When the Blu-Ray of Inception hit shelves almost two weeks ago, nerds and cinephiles alike either bought a copy for themselves or made sure their loved ones knew what fits best in this year’s stocking. I dug the movie a lot, but as original as its execution was, the themes of Inception are pretty familiar to readers of Amnesia, a 1992 novel by Canadian author Douglas Cooper.
The movie takes great big chunks of mnemonic theory and appropriates them as its own. To wit, the idea that reality itself is constructed of memories, and these memories are stored in 0ur minds in all different ways. But they have to be cataloged to remain coherent, and the best way to catalog them is to build them as a city. When Cobb (DiCaprio) first approaches his old mentor Miles (Michael Caine) and asks for a hot new “architect”, Miles directs him to Ariadne (Ellen Paige.)
I won’t recap the plot of the movie. Chances are, if you like movies, you’ve probably already seen it. But watching it upon release I couldn’t shake the feeling that the “Architect of Memories” was already a concept in my mind. So I dug up an old copy of Amnesia, and re-read it in a hurry. For those of you who want a quick compare and contrast, please see below. The narrator is discussing the importance of architecture, and tells the story of the Classical orator Simonides:
Simonides derived the first theses concerning the artificial memory: The architectural model, which became central to the theory of rhetoric in the Greek and Roman worlds…. He begun by memorizing a sequence of rooms: The chambers of his own house. Beginning with the bedroom, he mentally placed a piece of his speech in each chamber. He then closed his eyes and strolled through the rooms in his mind, casually picking up pieces of his subject amtter as he went, and found that he could easily recall every detail.
The opening remarks were placed in the bedroom, he remembered this part by imagining a large crack in the bedroom ceiling and a nasty bloodstain on the carpet below. He then walked into the mental hall, where he found the next portion of his speech sitting on a chair outside the bedroom door….In this way, he furnished the mental house with the necessary facts to be remembered.
…He found himself walking, out into the street, and into his neighbor’s house, and then into the house next door to that. to recall the entire speech, Simonides was forced to build, in his mind, the entire city…. In the course of his legendary speech, he mentally visited every room in every house of his grand and mournful city.
And this, friends, is not only where classical concepts of memory meet architecture, but it’s where Nolan cribbed Inception‘s biggest ideas. If you’re curious about the rest of this weird, elliptical book, you can find it used on Amazon here.