The Invention of Memory

Once, in Thessaly, there was a poet called Simonides. He was commissioned to appear at a banquet, given by a man called Scopas, and recite a lyric in praise of his host. Poets have strange vagaries, and in his lyric Simonides incorporated verses in praise of Castor and Pollux, the Heavenly Twins. Scopas was sulky, and said he would pay only half the fee: ‘As for the rest, get it from the Twins.’

A little later, a servant came into the hall. He whispered to Simonides; there were two young men outside, asking for him by name.

He rose and left the banqueting hall. He looked around for the two young men, but he could see no one.

As he turned back, to go and finish his dinner, he heard a terrible noise, of stone splitting and crumbling. He heard the cries of the dying, as the roof of the hall collapsed. Of all the diners, he was the only one left alive.

The bodies were so broken and disfigured that the relatives of the dead could not identify them. But Simonides was a remarkable man. Whatever he saw was imprinted on his mind. He led each of the relatives through the ruins; and pointing to the crushed remains, he said, there is your man. In linking the dead to their names, he worked from the seating plan in his head.

It is Cicero who tells us this story. He tells us how, on that day, Simonides invented the art of memory. He remembered the names, the faces, some sour and bloated, some blithe, some bored. He remembered exactly where everyone was sitting, at the moment the roof fell in.

***

from ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel

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