Memory subverts all expectations, memory is revolutionary
Whoever remembers does so by taking steps backwards, and sometimes that is the right thing to do. Reaching what is faraway always starts with what is close by. Once, the Muses played this role, today we call them museums
They tell stories, and this encourages others to tell their stories and, even more importantly, to weave memories together and carry them faraway during their continuous migrations, enshrining them in their lives by making them the memories of others. In this way, even what has not been experienced can be remembered. Memories create other memories, the past becomes clear in the present and, by clarifying the past, the future can be glimpsed. Think of the singers, the soothsayers and the bards at the dawn of Mediterranean civilisation.
They were depicted as blind, not because they were but because the inability to see things close by gave the mind the opportunity to roam, to go beyond, to imagine, to mingle reality and invention in order to illuminate only the truth, the ultimate purpose of every story. Try closing your eyes, they used to say in those days, and you will see what can only be seen in your imagination. Tiresia was blind, Demodocus at the court of the Phoenicians was blind, even Homer was blind, according to tradition. Here, then, is a contemporary need: to create a place in which the present, that which is before the eyes, vanishes until it is the mind's eye that sees what open eyes can only gaze at. Seeing to understand the present and plan the future. I would like to reach that place, a space for our memory.
Ulysses is the hero of memory and Homer begins his tale by invoking the Muse to tell him the stories of that journey and return, and he finishes with a touch of genius that combines food and memory in a way that left its mark. I will tell you.
Ulysses had by then seized back control of his island, those who wanted to take control of his reign had been massacred with the help of the gods, and a new civic order had to be acknowledged and accepted by all. At this point, Homer introduces a private matter as a mirror of the public events, as Plato would do in the Republic and Shakespeare in Hamlet. Ulysses sets off to meet his old father, Laertes, who had withdrawn to the countryside in his grief as a father and king. He sees him bent and badly dressed, weighed down by age and grief and crying copiously. Only then, moved by compassion, does Ulysses take the great step of revealing himself. Appearance, time and age had changed both and it was not a simple matter for an unknown to pass himself off as the new legitimate king. The father has to be convinced and, after so much suffering, suspicion is reasonable. We modern readers ask ourselves: how can a father not recognise his son, a glance should be enough, his scent, a sound. No, that would make everything too mundane and too easy, perhaps a good thing in real life, but not in a story. In a story, the present alone is not enough. Homer introduces a brilliant invention, like a great director. Ulysses, in order to be recognised, tells his father how, as a young boy, he had been taught by him how to plant pear trees, apples, figs and vines to produce rich and abundant rows.
As a boy, I followed you with unequal /Steps to the garden or to this or that tree / Asking you; and you, as we went among them, /Told me of their nature, and the name.
Only then did Laertes recognise and embrace him. See the genius? The father recognises his son through the knowledge he himself had passed on to him. Knowledge recognises itself and that knowledge was linked to the secrets of agriculture, for subsistence, certainly, but also for rituals. It is the last book of the Odyssey, but not the last verses. Peace has returned to the realm and Ulysses orders a feast to be prepared. This is the Odyssey’s finale. The story of all stories ends at the table. Do you remember? All imagination, you say. History, with a capital ‘H’, is no exception. I remember once reading in a book that the Normans, with the aid of the Republic of Pisa, drove the Arabs out of Sicily. So says history. They drove out the leaders, the commanders, the governors, certainly, but not the cannoli, originally a popular pastry in the Islamic world. Luckily, the cannoli are still there, if anyone still doubts the influences that forever defined the nature of civilisation. A great deal of information can be drawn from stories about food and its preparation. The birth and development of the medieval city, the enforced clearances up to the boundaries of the city walls, faithfully depicted in the great frescos by Lorenzetti and Benozzo Gozzoli, these activities created fields to be cultivated, wood for burning and materials for building. The urban population increased and became concentrated within the walls, more food was needed, along with different methods of cultivation and animal-rearing, different ways of selling produce in the markets, and celebrating it by shouting its qualities louder than anyone else in order to reach the ears of customers. It was what came to mind 700 years later when Raffaele Viviani wrote one of his masterpieces without text, using only the shouts of the food vendors in the Naples maritime station. Migrants. Men departing, interwoven memories, stories to be preserved.
Someone should start collecting and reviving all these stories and construct new forms of story, starting with the traditional tales. It would be an alternative way of showing us how our civilisation evolved.
What I have in mind is an etymological museum, the home of a muse, a place to be visited, experienced, which, at the same time, collects, cultivates and rears ingredients and cooks up stories to be served up in a digestible, satisfying and nourishing way. Food for the mind, in short, the collections of little local organisations where these stories are created and where they are most easily preserved. The places and ways of eating are always connected to pauses, to moments of meditation, time spent together. To paraphrase Focault: knowledge, pleasure and taking care of oneself.