Updated: Sep 3, 2020
To live infamously or die unknown, that is the question. I recently read an interesting article about Homer’s Iliad which you probably have memories of being assigned to read in high school but very few memories of actually reading it, so I’ll catch you up: The hero of the story, Achilles, is fighting alongside the Greeks in the Trojan War. It’s been prophesized that Achilles will die if he goes to fight, but his name will be immortal. If he chooses instead to return home, he will live a long life but will be forgotten. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest known story from ancient Mesopotamia, dealt with similar themes about fame outliving us.
So, given that option, what would you choose: fight and die but be known forever or live a long, peaceful life but be forgotten? Like the Greeks, I find this human lust for immortality fascinating and have wondered how much of what we do is subconsciously tied to this innate desire to be known forever, to be immortal. Surprisingly, it even ties into travel habits and the way we document our experiences.
Crowds in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
Since my first trip to Europe, I have often curiously watched other visitors as they swarm around a famous city, site, or work of art, just observing the patterns of behavior.
What I’ve noticed is that when we’re in the presence of something famous, we tend to whip out our selfie sticks, ask strangers to take a photo of us, or post a million Instagram pics. Yet, how much do we actually know, or even so much as care to know, about the thing we’re obsessing over in that moment? Do we know what makes it famous? Do we know the history behind it, its cultural context, or its relevancy to contemporary times?
Me looking oh-so-fashionable in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in 2011.
Most of the time, the answer is no. Yet, for some reason we still get this burst of excitement and feeling of accomplishment and prestige just by being in close proximity to a famous object (or place, or person).
How interesting that we somehow connect our own immortality to being associated with “immortal” objects. How interesting that we even bother to capture and document our experiences while we travel. In fact, we go to great lengths to hold on to the memories of the journey; we buy expensive cameras, we spend hours scrapbooking and making photo albums, we paint and sketch on the road, write poetry, and journal about the details of each day. At a minimum, we take photos with our cell phones and share them with the world on social media.
Sketching in Vienna
Whether through selfies with the Mona Lisa or sketches of the cobblestone streets, why do we feel compelled to document our journey at all? Is it to show others what we’re doing, and if so, why do we feel the drive to keep the world updated on our status? In my case, it’s at least partly due to the fact that I have a terrible memory and writing it all down is the only way to guarantee I’ll be able to close my eyes and relive it one day. But if I’m being honest, there’s a tiny part of me that loves the idea of future generations reading my stories..the idea that I can influence and inspire my great granddaughter, perhaps even after I’m dead, is absolutely beautiful.
So then, is our immortality a selfish desire to be remembered, or is it actually tied to survival and evolution- for the betterment of future generations, to learn from us and live more fulfilling lives themselves by knowing our own stories? And in the latter case, does Achilles’ choice to be forgotten then make him selfish, since he’s not passing his story on to subsequent generations?
My sketch of Bernini’s “Apollo & Daphne” in Rome’s Borghese Gallery
There are a million ways to think about this. And indeed, documenting our journey can also be simply a way of self-exploration through creativity. But when it comes to oooohing and aaahing and posting ourselves with a famous painting or landmark that we have very little understanding of… that, my friends, is Achilles choosing to fight. At least I think so.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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