5F Form Scholars Talk – Complete forgetting and the wax tablet: an introduction to cultural and political memory via Homer and Plato

This afternoon, I’m going to ask you to think about some concepts which were at the centre of my PhD, not just because I find them interesting and know a bit about them, but because I hope that by thinking about them, you might look at the societies around you – the school, your families, the governments of your home countries – in slightly different, perhaps more nuanced ways. Also, as an English teacher, I get lots of questions, asking me to justify the study of literature in schools because people can’t see its use in practical terms, and I hope that if you are sceptical, this might go some way to addressing your scepticism.

To start off with, we need to define our terms:

What is politics?

I hope that we will arrive at a definition along the lines of that on Wiki: ‘the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.’ (Away from ‘institutions of government’, parties etc.) We will also discuss the derivation: politikos, affairs of the cities.

What is memory?

This will be more difficult. I would imagine that early answers will focus on retrieval which will suit my purposes and I will go into the main body of the talk from here.

Plato’s Wax Tablet: a model for memory

One of the earliest attempts to explain the workings of memory comes from Plato’s Theaetetus and it has been widely adopted over the centuries. In the philosophical dialogue, Plato’s Socrates explains that each person has a wax tablet in their soul – ‘a gift from Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of Memory and the mother of the Muses – and whatever we wish to remember from the things we see or hear or which we have in our thoughts, we hold the wax under our perceptions and thoughts and impress them onto it, as if making impressions from signet rings’.

Source: Wax tablet | GustavoG | Flickr

For the most part, this is a highly functional model. A wax tablet was something a bit like the old chalk boards or slates used in various countries around the world for writing that didn’t need to be permanent. It consisted of a frame covered in a layer of wax, onto which you could engrave words – a shopping list, say, and when you didn’t need it anymore, you could scrape off the top layer to reveal a clean surface underneath. In terms of memory, Plato suggests that thoughts and impressions are imprinted onto the tablet in your soul and memory is the process of recalling those imprints and matching them to items in the real world. We might call this ‘retrieval’ and it is one aspect of memory.

Source: BBC, Sherlock.

This model was developed by all kinds of people – other philosophers, writers and later, psychologists. If you’ve seen Sherlock, for example, you might remember his ‘memory palace’ in which he searches through various ‘rooms’ where he has filed things that he has observed in order to find the clue he is looking for. This is based on a story told by Cicero, about Simonides, who was supposedly present at a banquet and when he stepped outside for some air, the roof of the palace collapsed killing everyone inside. Simonides was able to recollect the pattern of the palace and where each person had been sitting and in this way, was able to name all of those missing. In this way, in Cicero’s words, the localities and images of the palace acted as imprints on the wax tablet.

Retrieval is obviously an important aspect of memory and one we use all the time in remembering, for example, that this thing I’m sitting on is called a chair and that that person is called Will. However, more important to this talk, is something which Plato did not bring out of his image in any detail but which, through metaphor, leads us down various other avenues of memory research from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Plato says that the wax tablet was a gift from Mnemosyne, who, as I said, was the mother of the Muses. Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet, tells us about Mnemosyne and her daughters. Mnemosyne is said to ‘offer forgetfulness of evils and relief from anxieties’ while the Muses inspire poets with this gift. The poets would call on the Muses to infuse them with the memory of ancient, mythical times, so that they could sing of them. They have power over memory – what we remember and what we forget.

The Muses, as depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

There are three different ideas to be drawn out here. The first is that memory is creative, or recreative, rather than simply a retrieval of facts. The Muses inspire the poet to tell his tale but it was totally accepted in ancient Greek times that the mythical stories he told would differ from previous versions. This divinely inspired memory was the foundation of poet creation – and I emphasise that word. As an extreme example, you might have heard of the Trojan War (what was it?) in which the Greeks fought the Trojans over the infamous Helen, who left her Greek husband for a Trojan prince… Well, in Euripides’ version of the story, the Helen in Troy was actually an eidolon (a false version of Helen, created by Zeus to cause war), while the real Helen was abducted and hidden away in Egypt until her husband found her and picked her up on his way home! 

In terms of modern memory theory, we are talking about what is called ‘episodic memory’, rather than practical retrieval, so this is memory of events from our lives. Psychologists have found that people do indeed remember creatively. We remember according to social cues; it is not a matter of recalling a fixed item from storage, but rather the context of remembering makes an impact on the way in which something is remembered. In basic terms, say for example, you have a happy memory of a day out with a friend and then you and your friend fall out… Remembering that day, after the row, might colour your memory of it. And this is where we can start to connect memory to politics. As political society changes over time, so those social cues for memories change too and this works both personally and on a wider, national or international scale.

Think for example about the way in which Remembrance Day has changed over the last twenty years or so: as Britain has become more self-conscious of its imperial past, it has gone from being a day dominated by memories of British loss to one which commemorates the sacrifices of those around the world, both our allies in the empire, and also of our former enemies.

Photo source: The Independent newspaper, 28/10/2014.

You might also think about how shared memories of the Stonewall riots in 1969 have, on the one hand, helped to change perceptions of the LGBTQ+ communities, but over time, the nature of society’s remembrance of these events has also changed, taking it from the protests or riots of a comparative few, to an inclusive festival for the many.

So, the key thing to take away from this, is that memories are not facts of the past – they are not measurable by standards of truth – they are creative and dependent on the social and political world around them.

The second is less important to us today and so I will not dwell on it at length. It is that poetic inspiration by the Muses was said, by Hesiod, to unite ‘what is and what will be and what was before’, and this folding of linear time, in memory has also been a key strand in memory studies.

The third idea concerns empathy and here, we are back to politics. Hesiod tells us that the memories inspired by the Muses can cause us to ‘forget all our ills’ by involving our emotions in the lives of others. This poetic memory has the power to change our emotions to make us sympathise with others’ points of view and this can have political ramifications.

Marble relief by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), photo source: achilles and priam iliad – Bing images

In Book 24 of the Iliad, the Trojan king, Priam, dares to venture into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return the body of his son, Hector. Hector killed Achilles’ best friend, some say, lover, and Achilles has been trying to exact vengeance by desecrating Hector’s body, having it dragged around the Greek camp on the back of his chariot every day. Priam hugs Achilles knees, in a gesture of supplication and asks him to ‘Pity me, remembering your father’. By equating himself with Achilles’ father, he invites Achilles to see their suffering side by side. As a result of this, the two men weep together and Achilles not only returns the body, but causes a temporary rapprochement between the warring factions, leaving time for the Trojans to mourn their loss appropriately.

In this way, according to modern theorists, feeling empathy for characters in books or plays can begin to ‘unsettle’ our own sense of self, causing us to empathise with attitudes or viewpoints which we might ordinarily feel to be mistaken or even, dangerous. In thinking about texts, then, the notion of empathic unsettlement, as this is called, might provoke political discussion, pushing readers and audiences to question the norms of their own political societies.

In one investigation into this process, researchers used a sample audience of a political speech by the (French speaking) King of Belgium. They identified that French speaking Belgians were much less likely to find fault with the king’s version of events, whereas Dutch speaking Belgians were more likely to notice things which he had glossed over or omitted entirely.

So, I hope I have established here, the creative and empathically powerful nature of memory and its link to politics.

Does anyone have any questions so far?

Collective memory, politics and the end of the Odyssey

This next section of the talk takes these concepts of memory, extends them to think about the ways in which we can be said to remember together, as groups, and uses them to discuss a key political moment at the end of the Odyssey.

Who can tell me what the Odyssey is about? Who knows what happens at the end?

After Odysseus has killed all his wife’s suitors on his return to Ithaca, their families band together to try to get revenge. Just as the opening spears in the conflict are thrown, Zeus declares that he will ‘put complete forgetting’ (eklesin theomen) of the slaughter of the suitors and so end the civil war before it really begins and this episode encapsulates many key ideas relating to political memory.

Most obviously, the passage highlights the political nature of memory, on a practical level, in its articulation of memory’s role in conflict resolution in society: remembering the wrongs done to you causes conflict and forgetting them is, therefore, necessary for peace. When the Peloponnesian War – a Greek civil war between Athens and Sparta – ended, they tried to keep the peace in exactly this way. Although they knew that only the gods could make them forget completely, in 403 BC, they put prohibitions on remembering their misfortunes publicly and were not allowed to bring grievances of wrongs done to them during the wars to court.

This type of policy can be extremely oppressive: under Franco, for example, the Spanish people were banned from remembering acts of execution, imprisonment or exile enacted by Franco’s regime during the Civil War, and it was only in the Historic Memory Act of 2007 that such events were legally allowed to be remembered and discussed in public.

General Franco, photo source: General Franco: Europe”s Forgotten Dictator? I Oxford Open Learning (ool.co.uk)

The example above, together with the passage from the Odyssey, might also make us think about the power relations involved in memory. The fact that the forgetting is put upon (theomen) the people of Ithaca by one in divine authority, without their knowledge or permission should make us feel uncomfortable. Moreover, Zeus was overtly sympathetic to Odysseus’ cause and not at all to the suitors’, and allowed him to kill all those who threatened his authority before the forgetting fell. This, like in the case of Franco’s Spain, also denied the families the chance to mourn their sons and brothers.

There is a competitive arena, therefore, in memory politics. History, as Churchill said, was written by the victors and the memory of the losers is suppressed, rather than forgotten. Those sharing this suppressed memory may band together at some future point, causing a ‘mnemonic battle’ and possible an overthrow of the repressive regime.

Two further considerations became really important for my thesis. One was the fact that the audience were obviously not subject to Zeus’ decree so the passage could be read in one of two ways: on the one hand, we might see the forgetting as instructive in that there is a political expedience to the putting aside of wrongs in order to ensure peace; on the other, the fact that the audience remembers Odysseus’ brutality might lead them to question the political norms seemingly espoused by the poem. The other was that because the people of Ithaca are united around the memory of the wrongs done to them, this implies a kind of social or collective dimension to memory. Because, also, their collective forgetting is what allows Odysseus to be re-established as king of Ithaca, it seems fair to say that this process of collective remembering and forgetting also has the effect of defining the political community on Ithaca.

I will say a little about how we might see collective memory as working and then return to this ending of the Odyssey for the end of the talk.

As I suggested earlier when discussing the Muses, memory theory discusses the idea that all memory is triggered by social cues and therefore, we might say that the individual remembers according to what the collective – society – considers to be relevant at a particular moment. There was an experiment in the mid 20th century in which participants were asked to memorise an unfamiliar story and it was found that they recalled it according to culturally shaped ideas about what made a story ‘a good story’. The study concluded that these patterns of socially acquired knowledge form the ways in which we perceive and remember. As social factors change, for example, with regime change or as values transform gradually over time, so what is remembered will change too. This does not suggest that individuals do not remember things slightly differently from each other, even with the same social cues, but rather that individual memory is always socially conditioned.

From British Government newsreel, October 1940; source: History: London Can Take It – Inspirational Old Newsreel about Londoner’s Blitz Spirit During the Battle of Britain – Londontopia

Sometimes also, memories come to be shared by groups in such a way that they create a binding sense of community and even a sense of national identity. We don’t even have to have experienced the things on which these memories are based ourselves: they become part of our mythology and our literature. One aspect of the traditional British identity, for example, is built upon such memories as the bulldog spirit of the public during the Blitz, something which was fed by propaganda at the time, to give the British a sense of national pride in order to withstand the bombings of their cities during WWII but the same propaganda and subsequent memories, neatly elided the brutal destruction of German cities being enacted by the British on the German civilians of Hamburg, say. When it did touch on it, it was to denigrate German weakness in comparison with British strength.

So back to that ending of the Odyssey. What I would like to suggest is that it is vitally important to audiences of epic (early experiences of such poetry were as oral performances rather than private reading) is that both of the above interpretations of that moment of forgetting are politically formative. On the one hand, the poem demonstrates the political value of forgetting but on the other, it causes us to question the morality of how such measures are implemented and how conflict should be resolved. What the audience remembers, unlike the Ithacans, is the brutality of Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors. There are lengthy, very gory passages about the various ways in which they were dismembered, the blood spurting in all directions and forming a stream which ran down the hall. Although, it seems we are invited to glory in Odysseus’ victory though, many of the details of the slaughter are the same as those given in a similar slaughter, described earlier in the text – that of the former king, Agamemnon, by his deceitful wife, Clytemnestra, one which the text invites us to condemn because it is condemned by the gods themselves. So it is that the audience can remember and compare both of these events, perhaps feel uncomfortable in their celebration with Odysseus and the fact that he is allowed to kill all those who challenged him, and in this way, be made to think about how things would or could be different in their own society.

Odysseus and Telemachus Massacre the Suitors, by Thomas Degeorge (1786-1854).

For audiences in classical Athens – that is, Athens during its time as a radical democracy in which all citizens were involved in the political decision-making process – this would have had an additional dimension. Athenians heard the Homeric texts – the Odyssey and the Iliad – as part of an annual festival to celebrate the birth of the city. They remembered these stories together at a key event of the polis – the city – as a group who debated communal issues in the assembly and settled disputes as a group of representative citizens. For them, the Homeric texts served as foundational narratives, containing the origins of themselves and their own society, and I suggest that the annual retelling of the Odyssey at the Panathenaeia partly served as a reminder that they should never allow such events to take place again – neither the political apathy that resulted from Odysseus’ absence from home, nor the brutal, authoritarian settling of debates. It had to be retold and acted upon so as never to be repeated.

Some conclusions about memory, politics and literature

So memory is creative, or recreative and always conditioned by social and political factors and the memories we share together help to form and solidify group identity. This is equally true of political society on Ithaca, remembered in classical Athens, in formulating how to make decisions and settle disputes as it is of the British Blitz spirit; it is also equally true, though on a smaller scale, of the memories that parents share with their children, giving them a sense of what they value – their academic achievements or their mischievous scrapes at school; the time their band rocked the town, or the buzz they got from volunteering with a charity; the disgraceful incident when little So-and-so misbehaved and we all laughed, or perhaps shut him or her in their bedroom without any dinner…

Clearly, the literature I have focused on here has been ancient Greek, but I hope that I have shown, not just the value of this in thinking about the origins of memory studies and the relationship between memory and politics, but also the value of literature in general for thinking about the world.

Literature represents to us versions of the world and any text which shows us power structures or decision-making processes, whether they be in groups of friends or family units, or among the governments of alien planets, will involve us in political reflections, particularly when that text also evokes our empathy for particular characters or points of view. And as we reflect upon those political concerns, internalising the debates depicted in the texts, so we also play a role in establishing these structures in society, taking them forward and reshaping them for future generations. Literature is not only about entertainment or the enrichment of our lives, it’s about reflecting on and formulating the world in which we want to live.

Published by sophieraudnitz

English teacher, Classics PhD, teenaged boys and dogs

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