The past does not inevitably exist in the present. The creative processes of remembering and telling stories allow our histories to remain with us. Memory and story negate the possibility of existing independently of the past by connecting humans across time to the actions and value systems of their predecessors. Humans are forced to live amidst and confront a complex and multi-dimensional reality in which their every action affects people and events outside of their immediate context. By burdening humans with the consequences of their histories, story and memory comprise a foundation of moral responsibility. Since memory and story are subjective, our past, a seemingly immutable reality, is subject to their creative hands. These hands define as malleable entities the past, the future, and that which exists or has its basis outside of the present. The “real” is only immutable in a present entirely disconnected from all other time. Yet while the profound power of memory and story does deny an objective, singular reality, it simultaneously allows humans the capacity to transform the world to their liking. Even death, the most immutable of realities, can be manipulated through the creative processes of remembering and storytelling. Death, then, is the point from which we will begin to understand Homer’s exploration of memory and story.
Death is a great wave whose shadow falls upon the lives of all beings below Olympus. Amidst this shadow and its immediacy in war, humans must struggle to combat and metaphysically transcend their transitory natures. If they fail to forge a sense of meaning for themselves and their people in what often seems an inexorably barren world, they are lef...
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...e of our own iniquity or cowardice, drives us to courageous and moral action in the present.
Thus, story and memory remove humans from the horrible brevity of mortal life by bringing existence into a realm outside of time. Humans die, but through story their fellow humans can make them immortal. Even amidst life’s tragedies, stories allow us to transform what seems an unbearable reality into something deeply beautiful. And yet their power is not merely retrospective since stories impose moral responsibility on our every action. Forgetting, therefore, is among the worst evils; not only because of the “moral perversity” it permits, but also because of the meaning it denies.
1 Homer, Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951).
2 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper Perennial, 1984).
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