When I was conducting some research at the University of California in Santa Barbara on The Master Builder, one of Ibsen’s late plays, a computer search brought up an article by an unfamiliar author about an unfamiliar subject. The title piqued my interest – “The Poet as ‘Master Builder’” – and so I took steps to secure a copy. Mary Carruthers’ paper primarily addressed a trope in medieval culture that compared poetry to architecture; this alone hardly casts new light on Ibsen’s play, since many authors conclude that Ibsen’s architect, Halvard Solness, is a thinly disguised self-portrait of the poet himself. But Carruthers’ interest in the trope goes further than simple cultural ephemera; she notes a systematic attention to the art of memory in medieval culture, and its influence on medieval art and thought. I
I had read about ars memoria – the arts of memory – in other sources, from The Day The Universe Changed to The Aegypt Cycle by John Crowley. But I hadn’t encountered a study of its medieval form, nor had I noticed how widespread or influential medieval arts of memory might have been. I knew Ibsen’s play, more than many of his others (such as Hedda Gabler, which spends little time discussing the past), tended to revolve around memory – contradictory memories, suspect memories, invented memories, and memories literally re-forged and invented on stage during the action. The Carruthers paper didn’t provide a direct point of analysis for Ibsen, but it suggested a field of studies – a more generalized approach – in which I might examine the varying roles of memory in different theatrical works. Ultimately, this article led me to the topic of my Ph.D. disseration, The House of Memory.
What sources have you encountered off the beaten path – by accident or by chance or by a passing stranger – that have suggested new avenues for research, or unforeseen sources you hadn’t yet considered?