Poems, novels, films, and songs, whatever else they do, direct a conversation with the great dead, and Dylan’s ghostwriting on his last three CDs, Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft,” and Modern Times is the most far-reaching of his career. Late in the 16th century, historian Jonathan Spence recounts, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci “taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember . . . One could create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’ meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio . . . In summarizing this memory system, he explained that these palaces, pavilions, divans were mental structures to be kept in one’s head, not solid objects to be literally constructed out of ‘real’ materials . . . To everything we wish to remember, wrote Ricci, we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to reclaim it by an act of memory.” 
On Modern Times, “Love and Theft,” and Time Out of Mind, Dylan is teaching us how to build a memory palace, “mental structures”—in this instance, songs—that will lodge past and present, the living and the dead. In Chronicles Volume I, his prose investigation of artistic self-invention and re-invention, he concluded his account of going inside the New York Public Library to read contemporary newspaper reportage on the Civil War with a spatial image for his memory that shrinks Ricci’s elate palace to a roadside storage unit. “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone,” Dylan writes. “Figured I could send a truck back for it later.” 
Echoing Aquinas, Augustine, and Ignatius of Loyola, Ricci stressed that the memory palace must not be envisioned as a passive repository, but by “incorporate[ing] these ‘memories’ of an unlived past into the spiritual present” his mnemonic system was an instrument for spiritual practice with ancient links to alchemy, magic, and writing. “As for those worthy figures who lived a hundred generations ago,” Ricci argued, “although they too are gone, yet thanks to the books they left behind we who come after can hear their modes of discourse, observe their grand demeanor, and understand both the good order and the chaos of their times, exactly as if we were living among them.” Or, as Dylan sings in “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”:
Well, the night’s filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom
The night is filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom
I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs
Making the dead available to the living, the memory palace proposes a mechanism for rendering all time—past, present, future—modern times. Since in this little verse of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” the opening repeated phrases derive from “Our Willie,” an 1865 poem by Timrod, and the final line comes from Ovid’s poem of c. 16 BCE The Amores, and both are cut inside a blues out of Hambone Willie Newbern and Muddy Waters, Dylan manages at once here to describe and embody that mechanism.
–Bob Dylan’s Memory Palace by Robert Polito