In classical rhetoric, images and text were mapped onto virtual places to aid the memory of orators. Memory was enormously important to orators because they were expected to deliver long speeches with total accuracy. In fact, memory was of such value that there developed an “art of memory” designed to strengthen the natural memory. Frances Yates explains that this artificial memory depended upon the recollection of images:

The artificial memory is established from places and images . . . A locus is a place easily grasped by the memory, such as a house, an intercolumnar space, a corner, an arch, or the like. Images are forms, marks or simulacra of what we wish to remember. For instance if we wish to recall the genus of a horse, of a lion, of an eagle, we must place their images on definite loci. (6)

Artificial memory was a kind of “inner writing” the orator reviewed while presenting a speech, observing the places and their contents, the images, and recovering the memories for things (the subject matter) that those images represented. The orator used a series of places (the topoi of classical rhetoric in which one “found” arguments, known as inventio) in which he placed one of many sets of images, depending upon the speech he was to remember.” . . . the loci remain in the memory and can be used again by placing another set of images for another set of material” (7). These images were to be easily memorized. The anonymous author of the Ad Herennium, a classical rhetoric, discusses which types of images the orator should use in order to best remember them.

. . . ordinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and the novel stay longer in the mind. . . . We ought, then, to set up images that are not many or vague but active; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we ornament some of them, as with crowns or purple cloaks, so that the similitude may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint so that its form is more striking, or by assigning certain comic effects to our images, for that, too, will ensure our remembrance of them more readily. The things we easily remember when they are real we likewise remember without difficulty when they are figments. (9-10)

Yates adds: “Our author has clearly got hold of the idea of helping memory by arousing emotional affects through these striking and unusual images, of human figures wearing crowns or purple cloaks, bloodstained or smeared with paint, of human figures dramatically engaged in some activity – doing something” (10). The classical rhetoric instructor did not dictate these images to the students; rather the student was encouraged to form his own images so as to find those that most resonated with his own emotions. The student accompanied the images of human figures with accessories in order to remind him of the topic of his speech. The author of ad Herennium provides an example of one such memory image, used by a defense lawyer to remember the details of a poisoning case.

We shall imagine the man in question as lying ill in bed, if we know him personally. If we do not know him, we shall yet take some one to be our invalid, but not a man of the lowest class, so that he may come to mind at once. And we shall place the defendant at the bedside, holding in his right hand a cup, in his left, tablets, on the fourth finger, a ram’s testicles. In this way we can have the memory of the man who was poisoned, the witnesses, and the inheritance.

Yates adds:

The cup would remind of the poisoning, the tablets, of the will or inheritance, and the testicles of the ram through verbal similarity with testes – of the witnesses. (11)

This image activates the memory of the orator through metonymy (the tablets for the will) and association (the ram’s testicles for the testes, or witnesses). As a method for remembering information, the artificial memory of classical rhetoric prefigures a method of writing in virtual worlds. In a simulated environment, we have the capacity to externalize our memory in a machine; striking images which guide the reader through a web of interconnected spaces may produce spoken or written text. The text is related to the images through metonymy and association. Imagine the memory image described above as a “mapped” image in a virtual (or real) space. When you see the tablets you hear the text of the will; when you see the ram’s testicles, you hear the text of the witnesses’ stories.

More resources

“The Art of Memory” by Frances Amelia Yates Penguin Books 1969


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