“Rustic shepherds, wretched reproaches, nothing but bellies,
We know how to say many lies similar to the truth
And we know how to speak the truth when we want to.”
“ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ’ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ’ εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι.”
“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”
ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·
In studying memory systems, Martin Conway suggests that there are two forces in human memory: correspondence, which is about equivalence between details of ‘reality’ (or experience) and details of a story and coherence, which means that details make sense together in a narrative. When it comes to the way these systems operate in the human mind, not only does he argue that the memory systems have different neuro-anatomy, but he suggests that the episodic memory system (which prizes correspondence) developed earlier and is more basic to day-to-day survival than the autobiographical memory system which focuses more on coherence and is essential for the development of a goal or ‘identity’ driven self. The two systems are not exclusive—autobiographical memory selects from episodic memory in the creation of a coherent self.
Perhaps rather than considering these moments from the Theogony and the Odyssey as reflections of a tension between “fact and fiction”, we might find the relationship of correspondence and coherence more illuminating. Just as the Theogonic narrative selects from the range of mythical episodes to create a coherent narrative that is goal-driven, so too does Odysseus select and reintegrate details throughout books 13–19 in order to reintegrate into his community and complete a narrative of vengeance.
Some things to read
Martin A. Conway. “Memory and the Self,” Journal of Memory and Language 53 (2005) 594-628.
Charles Fernyhough. Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Past. London: Profile, 2012.
David C. Rubin. “The Basic-systems Model of Episodic Memory,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1 (2006) 277-311.
Edmund Wilson. “On Free Will and How the Brain is Like a Colony of Ants.” Harper’s September 2014, 49-52.