Celebrating the Past: Horace's Odes as Aide Mémoire

Thom, S. (2008)

The original publication is available at http://akroterion.journals.ac.za

Journal Article

In Travels with Herodotus Ryszard Kapuscinski writes: "Herodotus admits that he was obsessed with memory, fearful on its behalf. He felt that memory is something defective, fragile, impermanent – illusory, even. That whatever it contains, whatever it is storing, can evaporate, simply vanish without a trace. His whole generation, everyone living on earth at that time, was possessed by that same fear. Without memory one cannot live, for it is what elevates man above beasts, determines the contours of the human soul; and yet it is at the same time so unreliable, elusive, treacherous. It is precisely what makes man so unsure of himself ... In the world of Herodotus, the only real repository of memory is the individual" (2008:75-76). In this discussion of memory, Kapuscinski does not ask what memory is. He simply assumes a very basic definition namely that memory’s primary function is to preserve what has gone before. However, Kapuscinki’s reflection on why an “unsuccessful process” such as memory is so fundamental, is more interesting. Memory provides a starting point. One cannot step into the same river twice, but at least the river of memory is there. Without memory no progress of any kind would be possible. Memory establishes what the past contained so that the present can move forward. This is the very basis for all human development. The fact is, as individuals and collectively, we cannot and do not have to start over all the time. Because it already contains the past – even though a fragmented past – memory provides us with a springboard into the future. Taking the importance of memory as a given, I would like to consider briefly why Horace would engage with and celebrate the past so consistently. Subsequently I would like to consider more carefully how this celebration of the past functions as an aide-mémoire for his audience.

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