Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Iliad and Memory: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXIII

Throughout the Iliad, Homer invokes the aid of the muses to help him to recall and tell all the splendid deeds of Trojans and Achaians before the walls of wind-swept Troy.  The most moving of these comes early on where the bard declares: And now, O Muses, dwellers in the mansions of Olympus, tell me- for you are goddesses and are in all places so that you see all things, while we know nothing but the report... (Book II Samuel Butler Trans.).  The sense of loss and futility is almost palpable.  Here we are reminded that the Greeks constituted themselves as a culture of forgetting; that memory is something that belongs to the gods while mere rumor belongs to men.  Elsewhere, Glaukos tells Diomedes that his genealogy is irrelevant since the generations of the sons of men are no more than leaves blown away by an Autumn wind.  The great fear that Achilles wrestles with is one of memory: is it worth a life of pain and an early death in order to be remembered?

This crisis of memory did not end with Homer.  In the classical era, Plato's Timaeus has an Egyptian priest tell Solon, wisest of the sages of Greece, that Greeks are ever children since they have no memory, a disaster always comes and wipes away the knowledge of former times.  That disaster for both Homer and Plato is the collapse of the Mycenaean world.  With the near total collapse of Mycenaean society and the attendant loss of writing, the Greeks lost access to their own history in a way that made them unique among the "civilized" people of the Eastern Mediterranean.  The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Jews all appeared to the Greeks to have weathered the chaos of the late Bronze Age and come through with written records and traditions intact.  This wealth of ancient wisdom posed a crisis of confidence for the Greeks as they rebuilt their culture out of the ashes.  How could they be assured without the benefit of tradition and long experience that their ways (nomoi) were right a proper?  Herodotus inquired and Plato sought for timeless Forms.

This difference of approach gives a distinct flavor to Homer that is intentionally absent in writings of the Classical Era even as they inherit, unquestioned, the Homeric problem.  The great minds of Athens and Ionia believed that human ingenuity could solve the issues caused by the loss of memory.  Philosophy and ethnography could supply what was missing and assure the Greeks that they could build a Just city in more than words (see how Plato combines philosophy, ethnography, and the "noble lie" in his Republic, Timaeus, and Critias).  Homer revels in the cunning (metis) of the human intellect, but distrusts it as well.  After all, what rational basis did the Ancient Greeks have for believing that the mind could accurately grasp reality?  How much of Plato's work is under-girded by "noble lies" that cover over the dark pits of nihilism so that the philosophical project can go on undisturbed?  Homer confronts this problem head-on and appeals to the gods, since they were there, to grant him miraculous access to the past, knowing full well that the gods lie.  The backwash of futility and ambiguity from this state of affairs floods into every crack and corner of the poem.  That distinct flavor of the Iliad can ironically be summed up in the words of the magi in Daniel: only the gods can grant what the king asks, and they do not dwell among men.

*Prior Iliad musing from this read-through can be found here.  Francois Hartog's Memories of Odysseus has also been influential in bringing the issues of memory and otherness as facets of Greek thought to mind, especially chapter two, Egyptian Voyages.

No comments: