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Looking For Babel VI – Gargantua & My Memory Palace

Naomi believes my hesitation to speak of my confrontation with Rabelais’ Gargantua through the hands of Matteo Ricci (“Looking For Babel V – Reverberations”) is overly dramatic. 


It definitely is not!


Upon admittance to the Stroke Center I was sent for the longest MRI of my life. I wasn’t concerned about the noisy machine because I knew from experience I could use Simanim -mnemonics to review everything in Torah and Talmud. I actually imagined the machine as Simonides’ “Memory Palace,” because I had, over tens of MRIs, reviewed both Talmuds from memory.


The table slid into the machine and I was ready to begin my review when I realized I didn’t need a machine to tell me I had a stroke; I couldn’t remember any of my mnemonics. 


It felt like two hours in Hell.


All I could think of was Rabelais describing how Gargantua was trained by Holofernes to memorize everything written by great scholars such as, “Bangbreeze, Scallywag, and Claptrap,” to satirize those who mastered the art of memorization.  Although Gargantua could recite the books he learned backwards by heart, and became wise as any man ‘baked in an oven,’ when one wanted intelligent commentary from him, “it was no more possible to draw a word from him than a fart from a dead donkey.”


When the doctor came to see me after the test and asked how I was feeling, all I could say was, “beaten by Gargantua’s Bangbreeze, Scallywag and Claptrap!” He thought I’d lost my mind until I explained. 


His response? “Anyone who can remember those names has not lost his memory!”


I felt even worse.



I heroically forgot those moments until I began reading “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. 


Jonathan Spence – the perfect history professor; erudite, fascinating, entertaining – presents Ricci, the Jesuit priest, as convinced the magic of his Memory Palace, described in a book he wrote in Chinese would win him converts among the powerful elite of China.


Dr. Spence mentions Rabelais and Gargantua in his introduction to Ricci’s world and all those painful moments in the stroke center returned.


But, then I realized from the book:

Talk about “Looking For Babel!” 


Ricci, who couldn’t see beyond the prejudices he brought with him from Rome, suffered humiliation, beatings and poverty only to find the Chinese fascinated by his Memory Palaces but not interested in mastering.


The most painful aspect of the Dor HaPilaga – The Great Dispersion for me is to share ideas that energize my soul, books that stir my spirit, spiritual practices that are at the core of my being, only to have those sharings fall flat.


Perhaps, I, as I was often warned by my father zt”l, present my ideas as monumental Towers, which, although they very well may be for me, are not those for others.

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