When Mr. Greene descended into akinetic mutism at the Presbyterian Hospital it was widely admitted that the New York Public Library had lost its most knowledgeable collector. As the months passed and he ceased speaking, eating or even swallowing, it was rumored that a woman, a brain tumor, metal toxins, the loss of a hidden child, had conspired from within to disable the architecture of his mind. No employee at the library was close enough to him to answer definitively, and inquiries at the hospital did not reveal the origin of his chronic vegetative state. With no funeral to concentrate it, sentiment was expressed in patchworks through the high stone halls in diminishing returns. There would be an unfortunate lack of obscure hermetic authors now, with their main purveyor gone. A notable and somewhat bawdy charm would be missed, for who would now ply the madams who visited with quotes from John Donne? On the back office’s refrigerator there still hung a scrap of a note, on which Mr. Greene had written in clean cursive: She Is All States, And All Princes I, Nothing Else Is.
It came as a surprise to Edward Montau, the head librarian of the Manhattan branch, that no family members stopped by to collect the assorted trifles Mr. Greene had left about his office: an apricot scarf, a gray beanie, a pair of quite fine leather gloves, an umbrella, a dog-eared copy of Yates’ The Art of Memory, an encyclopedia of northern constellations, a Latin dictionary, a coffee mug, and torn notebook papers filled with drawings of complicated geometric wheels and numbers. Edward kept the items in a cardboard box underneath his desk, and at night, when the tall spaces of the library became a ballroom of silence, Edward would spread the items out on his desk in different configurations, attempting to complete a puzzle. Under the classically yellow light of the desk lamp the archaic drawings, the scarf, the books, the gloves, the umbrella, the coffee mug, were all vatic, conspiring, answering a question that Edward could not pose. It was not until Edward took down the scrap of paper from the refrigerator and added it to the small collection of items that the mystery seemed wholly present in that miniature and sibylline nachlass, nearly at the surface of his awareness but maddeningly elusive.
Since receiving that surreal phone call, Edward had sporadically headed to the Presbyterian Hospital after work and visited the unnerving organic statue of Mr. Greene. He never ran into any other visitors, and generally stayed for an hour or so, reading aloud something he knew Mr. Greene, in his arcane epeolatry, would have approved of: the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon, Cicero’s De Oratore, and even some of Leibniz’s original letters that Edward snuck out of the library in his briefcase, titillated at the thought of carrying them on the subway. Occasionally Mr. Greene would drool onto his hospital gown, and when it happened Edward would commit the surprisingly intimate act of wiping down Mr. Greene’s mouth with the small towels provided by the nurses. Sometimes he wanted to shout Mr. Greene’s name as loudly as possible in the stagnant airs of the room and the urge would bubble inside him until he left. Once he was forced to scream into his hat in a bathroom stall at the hospital, just to get it out.
It was widely known that, prior to his comatose state, Mr. Greene made a habit of staying late at the library, a privilege extended to most employees but used by few. Over the weeks following the revelation of Mr. Greene’s condition, Edward began to keep the same schedule. In the high dark halls he would move through the dim pools of light, browsing the hermetic texts that Mr. Greene had favored late into the morning. The automatic sensors of the aisles would light up and then turn off the moment he passed, giving him the feeling of walking in a small island of his own perception.
Sometimes while reading Raymond Lull or Giordano Bruno he would come across a drawing, often with attributes both mystic and geometric, and he would return to his office and the sketching of Mr. Greene and remark, occasionally out loud, on the similarities of the images. Muttering in the dim library, itself lined out in charcoal chiaroscuro, Edward watched himself and grew uneasy. He felt that an airless becoming was imminent, that the straw of his thoughts had become dangerously thin, husked out over some medieval maze.
His wife, Martha, began to cultivate the cold air of suspicion. Edward could tell by the way she slept just a bit farther away on the bed, the way her legs had stopped straying over to his side. He knew she was distancing herself, preparing herself for a revealing of some kind, and in a way he felt sad his aims were so esoteric in nature. Guiltily, he acknowledged that it pleased him that she thought he could still manage an affair, although it had been a decade since he had done so. But nothing was said as Martha become more absent, pouring her energy into the non-profit she worked at. Their fifteen-year old daughter Laura had sensed all this, somehow, and had also retreated into her own world of high school, of her friends, of piano lessons and texting. Both the women in his life seemed to be building arks, small bubble-lives apart which could be used as shelter when the home fractured. He wondered exactly what Laura did when she got home from school, with both parents gone. His suspicions were confirmed upon finding a used condom in the trash, buried, only because the Yorkshire terrier his wife bought a year ago upset the trash can and spread the contents across the kitchen. When Edward saw that condom he had felt only a slight curiosity and in a way, a sense of relief. Laura would never know, they did not talk in that easy way of some families, and he knew she probably hated him at times but still was immeasurably glad that she had her own life, what he imagined and hoped was a passionate life, even if not prudent. He did not tell Martha about the condom. Instead he had picked it up with a paper towel, put it in the new trash bag and immediately took the bag out to the curb.
Edward’s obsession and odd hours would have been impossible to explain to his family because he himself could not account for his actions. He and Mr. Greene had not been close friends, had never been anything but respectful coworkers. They had gone out to the pub a few times together, always with a group of fellow workers from the library. Mr. Greene would sip scotch until he began reciting humorous vignettes of Samuel Johnson from memory. Edward, like everyone else, had held Mr. Greene in a high, if distant, regard, and the only explanation to Edward’s building obsession he could discern was a need to offer a kind of apologia for Mr. Greene. And he somehow knew, in a way as ungrounded and innate as Kant, that to offer such a thing would require a mastery of the whole span of knowledge that Mr. Greene so clearly possessed.
The obsession was compounded by the belief he had made progress on the mystery. Several things had come together one night when a coworker had reminded Edward of a trick Mr. Greene had performed several years ago, after someone had noticed him reciting from memory the Dewey Decimal number of a text. Soon Mr. Greene had gathered a small crowd of coworkers who wrote hundreds of digits on the blackboard in the break room, which Mr. Greene would read, then turn and leave the room, and everyone would gather to watch him recall the numbers an hour later. Each time, spaced throughout the day, Mr. Greene had returned and rattled off the numbers in quick succession, his eyes slightly squinting, his tongue on the roof of his mouth. He had looked as if he was tasting something.
There were also the times Edward had witnessed Mr. Greene speak from memory the full, winding passages of Donne, Keats or Dante. Mr. Greene would have the same look on his face, his eyes darting about as if examining something, and Edward became convinced that Mr. Greene practiced the ancient art of memory, and must have been traversing his own memory palace, finding the beautiful or bizarre images associated with the architectures of rooms or statues, and translating from the bright bones of images the precise phrases, perfectly enunciated. Cicero had dictated that memory palaces were to be made out of well-lit, large and respectful places, and that the images constructed within be memorable through humor or beauty or sexuality. Edward could now understand why Mr. Greene would stand, distracted, at the entrance to the library just staring at the stone lions, Patience and Fortitude. What rich symbolism the Public Library must have offered Mr. Greene, the rare privileged of living inside a building both physically and mentally. Edward even suspected that the library was first a memory palace to Mr. Greene and only later, swayed by the pleasing symmetry of it, a place of employment.
The artistic leanings of Mr. Greene, his open preference for the classically beautiful and dramatic, lead Edward to believe Mr. Greene’s memory palace had been an expansive, fantastical place. When Edward dwelled on it, which he did often, he imagined the rousing gothic architecture of New York City housed on suspended islands of land floating in archipelagos of sky above an ocean. Each hovering island might contain a building or series of buildings meticulously organized, with honeybee hives of rooms, pillars, art, all containing facts and quotes and paintings and sculptures, set between gardens and walking paths and elaborate ballrooms. From his own experimentations Edward knew that travel there would be instantaneous: Mr. Greene would have been able to stand on one great spire of earth and then the memory palace itself would have shifted underneath him and he would be elsewhere, like walking through a lucid dream. Edward imagined Mr. Greene strolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, standing in the open arching hallways and tilting his head just a bit, forging new rooms, opening up the spaces of his mind.
During his copious research Edward realized how extensive such internal palaces could be. Matteo Ricci, who published translations of Western works during his missionary work in 16th-century China, developed a remarkable memory palace. Several of the books which Matteo translated he did not take with him physically but instead had stored in perfect facsimile in the grandness of his palaces, translating them years after he physically read them. Edward’s growing suspicion as he plumbed reading lists, notes, and book requests, was that Mr. Greene’s had rivaled even Ricci’s in grandeur and complexity. His surety was increased in that the theory explained why the interests of Mr. Greene had always been so maddeningly archaic in nature. Mr. Greene had been, it was widely assumed, intelligent enough to be a scholar of some renown, but instead had chosen to become the collector for the library. The reasons remained, like the man himself, an uncomfortably close enigma. Now Edward understood; there was no place for a man like Mr. Greene in modern academia. Indeed, there was no place for him in the modern world, where society progresses in thick, geared automations. An ahistorical age, with memory given over to machines instead of palaces.
So when Edward took Laura to the Metropolitan to do research for a school project, she spent the time bent over her cell phone texting her friends and he spent it wondering if here, right here, had been present in the mind of Mr. Greene. Which artifacts had been elevated to the status of locations and placeholders for other memories, which rooms been fit to house which poems? When they were eating lunch at a coffee shop Laura ordered a black coffee and Edward had been taken back, completely surprised. He shouldn’t have been, she was having sex after all, why shouldn’t she drink her coffee black? So he asked her about her schoolwork and watched her hold her coffee in small hands and blow into her cup small breaths. Edward was surprised by her articulation about academic subjects. She seemed especially excited about her molecular biology class, which she described as “cooking but with beakers.” Listening to her talk with a subtle enthusiasm that went right to her hands, he thought to himself that she was going to be fine, just fine, look at her go.
It was later that night, while reading Mr. Greene’s copy of Yates’ The Art of Memory, that Edward stumbled across marginalia written in spidery cursive in the chapter on Raymond Lull. Underlined three times, it read merely: characteristica universalis. Those two words struck Edward in the chest, and in a midnight delirium he cried out from his office. If one were standing in the dark hallways it would seem as if the walls of the library had become haunted by the piercing keen of a ghost, a sound which was followed by utter silence, a stillness which lasted until the fine light of dawn crept in rectangles across the stone floors.
The next day Edward tacked on his office door a quote by Roger Bacon he was sure that Mr. Greene must have read and relished: “When dealing with natural and material things, definitions can never remedy this evil, because definitions themselves consist of words, and words generate words.” Both Roger Bacon and Leibniz had sought to create a scientia perfecta, an art of memory that would move beyond mere redefinition, whose combinatory rules were so perfect, the images so revealing of the core reality of what they signified, that the art would demonstrate being as it truly was, would allow for a perfect understanding of nature. The scientia perfecta was a science that has nothing to do with the vulgar, the material. As Agrippa said, it must be concerned only with the possibility of describing all knowable things. In the years when Kurt Gödel was starving to death from paranoia he became obsessed with the characteristica universalis, believing that Leibniz had succeeded in his quixotic quest but that it had been erased, removed from history by high and malevolent powers. It was an area filled with genius and obsession.
Surprised at his own conviction, Edward concluded that such a language, such an art, had been the final goal of Mr. Greene. With renewed passion he returned to his inspection of the sheaves of Mr. Greene’s drawings. Vital pieces and connections were missing, but still there was something specific about one of the pictures, something startlingly familiar. It was a heavily folded drawing that had the topographical lines and the implicit detail of a map, vaguely geometric in its fractal outlines. Symbols sprawled up and down it in a conspiratorial neighborhood, filling the page, linked by long knots of connections, thick lines which gave the drawing a distantly familiar structure. After weeks of late-night researching, Edward was forced to conclude that the drawing was impenetrable no matter which way he approached it. Eventually he simply stopped looking at it, because the cognitive dissonance it produced had become unbearable. The drawing, infinitely close and infinitely far away, was a stopping point for him. He had read everything there was to read on the characteristica universalis, and could do no more than rearrange Mr. Greene’s objects on his desk under the yellow lamp light.
At his last trip to the hospital Edward had taken with him a long and thin skewer of a pin. With a feeling of great trepidation, Edward had stuck it discretely and quickly into Mr. Greene’s arm. Mr. Greene had flinched in the instinctive manner of an automaton, twitched his arm and remained still. Edward cried silently and discretely as he wiped down Mr. Greene’s arm and left.
His disenchantment with the mystery grew, and with the disenchantment came the ability to inspect it rationally, to see that perhaps there was no mystery here at all, that this had been dissolved, not solved. A great and silly fantasy had been constructed from a few meager occurrences, and he had gotten swept up by it to try and make his life more exciting. A classic midlife crisis. It was sad, and he was ashamed, but he stopped staying late into the night and began to get home early to cook dinner for Martha and Laura. At first his wife had seemed even more suspicious about this sudden turn of events, but then, on arriving home the third time to find him there before her, he watched her entire body posture change into acceptance and relief.
After one astonishingly passionate night he lay awake listening to the whispers of her breath, and finally felt he could remember who it was he fell in love with, as if in the dark she could shed the years and familiarities which had desensitized him to her and return to some purer essence, a platonic and original form. Hadn’t he once seen her flash a tour group at Cornell, and couldn’t he still remember the shouts and laughter from below, yes, there had been a breeze and it had been spring. In his still crude memory palace he fixes the image, the bare arch of her young back leaning out a dorm room window, in a place of prominence.
That morning he promised her that they would start going out again. Each Friday night they would both dress up and ride the subway to some restaurant, a review of which he had circled in The New York Times. It was while trying to find such a restaurant, tracing his finger across one of the big subway maps to find an obscure location on the Upper East Side, that the realization began, a deep upswing, a kind of falling. It came to him oddly accompanied by the sound of a door, a door from his childhood home, slamming closed. He spent the evening at the restaurant in shock, unbelieving, and after dinner he told his wife he had to go to the office, unfinished business, something unclear, and was out the door. After getting a copy of the subway map from one of the underground help booths he rushed over to the library, where he laid the subway map over Mr. Greene’s sketches and nearly sobbed, a wrenching hiccup, then fell back into his seat, unsure, doubting.
He imagined Mr. Greene standing on each street corner, assigning to it a certain seal or sign, a certain semiotic significance in a network of signifiers. Mr. Greene would be wearing that apricot scarf of his and his eyes would be squinting, his tongue moving over the mountain range of his teeth, utterly immersed in each aspect of the sensory world around him. Edward could see Mr. Greene at every point of the city, at every place or process which could be considered and compressed as a symbol, a process which only a mystic, disenchanted genius could undertake. At each subway stop or building, at the corner markets and the regular saxophone players, Edward knew that Mr. Greene had visited, found in them something to signify, and each had been subsumed in representation into the vast semiotic web of the memory palace, a memory palace that had grown to the size of the city itself, had taken on its working and shape and scale, had begun to move of its own accord in the slow dreamings of images. A city set in motion by thought. Mr. Greene would have taken care of which images he used to reflect which memories and places, so that there was a connection between the signifier and the signified, so that the barriers between the two blurred. He would have introduced combinatory rules to the images and places, rules synchronous to the reality of the city, some apodictic and some plastic, so that when two locations interacted in the real world, by arcane and expansive laws the images would interact, change one another, bring some to the fore while others receded. The city itself would have become a tool for thought, and conversely the thoughts of Mr. Greene would have resembled more and more a city.
As the city grew in his mind Mr. Greene must have begun to see the longer, complex patterns that defined the events of it. He would have created signs and seals for commonalities in the actions of people, cars, weather, flocks of pigeons, specific ways of being, looking constantly for the causes which made a true difference to the city, for the wheels that the city turned on. As the slow and monumental calculus of the city revealed itself to him, he would have become convinced that language was a barrier to understanding it and relied on more primitive notations. Like Ezra Pound he would have become fascinated with symbols, hieroglyphics, Chinese characters, letting the signs of his city take on the skins of inhabitants, slipping finely into detailed functional roles.
As Edward traveled to the hospital in a brooding enlightenment, he thought that in the progression of events around him he too could discern some veiled design, the path to a great culmination, as if the city was a machine built to run for four centuries and then come to some final transubstantiation, a calculator built on lives and metal and concrete and motion steadily progressing to a glorious finale, a dénouement planned with slow patience from the beginning. The long night trains passed and the people on them are like ghosts to him, signs, insubstantial, thoughts of a thinker.
At the front desk the night nurse knew him and let him in despite it being far past visiting hours. Edward found Mr. Greene unchanged, a sarcophagus of shape, and Edward sat down into the chair beside the bed and watched the city lights from the large pane of the window. He thought that the only true moral act is to tilt at windmills. Beside him, Mr. Greene hummed along in his slow ocean breaths, as trapped as Borges within himself. Edward had no proof, all was conjecture, but he was calmly, perfectly certain.
In an effort to understand the city Mr. Greene must have recognized that he would have to become it. If he was to supersede language he must represent it directly and absolutely, to see as the city does, to know the faces and names, the movements. The city thinks slowly, in great circles of history. Time for the city of signs, the city of memory, is slower than for the man. Perhaps Mr. Greene would first have been startled to see the hands of a clock revolve faster than expected, or that bugs seemed to speed across the room. As he sunk deeper into the events of the city inside of him people would have become as hummingbirds. The final piece of the puzzle, the note left by Mr. Greene, took on a startling metamorphosis: She Is All States, And All Princes I, Nothing Else Is.
On the bed Mr. Greene will rot and die like a spent dandelion, and it will go unknown except to Edward that with him died an entire city of inhabitants, a reflection, still running in correlation with the real. A city caught in the snow globe of a mind. It is a world for idealists, as for the inhabitants Berkeley was correct and all is idea in the mind of God. Their routines and lives and loves are identical in semantic content, congruent in pattern, to the real city. Perhaps there is even a sign for Edward himself in that great expanse of memories which move all by themselves, drifting in dreamtime across the squares of his life. Perhaps there will be a time, many years from now, when the respirator stops working and the signs of the city will look to the sky, the sign of Edward among them, pausing in their daily routines, the ideas of their lives, and they might wonder — why does the sky break?