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.