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Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

[ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]

Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

So — church collapses?


As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism


The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. 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, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…


So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.


I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…


And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.

12 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides”

  1. Emlyn Cameron Says:

    Father, there was also a quote from a A Study In Scarlet, the first of the Holmes novels, in which Holmes likens his memory and mind to a well kept attic:

    I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

    Part 1, chap. 2

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Emlyn:


    Great to be talking with you here! And what a great quote that is!
    Here are four useful quotes for you on the art of memory:

    from Rhetorica ad Herennium, attrib Cicero
    from Mary Carruthers, Book of Memory
    from Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

    from Cicero, De Oratore

  3. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.”
    I’m reminded of two inscriptions on my own brain-attic.
    The first is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Intellect”, w/ my emphasis:
    “Each mind has its own method. A true man never acquires after college rules. What you have aggregated in a natural manner surprises and delights when it is produced. For we cannot oversee each other’s secret. And hence the differences between men in natural endowment are insignificant in comparison with their common wealth. Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the savant. The walls of rude minds are scrawled all over with facts, with thoughts. They shall one day bring a lantern and read the inscriptions….
    “We are all wise. The difference between persons is not in wisdom but in art. I knew, in an academical club, a person who always deferred to me; who, seeing my whim for writing, fancied that my experiences had somewhat superior; whilst I saw that his experiences were as good as mine. Give them to me and I would make the same use of them. He held the old; he holds the new; I had the habit of tacking together the old and the new which he did not use to exercise. This may hold in the great examples. Perhaps if we should meet Shakspeare we should not be conscious of any steep inferiority; no, but of a great equality,—only that he possessed a strange skill of using, of classifying, his facts, which we lacked. For notwithstanding our utter incapacity to produce anything like Hamlet and Othello, see the perfect reception this wit and immense knowledge of life and liquid eloquence find in us all.”
    The second is from the poet Auden in his essay “Making, Knowing and Judging”:

    “No, what prevents the young poet from academic study is not conceited ingratitude but a law of mental growth….At present he makes little distinction between a book, a country walk and a kiss.  All are equally experiences to store away in his memory.  Could he look into a memory, the literary historian would find many members of that species which he calls books, but they are curiously changed from the books he finds in his library.  The dates are all different.  In Memoriam is written before The Dunciad, the thirteenth century comes after the sixteenth.  He always thought Robert Burton wrote a big book about melancholy.  Apparently he only wrote ten pages.  He is accustomed to the notion that a book can only be written once.  Here some are continually rewritten.  In his library books are related to each other in an orderly way by genre or subject.  Here the commonest principle of association seems to be by age groups.  Piers Ploughman III is going about with Kierkegaard’s Journals, Piers Ploughman IV with The Making of the English Landscape.  Most puzzling of all, instead of only associating with members of their own kind, in this extraordinary democracy every species of being knows every other and the closest friend of a book is rarely another book.  Gulliver’s Travels walks arm in arm with a love affair, a canto of Il Paradiso sits with a singularly good dinner, War and Peace never leaves the side of a penniless Christmas in a foreign city, the tenth The Winter’s Tale exchanges greetings with the first complete recording of La Favorita….
    “Yet this is the world out of which poems are made.  In a better and more sensible poem than ‘The Scholars,’ Yeats describes it as a ‘rag and bone shop.’  Let me use the less drab but no less anarchic image of a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.”
    On a side note: isn’t it cliche by now that all killers who are psychopaths, especially the serial killers, are extremely predictable, once you learn the contours of their “memory palaces” via the manifestation of those ordered hallways?  Maybe this only holds true for a) those who have actually been caught, and b) those fictional creations that populate popular media.  However, it has always seemed to me that even the non-psychopathic killers, serial thieves, criminals in general suffer from a restricted but inescapable memory palace, or a very constrained worldview.

  4. Madhu Says:

    I liked that Holmes quote so much that I used it in the following blog comment discussion:

  5. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Addendum:  The general thrust of Auden’s argument, not clearly expressed in the snippet above, is that a budding poet has no way of knowing beforehand which experiences will become of use later.  Auden’s prescription for limitation is founded upon aesthetics:  each poet has a personal liking, and the facts he collects for his Mad Hatter’s Party will be collected because they are facts which please him.  I say, “prescription,” but in truth Auden suggests that it is a natural occurrence, not quite a guiding principle; the budding poet has little say over the matter.
    Auden also notes, in a later essay, the fact that contemporary humans have a tendency to believe that everything that can be known must become known, or, that is,

    “What makes it impossible for us to condemn [Iago] self-righteously is that, in our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited.  The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb the other.”
    He suggests that this is an unfortunate characteristic.  We might ponder whether this notion is related to the issue of indiscriminate acquisition of memories, experiences, and so forth.       


  6. zen Says:

    Welcome Emlyn, son of Charles!

  7. Duncan Kinder Says:

    On a distant galaxy, long ago, I hung out on a mailing list officially devoted to Milton but actually concerned more generally with early modern intellectual history.  Artificial memory was one topic of discussion on it.  ( Note that Milton composed Paradise Lost while blind – a feat that necessarily demanded great memory ). Anyhow, I then asked whether artificial memory had been used for espionage – no need to transport incriminating documents.  ( E.g., by Ricci’s Jesuit colleagues in England. )   No one knew – although someone noted that Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” involved a Mr. Memory.) The best discussion of artificial memory is Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything   http://www.amazon.com/Moonwalking-Einstein-Science-Remembering-Everything/dp/0143120530 As for use in espionage – with all the high tech electronic surveillance going on nowadays – artificial memory would be one way to fly under the radar.

  8. Emlyn Cameron Says:

    I thank you for the courteous welcome, Zen, filler of tea-cups, and I am happy that the attic quote has sparked such interest.

  9. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Emlyn, that attic passage is a very important one.  It describes a very popular notion of memory.  It’s a bit like a computer’s RAM, assuming we can’t add to it.

  10. Madhu Says:

    @ Bryan Alexander – funny how interpretations of passages differ. I took from it the importance of clear thinking which I am not relating to volume but quality of content.

  11. Emlyn Cameron Says:

    @Bryan Alexander – Indeed. In fact the proposition of finite memory comes up often in my home, with mother routinely lamenting the quantity of codes and sequences required to retain access to all the avenues we straddle in our technological age and fearing that they have started to replace various more enjoyable recollections in an analytical anschluss.

  12. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Welcome, Emlyn!   
    @Madhu, I took the same thing from the quote—clarity (with perhaps a little order?) of thinking. Volume probably depends more on relevance and emotional connection to the memory(s) than anything else—-and will vary.
    We were discussing the oral traditions and the relevance of opera the other night at family dinner. The Pentateuch (and much of the Old Testament?) were passed down orally before being committed to paper. The genealogies alone would challenge most of us—and perhaps the point was relevance and context and connection? While the writers of opera probably weren’t thinking along these lines, the presentation of a story to music and a tune make remembering easier—consider how many songs lyrics you’ve memorized without trying, and did the tune make a difference. Polanyi connected memory to articulation, so maybe that is a key.
    Just a thought…and apologies for “being away.” I’ve a few posts in preparation, but precious little time to complete.

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