Audio Review: The Memory Palace

Nate DiMeo's podcast The Memory Palace is just flat out brilliant.

It's a history podcast, though that doesn't really get at why it's so good. Let's be honest just saying suggests something dry. That's how we were taught history in school after all, and you can hear this dull, bored tone of a teacher repeating names and dates. That's not the history that interests DiMeo, though.

Episode 91, Natural Habitat, is about Ruth Harkness, who traveled to China and brought a panda to the United States in 1936. The basic outline of Harkness' life is pretty awe-inspiring. Also the episode does what Dimeo does so well which is to bring us these historical figures who are in so many ways larger than life, and yet also portray them as these very human and understandable people. Harkness did things that most of us can't even imagine doing and then she kept doing it, going off on one expedition after another. She wasn't born into high society or wealth.

That sense of adventure is what drove her, but DiMeo also makes clear that Harkness kept going on one expedition after another to get that spark that she found on her first trip.

Harkness may be largely forgotten today, but that idea - Natural Habitat, is the title of the episode - lets DiMeo bring it back around to this idea that live pandas captured the nation and forced zoos to rethink what they did and how they did it. No longer were taxidermied animals enough, they needed real animals to capture people's imagination. And that required a habitat. It required a place where they could live, where the could be themselves. That was a very, very long process that is obviously still going. But this idea, that in that first expedition, Harkness discovered herself, and spent the rest of her life trying to recapture that feeling, that place, and ever since we saw a panda, ever since we saw animals in the flesh, we had to find a way to allow them to be themselves, the way that it manages to be both thoughtful and in the context of Harkness' relatively short life, heartbreaking, is what DiMeo does so well.

There's that oft-quoted line about how great men are rarely good men. DiMeo's great skill is that he wants us to see the people behind events like this. It would be very easy to make Harkness' story into a grand adventure tale - and it is - but DiMeo wants more. He wants us to feel for her, he wants to break our hearts at her loss, he wants us to feel something when she dies.

This isn't what he always does. Sometimes as in episode 92 about Cleveland, he wants to use what we know about the city - the Cuyahoga river caught on fire - and take a deeper dive into why that happened and what it meant and how it is that this became something Cleveland is known for - when after all, lots of rivers caught on fire back in the days before the Clean Water Act.

Many people might also know episode 73, which has been one of the highlights of the program - "Notes on an Imagined Plaque to be Added to the Statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Upon Hearing that the Memphis City Council has Voted to Move it and the Exhumed Remains of General Forrest and his Wife Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their Current Location in a Park Downtown, to the Nearby Elmwood Cemetery" - which as is obvious form the title is both about history and about how we choose to remember historical events.

Of course that is his point. When we talk about history, when we remember it, study it, write about it, we involved in it. This is a personal thing. To act as though it's abstract and meaningless is to miss the point. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," as William Faulkner put it. DiMeo I think would agree wholeheartedly.

If this weren't enough, DiMeo is a MetLiveArts Artist in Residence  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he's making work for and about the museum. And if you haven't been, it is an amusing museum with a lot of possibilities and a lot of stories about and around the work on display. I can't wait to hear more of what he has in store for us.

As a warning for those who are about to dive into the show for the first time, each episode has a title, but there's not much in the way of a description of what you're about to hear. Go with it. The point isn't really to learn about a certain topic. The purpose is to experience it. You'll be surprised. Just go with it. It's like life, that way.

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