Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
--David Bowie, “Changes”
Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved coined the term “rememory.” This term’s basic principle purports that events experienced by one person at one time can be available to for experience by another person in another time. In other words, experiences are not just contained in the memory of one person, but in the cultural memory of an entire group.
This term resurfaced when I was teaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses to my World Literature class. Ovid attempts to demonstrate the changes people, gods, and cultures experience through various tales and stories from their religion, or to us Greek Mythology. He tells of Creation and a great Flood (sound familiar). He also explains the four great ages of man: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.
What I found so interesting about his explanation was how the four ages represented the shift of humankind from foragers to civilization. Would the Greeks have recognized this through study and retold the tale in terms of mythology, or is it so ingrained in the culture memory that Ovid rememories it? Possibly, Ovid’s cultural memory, the ghostly remembrance of cultural shift, resurfaces through his explanation and understanding of the Ages.
For example, the Golden Age is without seasons. Ovid describes,
People were unaggressive, and unanxious;
The years went by in peace. And Earth, untroubled,
Unharried by hoe or plowshare, brought forth all
That men had need for, and those men were happy,
Gathering berries from the mountain sides…
In the Silver Age, seasons were added, houses were built, and “the seeds of grain were planted […] and the oxen struggled /Groaning and laboring under the heavy yoke.” People have moved from being foragers who migrated with the season (demonstrating their rememoried sense of a season-less time) to small agricultural communities.
Naturally, we know what comes next in the Bronze Age. With all civilizations, overseas or even in our own history here in America, “dispositions / took on aggressive instincts, quick to arm / yet not entirely evil.” With more people, with the villages collecting more permanent residents, people began to fight over land and food.
Finally, the Iron Age is loosed and
[…] modesty and truth
and righteousness fled earth, and in their place
came trickery and slyness, plotting, swindling,
violence and the damned desire of having.
Men set sail and waged war. Ovid notes, that “precious metal” had become “The root of evil.” The accuracy of Ovid’s lines frightens me. He describes the rise and fall of countries and peoples elegantly. Did he see his verse as more than a retelling, or did he imbue his poetry with the rememory of his people?
My interest lies, then, in the future. What will American rememory be like? In two hundred years, when the printed book is sold in novelty shops and antique stores, what will scholars say about your work? What will biblio-archeologists who dig up your text suggest about the culture that spawned you?