Avi Garelick

Afterthought on “Incest, Cannibalism, and the Gods”


This article responds to Michael Kinnucan’s piece, Incest, Cannibalism, and the Gods: The Rise of the House of Atreus.

I want to highlight something that is key to Michael Kinnucan’s essay which I think may have been ignored. Memory, in the structure of Olympian Greek myth, is in the realm of deed, not thought. It acts upon you. He says so all but explicitly in the penultimate paragraph of the essay: “In a certain sense, the trial also represents a victory of thought over memory. … We can ask what he ought to have done. Thought gains primacy over the deed....” This paragraph itself presents a fascinating dichotomy. On the ascendant: thought, along with speech and reason, as well as argument, motive, and justice. In decline: deed and memory, along with the weight of guilt. Forgetting falls into the former camp, serving as an antidote to memory.

Memory here serves a mechanistic function. It is “the way the past presses on us,” not via our own mental work but via an external mechanism. Memory waits patiently outside of us; it takes the faceless forms of the Fates and the Furies. This is why Tantalus acts without reason: because the whole of his person is present to memory in his actions alone. That is, the human subject is affected by memory in the realm of activity and not in the realm of conscious consideration. Whereas the gods possess insight—which is a defense against the traps laid by their enemies—human beings are driven completely by impulse, of which memory is a kind. It works as a force: thus too the weight of guilt. The weight of guilt is fundamentally different from justice. It is generated unthinkingly by the circumstance of one’s actions. Justice considers one’s actions but is primarily a reconfiguration of them by way of speech, reason, and argument. Speech, reason, argument and therefore justice are all symptoms of our interpretive ability.

Memory, as we conceive of it presently, has migrated to the genre of the above modes of interpretation. Memory for us is as much a process of filtering as of retention. Forgetting is integral to this kind of memory. A curse, however, is external to us, is never inconsistent, it never disappears when we ignore it. It is complete unto itself and it is insistent. Such memory has its own ledger—it won’t allow you to forget upon it. It is free from you.