Hannibal Lecter’s Memory PalaceADDPMP012
“Dr. Lecter could overcome his surroundings. He could make it all go away. The beeping of the computer game, the snores and farts, were nothing compared to the hellish screaming he’d known in the violent wards. The seat was no tighter than restraints. As he had done in his cell so many times, Dr. Lecter put his head back, closed his eyes and retired for relief into the quiet of his memory palace, a place that is quite beautiful for the most part.
For this little time, the metal cylinder howling eastward against the wind contains a palace of a thousand rooms. (…)
The foyer is the Norman Chapel in Palermo, severe and beautiful and timeless, with a single reminder of mortality in the skull graven in the floor. Unless he is in a great hurry to retrieve information from the palace, Dr. Lecter often pauses here as he does now, to admire the chapel. Beyond it, far and complex, light and dark, is the vast structure of Dr. Lecter’s making.
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 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.
He has decided to pick up Clarice Starling’s home address while he is in the palace, but he is in no hurry for it, so he stops at the foot of a great staircase where the Riace bronzes stand. These great bronze warriors attributed to Phidias, raised from the seafloor in our own time, are the centerpiece of a frescoed space that could unspool all of Homer and Sophocles.
Dr. Lecter could have the bronze faces speak Meleager if he wished, but today he only wants to look at them.
A thousand rooms, miles of corridors, hundreds of facts attached to each object furnishing each room, a pleasant respite awaiting Dr. Lecter whenever he chooses to retire there.
But this we share with the doctor: In the vaults of our hearts and brains, danger waits. All the chambers are not lovely, light, and high. There are holes in the floor of the mind, like those in a medieval dungeon floor – the stinking oubliettes, named for forgetting, bottle-shaped cells in solid rock with the trapdoor in the top. Nothing escapes from them quietly to ease us. A quake, some betrayal by our safeguards, and sparks of memory fire the noxious gases – things trapped for years fly free, ready to explode in pain and drive us to dangerous behavior…
Fearfully and wonderfully made, we follow as he moves with a swift light stride along the corridor of his own making, through a scent of gardenias, the presence of great sculpture pressing on us, and the light of pictures. His way leads around to the right past a bust of Pliny and up the staircase to the Hall of Addresses, a room lined with statuary and paintings in a fixed order, spaced wide apart and well lit, as Cicero recommends.
Ah… the third alcove from the door on the right is dominated by a painting of St. Francis feeding a moth to a starling. On the floor before the painting is this tableau, life-sized in painted marble:
A parade in Arlington National Cemetery led by Jesus, thirty-three, driving a ‘27 Model-T Ford truck, a ‘tin lizzie,’ with J. Edgar Hoover standing in the truck bed wearing a tutu and waving to and unseen crowd. Marching behind him is Clarice Starling carrying a .308 Enflied rifle at shoulder arms.
Dr. Lecter appears pleased to see Starling. Long ago, he obtained Starling’s home address from the University of Virginia Alumni Association. He stores the address in this tableau, and now, for his own pleasure, he summons the numbers and the name of the street where Starling lives:
Arlington, VA 22308