Revisiting: Other People’s Epics

Every Some third Saturdays of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “Other People’s Epics.” The first sentence is no longer quite true, but otherwise I think it holds of reasonably well. I spun out this theme quite a lot, possibly ad nauseum, at the Thinking Grounds. Immediate sequels included “Other People’s Mystery Novels” and “Other People’s [Insert Genre]s.”

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Briton Riviere’s Una and the Lion. Una is the romantic interest of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Book One. Source: Sofi at flic.rk/p/ftjgXA


Other People’s Epics

One of my recurrent pastimes is to imagine what another person’s epic might look like.

As far as genres go, the epic is one of my favourites to think about. No individual epic counts among my favourite books (though, you know, Paradise Lost is pretty great). The reason I like thinking about them is that, at least in the English tradition, they have become a kind of formal game, thanks to the humanists of early modern England. (Note to readers: “early modern” is the new PC term for “Renaissance;” in England the early modern period spans the 1500s and 1600s, but it got started earlier in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc.). Let’s dive into a bit of history, shall we?

In early modern Europe, there was this group of artists and scholars called the humanists (who are different from the existing group of people who call themselves humanists). They believed in lots of things which were revolutionary for the time, like the idea that people’s talents were formed through education rather than inheritance, and that the arts were crucial to intellectual and moral education. They were also pretty keen on the Classics, especially the newly-rediscovered Aristotle. (Or, at least, newly rediscovered in Europe; in Baghdad Aristotle was well-known.) Emulation (mimesis) and variation-on-a-theme/pattern were central to their pedagogy. Thus they emulated the ancient Greek and Roman writers.* One of the genres they embraced was the epic. In the Greco-Roman tradition, famous examples are Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though many humanists (most notably Edmund Spenser) patterned their careers on Virgil’s. Dante was the first early modern poet to write a successful epic–The Divine Comedy–and Spenser introduced the form to the English language much later in The Faerie Queene.

The humanists liked classifying and defining poetic genres, and we have them to thank for a lot of the very rigid forms, like sonnets. So when they wrote epics, they codified conventions that their Classical predecessors included somewhat more haphazardly. For instance, early modern epics are usually divided into twelve books, because that’s what Virgil did. Some of these conventions have become part of a formal definition for epics as you’d read in a dictionary of literary terms: they must include a katabasis (a descent to the underworld); they must include divine intervention of some kind; they are broad in scope, covering the known world, both geographically and intellectually (they almost always include references to recent scientific discoveries and inventions, reference to historical events, literary allusion, and so on); the protagonist must be aristocratic and must embody the virtues held in high esteem by the audience/author; it must begin in media res; it must describe an event that is of great historical or mythological importance to the community in which the epic was written. However, other traits became just as conventional, and just as necessary, in early modern Europe (or England, anyway). A professor I once had said that any poet who wanted to be somebody had to include in their epic a description of the dawn which beat out Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn (or at least beat out their contemporaries’ descriptions). Other necessities were a half-snake half-woman creature, a talking tree, catalogues of objects, and ekphrasis (a description of a work of art); all of these were drawn from Homer, Virgil, or Ovid. EDIT 24 July 2013: Another crucial convention is the digression. Epics almost always have long asides–sometimes these are flashbacks (pairing with the convention of in media res), sometimes these are history lessons, sometimes these are even premonitions of what is to come (oracles and prophecies are also epic conventions), but often the digressions are bits of plot that wander off from the main goal. Characters might get lost, or separated from their companions, or get kidnapped or imprisoned. They may have dalliances with seductresses or get distracted by red herrings. The coarse of a true epic never does run smooth. /EDIT

Early modern epics were almost always in verse, usually in heroic couplets. (A common way of organizing them was twelve Books divided into cantos, which were themselves divided into stanzas, which were themselves in couplets…but not all epics were like this.) In fact, strict definitions often insist that epics are written in verse, but many people allow for prose epics, and I’d argue that prose epics are still being written. Paradise Lost was the last great verse epic, as Milton himself declared; after this, most verse epics were mock epics. The Dunciad is perhaps the most famous of the mock epics, but I did once know someone who was working on a mock epic detailing the colonization of Trinidad.

(History lesson over)

Looking over the list of requirements, it should be clear that epics of this kind** are especially well suited to expressing their author’s ideology. Of course all texts contain ideology, but epics do so very explicitly. The topic must be formative to the community and the protagonist must be exemplary of the community’s values. The presence of the Underworld and the gods means that the religious and mythic sensibilities of the group are involved. The scope means that the epic gives a shape of the physical and intellectual world of the community. Epics are often nationalist. Thus Spencer was deliberately writing an English epic. Sometimes, however, epics are more religious than nationalist; Milton, who thought that England’s climate made English culture tepid and generally worthless, avoided the national epic and instead wrote a Christian epic. But whatever group they represent, they do it explicitly and obviously. This makes them very good places to examine a particular worldview. Bakhtin (who I’ve mentioned before) says that epics have a single viewpoint; they are monoglossic, one-voiced. And as much as I’ve been talking about early modern epics, I think more contemporary epics exist: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and lots of other fantasy obviously fit most of the criteria (Tolkien was writing a saga, not an epic, but the two are similar and it seems clear that he was incorporating early modern epic conventions, too; while the Narniad did not start as an epic for Lewis, it seems clear to me that, by The Magician’s Nephew, or maybe even The Silver Chair, he knew that he was writing one). But I also think that Wade Davis’ nonfictional/historical/semi-autobiographical One River is an ethnobotanical epic. I don’t think for a second that Davis intended to make it an epic, but it actually fulfills every single requirement, right down to the snake-lady and the description of the dawn. (Also, The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are film epics if you let Will’s father-become-part-of-the-ship count as a talking tree–Ovid’s and Spenser’s talking trees were usually people turned into trees. I don’t know what worldview the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are showcasing, though. That’s something to puzzle out.)

What makes the epic so amusing to me, then, is that as a genre the epic is almost like a fill-in-the-blanks for ideology. You have all these empty fields which you fill in with content; once you’ve filled in the fields, you have an epic. What’s interesting, of course, is to see how the different features change based on what worldview is slotted in. For instance, in Paradise Lost, the katabasis is Satan’s flight into Hell after losing the War in Heaven. In The Faerie Queene, the talking tree is a man who was seduced by a witch (who signified the Catholic Church) and was turned into a tree when he discovered who she was, but in The Lord of the Rings, written by an environmentalist, the talking trees were Ents, early eco-warriors. In The Faerie Queene the hero is a gentleman-knight; in Lord of the Rings he is a hobbit, an analogue for the simple rural men-at-arms in WWI’s trenches; in One River the hero is a revolutionary ethnobotanist who has what Davis calls a taxonomic eye, the innate ability to identify taxonomy at a glance. Good epics of course are not really just highly stylized Mad Libs; a skilled epic poet or writer will make creative use of the genre’s constraints rather than be a slave to them. So what I like to do is imagine what different kinds of epics would look like. What would an environmentalist epic look like? (Probably a lot like The Lord of the Rings.) What would a Canadian epic look like? What would an Anglican, or Catholic, or Mormon, or Muslim epic look like? What would a librarian’s epic hero’s virtues be, or an engineer’s, or a home-maker’s? What would be the Underworld in a Dutch-Canadian epic, an Asian-Canadian epic, an Inuit epic?

I also think about the sorts of world-views that make me uncomfortable. What would an Islamaphobic epic look like? A homophobic epic? A white supremist epic? An anti-feminist epic? This is less fun, but it might be a helpful exercise.

Ultimately, though, I realize that The Faerie Queene is not just an English epic; Spenser wrote it as a handbook on courtly behaviour. It is an English Anglican aristocratic humanist epic. Milton wanted to write a definitive Christian epic, but Paradise Lost is in fact an Arminian Copernican materialist Christian epic. Or, even more accurately, The Faerie Queene is Spenser’s epic; Paradise Lost is Milton’s. So as fun as it is to figure out what a feminist’s epic would be, I really need to be thinking what a specific person’s epic would be. What is my epic? What is, say, Stephen Harper’s epic or David Suzuki’s epic? What is your epic?

I wish people still wrote epics, because while imagining other people’s epics is fun, being surprised to find out how another person used the snake-lady is even more fun. We must watch how we imagine other people’s stories, because when we do so we run a terrible risk of reducing them. For this reason I would prefer to read them rather than imagine them, but since most people don’t write epics, all I’ve got is the imagining.

*If all of this stuff about humanism sounds vaguely familiar and not especially noteworthy, it’s because much of our culture is descended from humanism. It was radical at the time: the neo-Platonic monastic tradition was the real force in education and art prior to humanism’s advent, along with a sense (among aristocrats) that high culture was exclusively aristocratic. To our eyes, the monastics come off as seeming rather silly (for instance, they believed that the names of objects were intrinsic to the object, while humanists believed that names were socially assigned to objects), but it’s important to remember that in most circles the monastic tradition was taken as obviously true until the humanists showed up.
If you’re thinking that it looks more familiar than just a vague permeation of our culture and instead sounds a lot like the ideas of the Inklings, or of W. H. Auden, or of T. S. Eliot, then you’d be correct; these writers are known as Christian humanists because of their affinity with Shakespeare, Sydney, Spenser, Wyatt, Marlowe, et al. Christian humanism is a lot bigger than neo-classicism, of course.

**I say “epics of this kind” because in a more anthropological or comparative-literature sense, the Greco-Roman and early modern European traditions of epics weren’t the only ones. Lots of people count sagas and  puranas as epics; there’s a whole system of designation between oral or primary epics and literate or secondary epics which includes lots of things that don’t fit here. However, I’m focusing on the tradition I’m familiar with, that one epitomized by Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene.

What World Do You Live In?, Part 3

[You may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.]

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Source: Ruth at flic.kr/p/rQKEbo

W. Paul Jones seems to have two uses in mind for his Theological Worlds construct: self-diagnosis and pastoral planning. First, the Theological Worlds can help individuals understand themselves. Second, the Theological Worlds can help churches organize their congregation into sub-congregations according to Theological World so that the congregants are engaging with people who fundamentally understand them. If the Inventory is mostly useless to you because, as I discussed previously, the questions make no sense to you, the first use does not apply to you. If you aren’t part of a congregation or other group that might reasonably organize itself in the way Jones imagines, the second use also does not apply to you.

These aren’t the only uses, though. My first exposure to Jones was through Richard Beck, and one of his insights was that if people don’t understand that everyone has their own Theological World, standard attempts of proselytization will fall flat:

Now, it’s a big shocker for some Christians to find out that many of their brothers and sisters don’t live within this theological world. Sin isn’t their obsessio. Not that they deny the existence and problem of sin, just that sin isn’t the defining quandary of their spiritual lives.

I am an example of a Christian of this stripe. Sin and guilt isn’t my obsessio. If you tell me that I’m going to hell I’ll just blink at you blandly and yawn. I’m emotionally unmoved. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to go to heaven. I do. I just don’t spend my life trying to save my own skin.

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What World Do You Live In? Part 2

(Read Part 1 first.)

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Source: the LAMP at flic.kr/p/ejNXiW

Having read his book, I had expectations about which theological world(s) W. Paul Jones’s Theological Worlds Inventory would place me in. World 3—that of T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” of people who feel like they might be wearing a mask over a personal emptiness—had most appealed to me in the book. Immediately on reading about it I felt an overwhelming recognition that I felt when reading about neither World 1 or World 2. (This was itself a bit of a surprise: based on the book’s introduction, World 3 did not look promising.) I had expected World 2 (animated by a conflict between violent chaos and small bastions of peace) to follow it fairly closely, and then World 4 (concerned with personal sin and forgiveness) a bit after. I did not expect to have much in common with World 1 (haunted by the universe’s apparent meaninglessness) or World 5 (characterized by unremitting suffering and endurance).

So while I was not surprised that the Inventory placed me high in World 3, I was surprised that it placed me just as high in World 5. (World 2 followed close, and Worlds 1 and 4 were equally and very far behind.) Indeed, the results are a bit flat and I think there might be problems with the Inventory itself, but on reading the descriptions in the Inventory I’m inclined to agree that I’m just as much an inhabitant of World 5 as World 3. I’ll discuss this in detail toward the end of the post; first, I want to look at the Inventory itself and the reasons I think it has problems.

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What World Do You Live In? Part 1

One of the lenses through which I look at ideas and the people who hold them is W Paul Jones’s theological worlds concept. I wrote about Jones’s theological worlds before here, having learned about them in his book of the same name; they are personality types of a sort, though they pertain more to a person’s root cosmology than to whether or not a person enjoys going to parties.

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Source: Classic Art Wallpapers at flic.kr/p/nKDY9i

I want to talk a bit more about the theological worlds now that I’ve taken Jones’s “Theological World Inventory” and gotten somewhat surprising results. As such rather a lot of this discussion will be navel-gazing, but I think even so that will throw off some useful material nonetheless. In this first post I’ll re-introduce the concept; in the second I’ll discuss the Inventory and my results; in the third I want to think a bit about the typology’s usefulness (including to whom the typology is useful).

Theological Worlds

Each theological world represents the fundamental dynamic, or perhaps dialectic, underlying a person’s engagement with the world. Jones’s own words from the introduction to his inventory will work as an introduction to the idea:

A World results from the interaction between two poles. The first is one’s obsessio, that lived question, need, ache, or dilemma which has its teeth into us at the deepest level. Other concerns are variations on that basic theme, standing in line behind its importance. The second pole is one’s epiphania, that which through one or more events, moments, and/or persons brings sufficient illumination, satisfaction, or healing to provide a lived answer worth wagering one’s life upon. One’s epiphania is what touches promisingly one’s obsession as fact or as hope.1

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After the End P.1: Madness and Meaning on the Fury Road

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Source: Kaysha at flic.kr/p/sK8Pe3

Watching Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller 2015), which I very much enjoyed, I was struck by how existentialist the film was; indeed, it made me realize that all post-apocalyptic fiction has an existentialist seed. But then, there is also something post-apocalyptic about existentialism. God is dead, spake Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. God remains dead. And we have killed him. If that doesn’t announce an apocalypse, I don’t know what does.

When Nietzsche declared God dead, he was not making a metaphysical claim but rather a moral and psychological claim: at one point, humanity relied on the authority of God to guarantee moral questions. In order to decide what to do, what kind of decision to make, they appealed to God; moreover, this appeal was beyond question. But as Nietzsche pointed out, by the end of the seventeenth century God no longer had ultimate moral authority. People might well still believe in God and derive their morality from that belief, but it was no longer the case that any moral code, any moral prescript, was unquestionable. God as a figure for absolute norms was dead. This was not a physical apocalypse but it was, at least, a social and ethical one. And as with so many apocalypses, some of us survived it (though, as Dallas Hunt might point out, the question is not so much “did we survive?” but “who is the ‘we’ that survived?”).

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The Shape of Truth and of Error

Even if you’ve only been paying attention to me since I started this blog, one thing you might have noticed is that I am interested in other people’s various worldviews. In particular I find myself compelled by their structures or their shapes.* I enjoy looking at these worldviews on their own, but I also like gathering together different tools for analyzing each worldview. For instance, I wrote about contextual and idiosyncratic theology and philosophy, and in the course of that I described W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds. Even more than Jones, Richard Beck’s writing at Experimental Theology on Terror Management Theory, derived from the insights of Ernest Becker, especially influences my thought. Beyond my own favourites there are many ways of describing the shape of a worldview.

Source: Rob Deutscher at flic.kr/p/dLctyw

Source: Rob Deutscher at flic.kr/p/bF8brf

When I mention these general ways of organizing worldviews to friends, family, and acquaintances, some people respond well and some people are resistant. I suspect that many people resist because looking at the forms and functions worldviews generally take calls into question how true those worldviews can or might be. Should we be suspicious of a worldview that looks quite generic in its shape, if not in its details? What are the odds that a worldview is true if it is good at resolving psychological tensions, what many people call wish-fulfillment? I think, though, that this is the wrong way of looking at the problem.

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Idiosyncratic Philosophy?

[Note: An unedited version of this post slipped my notice and was published. The changes were in the order of the material presented, in correcting typos, and in adding links.]

I have another question for you.

Last week I asked about a possible analogy in philosophy for contextual theology; if all theology is contextual, because in different contexts people have different questions and people who ask different questions find different answers, surely the same must be true for other forms of inquiry, like philosophy? And if some theology makes explicit its origins in a particular context, is there or could there be some philosophy that makes explicit its own origins in its own context?

Source: Steve Rhodes at flic.kr/p/e8p8tR

Source: Steve Rhodes at flic.kr/p/e8p8tR

Well, now I have a new question.

While describing W. Paul Jones’s 1989 Theological Worlds with my brother the other day, it occurred to me that psychology, personality, or idiosyncrasy might play a role in a person’s philosophy as well. Of course it is obvious to say this in the sense of lay philosophy, of the attitudes and approaches all people carry about with them, but I’d like to think about how academic philosophy might be idiosyncratic as well. Bear in mind, of course, that my experience of academic philosophy is distant at best (I read it now and again, and I took a few courses in my undergraduate: an Intro to Philosophy, the Philosophy of Mathematics, and an Ethics and Social Philosophy course).

Let’s begin with Theological Worlds and then move on to more general ideas. (I am going to describe the Worlds at some length in order to help you get a sense of what Jones means; if it becomes too much, read only the next three paragraphs and then skip to the bottom.)

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If Aristotle Wrote a Tragedy: On Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean

An image of a bust of Aristotle

Source: Nick Thompson at https://flic.kr/p/buoLYU

Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is a first novel that does not read like a first novel, likely because the author was first a poet; the pacing and characterization are both very professionally done, and tie in well with the novel’s central themes. That connection is important, given that this is a novel about Aristotle as he tutors the young prince of Macedon who will become Alexander the Great, and that its themes include philosophy’s effects on life, and life’s influences on philosophy. You can see traces of the way Aristotle’s experiences sow the seeds for his philosophy, to the extent that late in the novel Alexander accuses Aristotle of creating a philosophy out of how great it is to be Aristotle. Like everything Alexander says, this criticism is unfair and it is also very close to the truth; its perversity is in how he can fumble or limit the truth just as he grasps it.*

Of course The Golden Mean is about Aristotle in Macedon, and Aristotle’s life to that point; it is also about depression, at times, or the soul’s vicissitudes generally; it is about the relationship between teachers and students, fathers and sons, and the ways they fail each other. Toward the end of the novel it seems as though Lyon wanted us to understand that the novel was about what counts as the good life: certainly this is Aristotle’s question, but in the last fifth of the novel particular versions of this question—“What is the mean between extremes?”; “Is it better to live a life of action or a life of contemplation?”—become more obvious and insistent. I do not know whether this is primarily my failure or primarily the novel’s, but it was not clear to me until the end that these were the novel’s major questions, and I would not have noticed if Lyon had not made it so obvious, almost too obvious, in the final pages. But of course the question about the good life is the one that most occupied the Greek philosophers, so it makes sense that it should occupy a book about Aristotle.

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