book, like in the video above. The route through the memory location will always be the same. When I was able to systematically move through the space I had imagined, my recall was very good. It became much more challenging when I had to jump from object to object out of order as we dropped and gained numbers for each new unit. This would be like asking someone for the eighteenth digit of pi, or the fourth word in the ninth sentence of a particular chapter of a book. It’s in their brain somewhere, but it might take them a minute to maneuver around mentally to where they can retrieve that information.

Ultimately, with this method, I wanted to know three things:

  1. Would it result in a good grade?
  2. Would it require less effort to memorize and recall than rote memorization?
  3. How much of the information would I retain after two months?

On the first point, I never scored below a 98% on any test, and almost all of those errors were the result of my complacency! I was getting so confident that I was making stupid mistakes!

Second, it took some effort in creating the context, but once I had it, I had it. The hardest part was reorganizing everything in my head for each new unit, as only some known numbers were carried over to the next. More importantly, though everyone performed very well on all of the tests, I experienced substantially less stress than my classmates. As much as I would like to chalk that up to my personality, that would be really, really dishonest; everything stresses me out. I went to optional night study only once, and all it did was remind me that I did, in fact, remember everything.

Third, I can easily recite the stories for each set of numbers, even from the very beginning. I can describe each object in each location without much effort. The images really stand out. Retaining all of the details, though, requires some regular refreshing. Many of the particulars fade with time. If I had reviewed everything everyday, even for a few minutes, I think I could remember an enormous amount of information indefinitely. I feel confident about that. (The same could probably be said for other memorization techniques, though.)

In fact, this whole experiment made me feel much more positively about my memory as a whole. I could have struggled with this class but I didn’t. Finding a better method made a huge difference.

(An unexpected, possibly coincidental, side effect of cramming so much into my memory at once – or maybe because of inventing so much imagery – for the first few weeks, I had nightmares almost every night. It made me feel more curiosity than fear, but it was definitely strange.)

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