The MYSTS of Antiquity

Charles Cameron

First posted on Magister-L, 23 April 1996

A little historical perspective...

To my mind, present day computer games of the MYST class are simply the most recent examples of a long tradition of works designed for the mind's eye -- the sharpest "virtual reality" of them all...


I: Virtual Spaces

There's the Art of Memory, for instance. This was the name given in Classical and Renaissance times to a type of guided visualization which allowed orators and preachers to remember long and complex speeches and sermons -- by "placing" the various themes to be discussed on the features of a remembered architecture.

One important proponent of the Art was Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit to visit China: his use of the art made a huge impression on the Confucian scholars of his day...

Ricci suggested that there were three main options for such memory locations. First, they could be drawn from reality-- that is, from buildings that one had been in or from objects that one had seen with one's own eyes and recalled in one's memory. Second, they could be totally fictive, products of the imagination conjured up in any shape or size. Or third, they could be half real and half fictive, as in the case of a building one knew well and through the back wall of which one broke an imaginary door as a shortcut to new spaces, or in the middle of which one created a mental staircase that would lead up to higher floors that had not existed before.

Jonathan D. Spence. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Penguin Books, 1984, 1-2.

The Art of Memory was invented by the poet Simonides, and is described in some detail by the Renaissance historian Frances Yates in her book of that name. Yates also puts forward the intriguing hypothesis -- I believe in her book Theatre of the World -- that the physical theatres of Shakespeare's time were essentially attempts to reproduce outwardly the "theatres of memory" of the Art...
The more we find about the psychology of the mind, the more the mnemonic techniques once taught as an integral part of rhetoric make sense... From Simonides to Leibnitz there were many famous practitioners of the art of memory. Cicero, Descartes, Lull, Bruno, and Leibnitz were familiar with the techniques. The practitioners of mnemonics, especially Bruno and Leibnitz, had high hopes for a universal language based on spatial, visual systems. We may realize their hopes through the displays of our computers...

Jeff Nickerson. "The Mind's Eye and the CRT Terminal: Towards a Diagrammatic Interface." Visible Language 19 (Spring 1985), 390.

The Art of Memory, then, has a long and illustrious history... which leads to the development of modern mnemonic techniques, but also I believe, to the creation of "virtual worlds" as we are coming to know and play them...


II: Fantasies and Games

Another strand that leads into the present day fantasy world of our games comes via the alchemists.

I've already suggested on this list that Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens (1617) is a precursor to our Glass Bead Games -- it consists of a series of units comprised of an emblematic engraving accompanied by a Latin epigram, a three-part musical canon, and commentary.

But in addition to their enormous contributions to symbolic and emblematic thinking, the alchemists also produced stories, and today I ran across a quote from one of them which tied so neatly into our recent chess thread that I thought I should reproduce it here:

Meantime, the king and queen, for recreation's sake, began to play together. It looked not unlike chesse, only it had other laws, for it was the vertues and vices one against another, where it might be ingeniously discovered with what plots the vices lay in wait for the vertues, and how to re-encounter them again. This was so properly and artificially performed that it were to be wished that we had the like game too.
This quote comes from one of the most marvelous books in the world -- the Chymical Marriage of Johann Valentin Andreae, first published in 1616, translated into English by Ezechiel Foxcroft in 1690.

The book appeared hot on the heels of the two "Rosicrucian Manifestos" -- the Fama and the Confessio, which had set Europe astir by suggesting there was a secret society of wise men who were working towards utopian ends by means of the newly discovered sciences -- and who knows what else by way of occult understandings and hidden knowledges. The manifestos not only proclaimed the existence of this society, they also invited any interested parties to make themselves known and join it -- and some very bright people, including Descartes, tried to contact them... In vain: the Brotherhood was so secret as to be invisible...

Jung thought very highly of the book, writing in his Mysterium Coniunctionis that it was "so rich in content that I could touch on it only lightly here", and John Warwick Montgomery, whose two volume study, Cross and Crucible, contains a facsimile of the beautiful old Foxcroft version, compares it to the work of Tolkien: and were he writing today, I have no doubt he would compare it with MYST.

The Chymical Marriage is an astounding fantasy, with its invitation to a royal marriage, quest, dreams, occult symbols, horrendous pit, weighing of mortals, garden, tower, clock, mathematical tricks, enigmas, chronogram -- not to mention its "unexpressibly curious Altar" on which are displayed a book, taper, celestial sphere, watch which strikes the hour, fountain filled with blood, skull and serpent...

*

But what interests me most at this point is the "virgin's trick" (described in Foxcroft p 107, Montgomery pp 398-99), by means of which at a certain point in the story two groups of "virgins" and visiting "lords" are assembled after supper, and the virgins begin to tease the lords with the idea that they will sleep with them. At first the lords treat this as a jest:

But our Virgin could not leave tormenting us, and therefore began again, My Lords, how if we should permit Fourtune to decide which of us must lie together to Night?
This more than generous offer could not be dismissed, and they all form a circle, and agree that the seventh person around the circle from the virgin Alchimia shall sleep with the seventh person round the circle counting on from themselves, "whether it be a Virgin, or man", and so forth... but while the "lords" suspect no trickery, the "virgins" have in fact seen to it that they are standing in such an order that they all pair off with each other, and the men are left at the end feeling "very handsomely couzened".

It's a delightful piece of mathematical chicanery which permits this effect, and eerily reminiscent of the way in which puzzles figure into the plots of contemporary games...

*

Enigmas, paradoxes, and mathematical teasers in a context of high fantasy? Johann Valentin Andreae's Chymical Wedding -- published in Strasbourg seven years before the First Folio of Shakespeare -- has them all...


With appreciation to the unknown authors at the Workshop for the Invention and Research of Electronic Discourse at the University of Florida where I ran across the two quotes on the Art of Memory.


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