We moderns who have no memories at all…
Kevin Trudeau is in prison these days. Two separate judges have found him guilty of criminal contempt for refusing to reveal where he has hidden the profits of his commercial empire in order not to pay the $38 million he owes to the US Federal Government for making false claims concerning one of his books (The Weight-Loss Cure ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About).
In 2010, Trudeau left a Federal court looking like Al Capone and, like Capone, they nailed him because he couldn’t account for the money he spent. Cited in a judgment handed down last September were
two recent $180 Vidal Sassoon haircuts; a $900 cigar bill; $1,000 in high-end meats; a $900 liquor spree, and an $800 grocery bill from Whole Foods.Perhaps he just forgot that he was supposed to be poor.
It wasn’t Mega Memory that got Trudeau into trouble, although the Federal Trade Commission at one point tried to stop him from claiming that it would enable people to develop a photographic memory (later versions of the programme still made the claim, but were careful to spell out that ‘individual results may vary’). It was Mega Memory, however, that made Trudeau famous. The programme made its appearance in the early nineties, as an audiocassette course read by the author and sold under the imprints of Simon & Schuster, William Morrow, HarperCollins. I first saw the informercials on New Zealand television in the late nineties. For a while, they seemed to be everywhere.
One claim that Trudeau seemed particularly fond of was this: ‘If you have a great memory, people think you’re smart.’ Apparently someone had said this to him to explain why they had taken the trouble of learning his system. People will think you’re smart. In late industrial societies aspiring to the title of post-industrial, it’s a sentiment that taps into a deep well of anxieties. Giving the appearance of intelligence can make the difference between belonging or not belonging in a world that supposedly trades in information and knowledge, as opposed to labour.
Yet Mega Memory is ancient in its design. Building on the work carried out by Michael Van Masters, whom he met in the early eighties when he was a car salesman, Trudeau steers clear of the prescriptions of most modern memory systems (including the father of them all, Bruno Furst’s), with their reliance on patterns of association, and opts instead for an architecture of vivid imaginings which has its distant origins in the practice of Latin rhetoricians.
Unlike the anonymous author of the first century BC textbook Ad Herennium, Trudeau doesn’t quite instruct his students to build vast and elaborate memory palaces in their heads, and fill them with symbols for ideas and symbols words, but the basic prescriptions are the same. Consider for instance Mega Memory’s section on pegging, which relies on a very rudimentary series of universal memory places based on the human body (toe, knee, thigh muscle, rear end, love handles, shoulders, collarbone, face, top of the head). Faced with the task of memorising a shopping list for your grocery, as in the example used in the tapes, you will attach each item to a different locus (in the Latin parlance) or peg (in Trudeau’s), taking care to do it in as vivid and memorable a way possible. You won’t just smear bacon on your buttocks, then, but nail it or staple it to them. You won’t imagine that you are wearing a hat made of bananas – it would be too trite an image – but that a giant banana is balanced on the top of your head, always on the point of tipping over.
These are in fact a diluted, impoverished version of the imagines agentes that the students of rhetoric were taught to practice in Ad Herennium if they wished to master the art of memory. However the key difference is that the modern version lacks the broader philosophical context of the original. For the author of Ad Herennium, and more explicitly for Cicero, memory was a faculty inextricably linked to imagination and thought. In the Platonic view (to which Cicero subscribed), it was the means of apprehending the most fundamental human truths, which exist in the mind innately but are ‘forgotten’ as a result of our exposure to the messy world of sensory experience. These ideas survived in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance both in Neo-Platonic philosophy and through the teachings of St Augustine and of the theologians responsible for the inclusion of memory among the cardinal virtues.
For the Latin orator, declaiming a speech without referring to written notes wasn’t just a point of pride, or an aid to the quality of the performance. It signified that the speech had a greater truth content because it was remembered. The great English scholar of the ancient art of memory, Frances Yates, constantly marvelled at the lengths its practitioners went to; at their single-minded devotion to what could clearly not be described as mere mnemotechnics, but only as an art in the fuller sense of the word. Her book also presents a gallery of some of the most famous practitioners of this art. People who were said to be able to recall lists of thousands of names – like Cyrus, who knew the names of every soldier in his army – or who, like Metrodorus of Scepsis, could (as reported by Pliny) ‘repeat what he heard in the very same words’. People in respect of whom we are forced to smile, thinking of how much lower we set our sights: to learn a memory system so that we can remember a list of groceries, or the names of the people we’re introduced to at a party or in a business meeting; to improve our memory not in order to be closer to the truth, but so that ‘people will think we’re smart’.
By a delicious twist of irony, it took but one night at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago for Trudeau to suddenly remember the existence of a Swiss bank account in his name. The man who had spent a decade touting his superior powers of memory on television is now reduced to the role of the crook who can’t remember where he stashed the money. It’s a fitting end for Mega Memory, which took an ancient, culture-sustaining set of prescriptions – we may compare them to the tracing of one’s whakapapa – and reduced them to little more than party tricks. As if even the most perfect memory, once emptied of its validation and meaning, couldn’t but revert to amnesia.