The Subterranean World of Memory: Mira Bartók’s Struggle for Articulation in The Memory Palace

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Genie Nicole Giaimo
Northeastern University

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 After a serious brain injury resulting from a car accident, Mira Bartók, an artist and author of children’s books, had to literally re-work her brain’s cognitive systems. Her 2011 memoir The Memory Palace is a narrative arranged visually and spatially, because the damage that the car accident caused to her brain affected regions implicated in working memory as well as parts of long-term memory: “In an accident like mine, a coup-contrecoup, your brain rings back and forth like a bell inside your skull. As a result, the back and front of the brain can get serious contusions, causing a cascade of problems. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive functioning, problem-solving, emotions, and concentration. This is one part among many that isn’t working” (260). In order to circumvent the damage to her prefrontal cortex—one of the regions heavily involved in planning, abstract reasoning, impulse control, and short-term memory—Bartók arranged her memoir using the method of loci, or mnemonics.[1] She constructs a memory palace with rooms that are full of memories from her life. Conversant with current neuroscience research, she talks about her brain injury, her mother’s schizophrenia, and her feelings of guilt and longing, all within the language of memory studies: “Neuroscientists now suggest that while the core meaning of a long-term memory remains, the memory transforms each time we attempt to retrieve it. In fact, anatomical changes occur in the brain every single time we remember” (19). Bartók identifies and understands the processes of memory consolidation and memory reconsolidation.[2] Her use of a memory palace tries to compensate for the impairment of those cognitive processes that were damaged in the accident, such as memory retention and information consolidation. Bartók bypasses the damaged parts of her working memory, which are usually responsible for retaining and storing new information, by creating a memory palace the acts as the “mnemonic glue” that allows working memory to retain new information (Schacter 96). In a normal brain, new information that has been stored in working memory is likely to become part of long-term memory, which then gets reconsolidated into older memories with every subsequent recall. However, for Bartók’s damaged brain, the process of consolidating new information is impaired. Nevertheless, memory consolidation is especially vital for Bartók because, as she writes in her memoir, her mother is dying and without a functional short-term memory, it is likely that she will forget many of the details of her mother’s final months alive. This dire situation is ameliorated by mnemonics.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 John Eakin explains that there are a number of reasons why a person tells or writes his or her life story, three of which are the following: writing life narrative is a deep and uncontrollable compulsion, we are socialized into telling stories about ourselves at a young age, and telling stories about ourselves plays a vital role in the mind’s shaping of identity (152). There are other biological reasons that we that tell our life narratives: “the body’s story not only serves as the substrate of the identity narratives we tell and write, but provides as well important insight into their function and value as maps of our lives in time. . . . Our bodily existence is the central fact of our mental life” (153). If, as Eakin suggests, our mind and our body are enmeshed at the site of identity, then Bartók is engaged in the rather unusual task—given her brain injury’s effect on her capacity to remember—of preserving memories of her past, especially those of her mother, that her injured brain will otherwise discard. For Bartók, the act of writing memoir calls to the fore her battle to conquer and control her damaged body (her brain), even as her mental life (her mind) deteriorates.[3] Bartók’s neurological damage and her mind-body struggle is frightening; however, writing life narrative is a way for her to assuage the fear of memory loss and to take control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation.[4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 There are two major impetuses for Bartók’s memory-inspired narrative journey—her sudden brain trauma and her schizophrenic mother’s death in 2007—both motivations are significant events that she works hard to connect; visuality is an aid that helps Bartók to formulate and organize her memories. The memoir begins with Bartók receiving a message that her mother is gravely ill and has little time left to live. Over Christmas, Bartók returns to her childhood home in Cleveland to visit her mother, who is now in the hospital. When we first meet Bartók’s mother, Norma, she is dying of cancer. She hasn’t seen her two daughters in over seventeen years. To escape her, Mira/Myra and her sister Natalia/Rachel changed their names, their home addresses, but they still live in constant fear of being “found” by Norma. Yet there is tenderness for her mother that Bartók reveals through her descriptions of Norma’s U-Haul storage unit and her use of excerpts from letters that they have sent to each other over the years. It is as if Bartók and her mother have been living parallel lives that, despite their estrangement, take on eerie similarities, many of which Bartók works diligently to highlight in her memoir. A few of these similarities are vital to understanding the structure of Bartók’s memoir and the emotional task that she is engaged with when she writes about her mother. I will list a number of these similarities here: They are both artists—Mira is a painter, Norma is a musician. They are both researchers—Mira for her work on children’s literature and Norma on botany, ancient languages, and art. They both suffer from cognitive disorders—Mira from a car accident, Norma from mental illness. And they both travel the world and record their experiences—Mira goes to Italy, Israel, and the North Pole, Norma travels all over North America, to Cleveland, Boston, and LA. These similarities, as well as the differences between them, fuel the fire of Bartók’s journey to reclaim possession of her memories, and by extension, her identity. Throughout, the text’s images function like signposts leading her ever-onward in her process of self-exploration.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Bartók’s narrative is structured like a network where memories are linked through associations. A neurological network model is one schematic that explains how memories are organized and connected to one another. As Kurt Danziger notes:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [n]eural networks extend over an area, conceivably a very large area, that they share with other networks. The memory trace is constituted by a certain pattern of activity in the network, and its location is therefore as broad as the network itself. Moreover, the same distributed network is capable of storing different traces in the form of different patterns of activity. (233)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In a network model, the same parts of the brain that process incoming information are also responsible for storing information: “The same units, the same machinery, one might say, will assimilate whatever input reaches the system into its own activity and in doing so will preserve a trace of what has happened in its changed activity” (234). The brain, then, is full of neural networks that information relies on to be encoded as well as stored. Interrelated experiences and information might be triggered by a prominent memory; however, given the distributed quality of the memory network, different patterns of interrelated memories form when new information is experienced or learned.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Mnemonics, or the art of memory, has a long and storied history that reaches back to ancient Greece and Rome; it is a technique first popularized by Simonides of Ceos (2).[5] Greek and Roman orators studied mnemonics because it allowed them to memorize entire speeches “with unfailing accuracy,” not by rote memorization but by systematic arrangement and linkage of information, which made recall easier (Yates 2). Simonides was a Greek poet who was paid for performing odes. On an occasion where he was hired to chant an ode, in honor of the nobleman Scopas of Thessaly, a disaster occurred. The banquet hall where Scopas and his guests were celebrating collapsed; however, Simonides was unharmed because he was called outside by a servant moments before the accident. The bodies of the party-goers were so badly mangled that they could not be identified by their physical features, but amazingly, Simonides was able to identify all of the guests. Using his visual memory, he recreated the hall and the arrangement of the guests seated at the banquet table. His connection of loci (places) with imagines (images) allowed him to discern the arrangement and therefore the identity of over a hundred guests. Simonides gave the partygoers their identities back through the use of mnemonics.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “Part I Order of Things”[6]
In The Memory Palace, Bartók is engaged in a similar project of identity reclamation, of preserving memories from the wreckage of her damaged mind. A memory palace is a theoretical construct that helps the thinker to recall information with precision and ease. Often this linkage is cemented by the user imagining specific loci, or places, and then associating those loci with specific visual and verbal information (3). The loci frequently take the shape of an architectural structure such as a palace, or a hall, with various rooms contained inside the structure (3). Today the art of memory is practiced in a number of different cultural spaces such as in the education system, in the self-help industry, and in the gaming industry.[7]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Mnemonics is also studied in the scientific community. Recently, neuroscientists have discovered that the parts of the brain that light up with activity when regular people are involved in committing information to memory are different than when trained mnemonicists are engaged in memory tasks. In particular, a mnemonicist’s visual cortex is more active than that of a regular person when he or she is engaged in the process of remembering (Foer “The End of Remembering”). For Bartók, mnemonics, and the memory palace in specific, helps her to cope with her brain injury and her growing fear that, given her brain trauma, her memories of her mother’s life and death will remain unrecoverable: “Above my desk are lists of things I can’t remember anymore, the meaning of words I used to know, ideas I’ll forget within an hour or a day . . . memories I’m afraid I’ll forget” (5). To cope with her memory loss, and the threat it poses to her identity, Bartók constructs a memory palace where she can form associational links between memories and images, “My mind was full of so many pictures—with each one I could build a different room, each room could lead me to a memory, each memory to another” (32). Images are like the synapses that bridge related memory neurons: each image is an electrochemical spark that pulses through the gap between two neurons and causes a connection to be born: with the aid of the memory palace, Bartók is more likely to retain short-term memories and process them into long-term memories, because she can connect new information to her active visual and spatial memory. Her use of the method of loci, which engages the visual cortex—a region of the brain that was not injured in her car accident—is an ideal strategy for retaining and recalling her life narrative.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 When Bartók discusses how to practice mnemonics she refers to the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who was renowned for his mnemonic powers and traveled all over the world to teach “scholars how to build an imaginary palace and how to keep their memories safe” (31); however, she says that with the aid of current scientific research on memory she will be an even more talented mnemonicist than Ricci: “Since I know what Ricci didn’t at the time, that memories cannot be fixed, my palace would always be changing. But the foundation would stay the same” (32). For Bartók, the scientific discovery that memories are fluid, unreliable, and biased is liberating because it allows her to re-conceptualize memory using images, which are mutable and flexible, yet still reminiscent of past experiences: “The part of my brain that stores art and all the things I loved to look at and draw is for the most part intact. Perhaps the visual part of my brain can help retrieve the events that are lost” (29). Bartók creates a palace full of photographs, paintings, sculptures, and music. She builds her memories through the senses and connects them explicitly though visuality. Images then act as the connecting mechanism between her memories—the associational hook that makes the recall of information more fluid and reliable.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In part, Bartók solves the dilemma of “arriving back at her own past” through images (30). She works around her brain injury and the damage to her short-term and long-term memory by training her already active occipital lobes to compensate for the shearing of her neural pathways and the misfiring of her synapses (5). She relies on the power of visual imagery for memory recall and uses its sensory power to link memories and recall even more information: “We look at something—a picture, a stone, a bird—and a memory surfaces, then that memory carries us to another, and another. Memory isn’t just mutable, it is associative” (30). As a collector of curiosities, and an obsessive researcher of obscure information—much like her schizophrenic mother—Bartók is ideally suited to use mnemonic’s intensely visual and incredibly associative structure.[8]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 When Bartók uses language to describe her memory palace, she draws from current neurological research on the structures of human memory systems. In short, she creates an analogue to the physiology of memory consolidation and reconsolidation in her textual rendering of the architecture of her memory palace. The rooms in the palace are part of a network that leads to associated memories; however, Bartók constantly rearranges the network by redesigning the rooms to account for new interpretations, recently recalled information, and newly formed memories. Bartók identifies the plasticity of long-term memory, observing, as cognitive neuroscientist Yadin Dudai notes that memories “are prone to change either upon their reactivation in retrieval . . . or even in the absence of such explicit reactivation” (36). In other words, memories, “get the opportunity to be reborn again and again” (36). In the palace, memories have one meaning and then are associated with a completely different meaning—demonstrating the fluidity of memory and the importance of re-contextualizing memory to more fully understand one’s life narrative.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 At the beginning of chapter two, Bartók discusses the first two visual objects that she places in the memory palace: a photograph of her mother Norma before one of her first psychological breakdowns and a painting by Caravaggio of the Medusa (both of these images are included in the handout). Both of these drawings lead Bartók back to one of her earliest memories of her mother’s psychosis: “My sweet beautiful mother merges with Medusa—they meld into one another, pull apart, and come together again, morphing into other restless creatures” (37). Later the same Caravaggio painting of Medusa will reappear in the memory palace, but this time it will speak with her mother’s voice, condemning Bartók’s decision to move to Italy: “In another room I find Caravaggio’s painted shield. Medusa’s eyes glare at me; her serpentine curls hiss: How could you leave me? I sleep on benches, on bridges, on cardboard and leaves. Will I ever let down this burden of guilt?” (165). In these two instances, Bartók blends the Medusa with her mother: both are powerful women who are full of rage and potentially deadly, yet Bartók’s drawing of Medusa is complicated by the drawing of her mother, who is smiling, and placed in juxtaposition to it. Helene Cixous argues that women must write about themselves and other women; they must put themselves “into the text—as into the world and into history—by [their] own movement” (245). Without writing, women are powerless and their identities aren’t fully formed. Cixous considers Medusa a symbol of misunderstood female sexuality and power. She argues that, counter to myth and popular belief, the Medusa is not dangerous: “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing” (255). Bartók’s reconstruction of her childhood memories of her mother’s illness is framed by a wealth of historical information, personal experience, and myth. She struggles with depicting her mother and her mother’s illness, so she settles on a composite image with the dangerous Medusa placed in close proximity to laughing Norma. Bartók’s memoir seems to directly respond to Cixous’ call-to-arms.[9] She writes herself—and her homeless and mentally ill mother—back into existence, after her brain injury, and she does so using a composite language of image and text. Her image-text narrative emulates the structure of neural pathways that connect memories and form an associational network—one image activates one memory and then that memory activates another and then another—visuality, and the subterranean world of Bartók’s memories, then, are the inspiration for her life narrative.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 And so on the handout I have also included a complete drawing of Bartok’s memory palace, which she includes at the end of her memoir. What strikes me about this image is the way that each drawing is situated within the larger structure—it forms a visual narrative that is modular and flexible, rather than linear and temporally fixed. If you look at the image of Norma, smiling, you will see the Medusa placed above her—looming and threatening to bear down on her—Bartók’s complicated relationship with her mother is demonstrated in this visual pairing of images. The Medusa is a creature that one never wants to look at head on (for fear of turning into stone); therefore one can never look at her and live to describe it—in some ways, Norma’s mental illness functions much in the same way; it is a thing that Bartók is unable to look at head-on and fully articulate. So she uses a circuitous means to confront her mother and her mother’s illness. The various drawings that she includes in her narrative and puts together in the concluding image of The Memory Palace are evidence of this strategy.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Notes
[1]. Mnemonics is a cognitive device that allows its user to remember large amounts of information with ease; the technique encourages the linking of visual and spatial information with otherwise unassociated information (Yates 3).
[2]. Memory consolidation is a process that turns short-term memories, or recently learned information/experience, into part of long-term memory, neuroscientist Yadin Dudai suggests that it is “memory stabilization processes at different levels of brain organization” (31). Memory re-consolidation is a process that re-activates long-term memories (via recall) and renders them malleable, or susceptible to change (31). When a person learns or experiences something new, it can re-activate a long-term memory and form new associational links, thus solidifying the new memory trace. Bartók’s brain damage prevents her from integrating new information into long-term memory: her consolidation system does not fully function.
[3]. The mind-body problem has a long history. First identified by René Descartes, but addressed by pre-Aristotelian philosophers, the mind-body problem, in part, asks how “meaning, rationality, and conscious experience are related to a physical world” (Lagerlund 1). As Lagerlund notes, the mind-body problem is actually a set of problems, or a several problems, which include how the mind and the body interact, how the mind and the body can exist apart, yet can also be united in a human being, how the mind experiences the physical world, and sensory perception, and how the material world can be reconciled with the mental and spiritual world (2). While Bartók does not try to solve any of these mind-body problems, she does try to reconcile her own mind-body dilemma, which was brought about by her mental life being impinged upon by bodily (brain) injury, through exploring these various questions. She examines the distinctions between the mind and the brain, and how they are intertwined at the site of memory and identity. In other words, to some extent, consciousness and self-awareness, which are the cornerstones of identity and, consequently, autobiography, are, for Bartók, dependent on the notion of an embodied mind: a mind that is rooted in the physical body and vice versa.
[4]. Her desire to reconcile her mind-body problem yields an interesting architectural aesthetic apparent in the textual and visual descriptions of the structure of the memory palace. She takes inspiration for her design from the physical construction of human memory, as well as the body’s relationship to memory and identity. Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore argue for the importance of the body and identity in architecture; they suggest that memory and experience of an individual in a physical space is crucial to ordering events in the environment: “The personal world of the body is a redoubt, a place to turn toward. If it is suppressed or emptied of meaning and memory in architecture, how can it react effectively to external stimuli? . . . To diminish the importance of the body’s internal values is to diminish our opportunity to make responses that remind us of our personal identity” (49). Bartók brings the tensions between the mind and the body to bear on the architectural design of her memory palace.
[5]. The story of Simonides is the first recorded account of the use of mnemonics. It was included in Cicero’s De oratore, one of the three ancient surviving texts that make detailed reference to the art of memory (Yates 2).The other two texts are the Ad, Herennium libri IV, the oldest surviving book that discusses mnemonics, once attributed to Cicero but now thought to be written by an anonymous author, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, published over a hundred years after Cicero’s De oratore (Yates 2).
[6]. In order to preserve what I consider to be one of the most fascinating visual aspects of The Memory Palace, I am setting up Bartók’s chapter images in a similar way to the configuration of images in her memoir. As I note about her drawings, the images are illuminating details that punctuate the beginning of each chapter; they offer a visual map through Bartók’s memories and embellish her already richly imagistic text. Similarly, I include Bartók’s chapter drawings at the beginning of each paragraph where I focus my analysis on specific images in the hope that the reader can get a clear sense of Bartok’s pairing of visual and textual mapping.
[7]. By gaming industry, I am referring to the memory games that Joshua Foer covered as a journalist and then participated in and wrote about in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Memory games occur on the city, state, national, and international levels. At times Foer likens these memory games to Olympics, but for the mind.
[8]. Joshua Foer—mnemonics researcher and memory games champion—interviewed “mental athletes” who use mnemonics in order to learn and retain large amounts of information for memory games competitions. He found that the more varied visual and intellectual information one has to draw from, the more likely one is to be able to form associations between old and new information, allowing for the recall of new information with more ease (10). Bartók is suited to this task, not only because of the circumstances arising from her brain injury and subsequent memory loss, but also because of her rich visual and intellectual life: these elements allow her to form connections between seemingly disparate information, which, in turn, creates a synthetic “mnemonic glue” that allows her to hold onto her short-term memories.
[9]. Cixous argues that women have, for a long time, functioned within “the discourse of man” and the only way to “explode it, turn it around, and seize it” is for women to “invent for herself a language to get inside of” (257). Given the extraordinary circumstances under which Bartók is writing her memoir and also the unique approach to life writing that she brings to the genre, I argue that Bartók is engaged in the process of re-embodiment: of shaping and preserving her identity, some of which is deeply entwined with her position as a female, and, more specifically, as a daughter.

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