According to Cicero, the Ars Memoria, or Art of Memory was invented by the poet Simonides of Ceos. He had been invited to chant a lyric poem in honour of his host, a Thessalanian nobleman named Scopas, at a banquet. Poets were paid entertainers in those days, and Simonides had struck a deal with Scopas, but the when the poem was performed, it included a long passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas told the poet he would only pay him half of the agreed amount, and that he must get the rest from the twin gods to whom he had devoted some of his poem.
A little later, a message was brought to the poet that two young men wished to see him and were waiting outside. He went out, but could find no one. While he was outside, the roof of the banqueting hall collapsed, crushing Scopas and all the guests. The bodies were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial had difficulty identifying them. But Simonides remembered the particular places at which they had been sitting at the table, and so could name the dead.
The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had paid Simonides for their share in the panegyric by saving his life, and more than made up for the loss of Scopas’ fee with the gift of the Art of Memory. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, Simonides realised that orderly arrangement is essential for orderly memory. He concluded that whoever wished to train the memory must imagine places, form mental images of whatever they wished to remember and store these images in their places. On recalling the places, the images would also spring to mind, and these images would denote whatever they wished to remember, much as one might use a wax writing tablet and the letters inscribed on the wax.
The Romans, inscribing their words on writing tablets, were able to erase the words and reuse the tablet by the simple expedient of heating. Not so the memory, which, if it persists, distorts and changes with time. Perhaps the memory is more like a town than a wax tablet, for buildings can be erected, redecorated or torn down, trees can grow, people and animals can leave, arrive, be born or die. In the course of a lifetime, the whole place may come to be unrecognisable, even a ruin; but it can never turn into a tabula rasa.
I find it particularly telling that the invention of the Art of Memory should involve the divine twins Castor and Pollux, because twinning, the existence of a living analogue, is at the core of what it means to remember. My father had a twin brother Tom, and such was the resemblance between Tom and my mother that for a while Lesley was called ‘Tommy’. She was nine years younger than her twin second cousins Jack and Tom. The only early family photograph that I have which shows both my parents dates from the first part of the 1930s. My mother sits on the left, between the dogs.
On the right, above Dorothy, my father squats down next to his mother, May. Tom is not in the picture. I do not know where it was taken, though I suspect that it may be outside some outbuilding on the Cope family farm, Rudolf’s Hoek. Here my grandfather Carol Cope*, the bearded gentleman in the centre, if my surmise is correct, had lived since he was an infant in the 1870s, with intervals during the so-called Bambata Rebellion, the Anglo-Boer War and the Great War, when he served in the Natal Carbineers, rising to the rank of Captain. Like him, I am a father of twins, so I have come to regard myself, in the succession of generations, as the filling in a twin sandwich.
Castor and Pollux are of course not the only twins in mythology, although by inhabiting the constellations which are before our eyes every night, as though they are ‘mental images’ which have found a special place in the Ars Memoria of the sky, they have also lodged in our memories. Twins abound in mythology and symbology, and Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols mentions the Vedic Asvins Mitra and Varuna, Liber and Libera, Romulus and Remus, Isis and Osiris, Apollo and Artemis, Amphion and Zethus, Arion and Orion. Of these, I note that the American spell-check software I use recognises Romulus (but not Remus), Isis, Apollo, Artemis and Orion.
Further, Cirlot tells us, they are all semi-divine beings of benign nature, born of a mortal mother and a divine father. They often have different natures – one twin may be fierce, the other peaceful. In representations of the sacrifice of Mithras, the figures of Cautes and Cautopates are often shown, one with a burning torch pointing upwards, the other with an extinguished torch pointing down. They are variously interpreted as standing for life and death, the presence or absence of the sun, and memory and oblivion.
Jack and Tom were the fourth and fifth sons to Carol and May, who were hoping for a girl, as their first child and only daughter, Nancy, had died at the age of four. They were non-identical twins, and had very different temperaments. Tom favoured practical skills and excelled at woodwork. Jack was intellectual, a thinker. The sixth and last child, Dave, born exactly a year later, merged into their double entity, and they became an inseparable trio, ranging over the farm and surrounding land, and supporting each other at high school, where they were known as the Cope Gang. They were big, long-limbed, tanned farm boys. After school, Jack became a journalist and Tom stayed behind on the farm. Aged twenty, Jack went to London to work in Fleet Street as a foreign correspondent. Tom was walking on the front hill of the farm one summer’s afternoon that year. A storm came up, and he was struck dead by lightning.
* Not Carol Cope but Percy Cope, his brother, it turns out.