The Epic and the Past
Over on OF Blog of the Fallen, Larry posts an interesting translation of a snippet of conversation between Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges pertaining to the epic. They discuss the viewpoints of other writers and critics, and give their own perspective on them (albeit very briefly).
Ortega y Gasset (paraphrased): the epic is the genre that is about other times and which is completely distant from our lives.
Borges: [T]he epic is there continually in life... in the Spanish Civil War.
I'm with Borges here. Hell, that's what The Book of All Hours is all about -- the idea that the bourgeois assumption of an existence distant from epic is an illusion, that the epic is here and now, in our lives. Not coincidentally, I think, the Spanish Civil War is what represents that most deeply for me, and has a thematic centrality in the book because of that.
The past is another country.
The past is another country, maybe, but if so it is only a border-crossing away. It is a land riven, in turmoil. It is Spain 1938, where socialists and communists, anarchists and fascists are struggling for control. Only the complacent watch from the sidelines of the present, imagining that struggle has no impact on their lives, that it is irrelevant. They live in an expedient illusion. Cretins or cowards, they are unwilling or unable to see the extent to which the fascist and communist forces of there and then are funded, supported, by the fascist and communist forces of here and now, that our complacency becomes complicity when it permits that involvement to go unchecked. Such denial is contemptible.
If the past is Spain 1938, the present is another country also. There is a part of the present that is not us (at least I hope it is not us, not you reading this or me writing it). That part of our present, that other country which you and I co-exist with and should be aware of, is the Germany and Russia of the same year. The Hitlers and Stalins of those other countries are our Hitlers, our Stalins, channeling resources from the here and now next door to us, back to the mirror-image forces of might and violence who would rip that country of the past apart, tear down the Republic and raise an Empire in its place.
They seek to to rewrite the Spain of the past, these imperialists of the present. Nazis or Stalinists, their ideology is no matter -- as Orwell realised, his faith in socialism shattered by that realisation -- the different colours of their flags only a superficial painting-over of their deeper identity, the distance between them only that of the two prongs of a concerted pincer attack. Behind them, on both sides, is the Empire of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, the lie of the One True Truth symbolised by swastika or hammer and sickle -- or by cross or crescent of Neo-Con or Islamist, for that matter. They intervene in this Spain of the past because they seek to rewrite it, to validate the subsequent rewriting of the present.
By rewriting the past, you see, one can turn history into propaganda, atrocity into triumph, slaughter into glory. One can claim the most heinous event as an imperial territory, a symbol around which one rallies the moral infants and idiots (those whose ethics are undeveloped or retarded by moralistic unreason, I mean). If Kosovo is the locus of Serbian valour, after all, the "good Serb" (which is to say the moral Serb, which is to say the ethically undeveloped or retarded Serb) could not possibly accept its loss; this is a territory owned, to be defended, to be crushed if it denies its ownership.
Or one can erase that part of history which might challenge your propaganda, bury the atrocity, wipe out all memory of slaughter. If we deny the Holocaust, if we can persuade the world it never happened, how much easier it will be to carry out that Holocaust again in a world unprepared for it. Who now remembers the Armenians? Who now even remembers that Hitler asked that question? The words "never forget" are not an empty catchphrase. They are a call to arms, a cry, a command to defend the past from those who would rewrite it.
The epic is the battleground of that struggle, and all too often it is a ground claimed by the Empire, won by might and violence in the name of might and violence. Noble princes raised as orphans, struggling up, over the bodies of their "evil" enemies to take the throne as rightful king. The crown won by the sword. This is the lying rhetoric of the Empire victorious, history rewritten, atrocity exalted or excised. If the past is another country, however, the battle is never utterly lost; even if history is written by the victors we can return to it in memory, in emulation of the Internationals, to carry on the struggle. If the past is another country, the words never forget are an echo of that other clarion call, to carve a line across that country, and to hold that line:
They shall not pass.
If we ignore the struggle for history it will inevitably spill out from that distant country of the past, across the borders, into the present. Let the Falangists win and that struggle spreads out into Europe, across the world. And we must know this, admit this. If the present is Germany and Russia of that year, 1938, it is also the world of that year, from every corner of which the International Brigades will come, must come, to fight against the fall of the Republic, the forces of the Empire. We inhabit that world in that year. We live with the epic just across the border. But we are safe, we think, in our little corner of Britain, or America, or wherever. The struggle is happening far away, in another country. It is already lost, that Spanish Civil War, already over, in the past. It does not involve us, does not affect us.
There are lies, lies, and damned lies. This lie of the complacent and complicit is the latter.
The Spanish Civil War, the eternal Civil War for the Spain of the past, is not over, will never be over. The epic is not distant from our lives but right beside us, all around us. Here it is. This is the epic, the heroic, in the shape of Stevie Fullarton, the last surviving Scottish member of the International Brigades, the last Scottish survivor of the War in Spain, now dead and deserving all the honour of any hero of any epic struggle -- more deserving, I'll wager, than many of those bloody-handed Rolands or El Cids of history whose struggle was for their own tribe or race or nation or religion, more deserving certainly than any knight of a charade of a Crusade, real or imagined, any war waged against a shadow of the Other as enemy, in a combat practised with pogroms and persecution. Like, say, the War on Terror. Or, say, the Jihad against modern Babylon.
Fuck it, there are no "other times". There is only now.
Dallas: The lyric corresponds to the first person and to the future; drama to the second person and to the present; the epic to the third person and to the past.
The lyric is first person, yes, but it is bound (bound now, that is, in its modern form) as much to the past as to the future, to the elegy of the flute as much as to the idyll of the lyre that gave it the name. The two were always bedfellows, the joy of the past embedded in the sorrow at its passing, and vice versa. The yearning for return to the past is what binds the lyric to the future, because that restoration can only take place in the future. In fact, that duality of past and future situates the lyric in an eternal present, where past and future are pressing absences, losses and potentials. Only when past and future can be made present does the lyric transform into the rapture of the revel, the Song of Here and Now. That song is fierce in its passion, tense in its uncertainty. It echoes the archaic bellow of the minotaur in the labyrinth of our city streets, and it hums like a taut steel string in resonance with the machinery of the future.
This mode of lyric is not intrinsically distinct from that of drama and epic; this sort of poetry informs the original language of both -- is the language of both, in some ways, in some works. Add narrative and remove some of the music (the lyre, the flute), let the poetry be spoken instead of sung, and you have the beginnings of drama and epic. The lyric can still be heard in the latter, in the idyll under peril or already destroyed, in the elegies for the fallen heroes, and in the revels that Dionysus brings to the Empire in the shape of Thebes. To the Empire every singer is a would-be rebel, a corrupter of youth, decadent and depraved, a loaded sex pistol, power chords of velvet revolution in their rock and roll revels.
The dramatic form corresponds to second person and to the present... in a way. It is played out before you, around you, right here and right now, as you watch. This offers such potential for engagement it is hard to overstate the power of the form, and yet the pathetic pretence of contemporary realism -- pathetic in all senses of the term -- is that this drama should therefore reflect, and only reflect, the drama of the audience. How else can we engage with the audience (create the requisite sense of pathos) if we do not present it with a drama it can relate to, a drama on its everyday scale, a "real" drama of psychological, inter-personal and socio-political issues? But the audience is inherently passive in its relationship to the drama, submissive to it, and so the drama intent on reflecting that audience becomes the drama of the willing victim or the victim with no will at all. If drama corresponds to second person it is not because it is about what you do but because it is about what happens to you.
This is the domestic drama of the drawing-room, the kitchen-sink, the water-cooler. It is the drama of victims bound to those environs, unable or unwilling to escape because that would require them to be active, to become agents in their own life. It is the drama of lack of agency or ineffective agency and of how this plays out into unrequited love, failing relationships, extra-marital affairs, domestic abuse, unemployment, incest -- all the mundane permutations of sex and death, families and finances. It is the drama of the undefiant, the defeated and defeatist. It is the drama which circumscribes all desire and dread within a depressive's delusion of determinacy. If there are victories they must be small or partial, within the limitations of what is possible for you, the passive, submissive audience of your own life. If there is death or destruction, it is seldom that of a true hero or a true villain. The nearest this drama approaches such intensity is when it allows itself sensationalism, "rises" to the mode of melodrama, the soap-operatic artifice which tells you that your mundane misery is actually really, really, REALLY important. Gossip painted as grandiose.
Other forms of drama exist however. However being written for you limits them as well, in some respects.
Tragedy is about the destruction of the agent. For the Greeks it was a matter of miasma. To act as autonomous agent, ignoring the guidance of the gods, inevitably leads to some infraction of the divine laws, a stain of sin that poisons the world and summons the Furies with the scent of (usually familial) blood. Hubris leads to nemesis. In Shakespeare the Furies become Fortune, but it is still the very greatness of the tragic hero that destroys him, his assumption of the role of agent, of hero. Caesar must die because he would be emperor. Macbeth accepts that he is destiny's darling, accepts that he must make it so, acts as an agent... and pays for it with his life. Othello, Coriolanus, King Lear -- these are men defined by their agency. Hamlet is only the inversion, the agent whose action is inaction, defying the tragedy until the end, bringing on a bloodbath when at last he finally acts. All the way up to and including Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE it is the hero's assumption of agency that brings destruction down upon him. John Proctor at the end says, "Leave me my name." He will not surrender identity, agency. We might well ask if the core message of tragedy is simply a warning of the dire consequences that await you if you ever even think of acting as an agent.
If this is a characteristic feature of tragedy though, it is at least not the only one. If tragedy in part offers the passive you the spectacle of an active him destroyed for his crime of action, tacitly warning against agency and validating disengagement, it also lionises the agent for their agency. All tragic heroes are Promethean, hated by humanity as much as by the gods for the miasma of their crime, bound to be bound, but worthy of honour for that very act of defiance. If their pride is overbearing it is not entirely unfounded.
Comedy, on the other hand, seems to be characterised by the mockery of those foolish enough to think that they are agents. The passive you does not want to see a successful agent, after all; they want to see a failure they can laugh at, a pompous oaf, a blustering fool. Pride comes before a pratfall in comedy. In comedy, most agency is the ineffectual blundering of a poor man's Pentheus doomed by his own arrogance... or it is the chaos-strewing carnival magic of a Dionysus, its main aim to destroy the sham of order. Which... adds something to the mix. Comedy, like tragedy, creates a counter-argument to its own logic, subverts its own message. The clown is an agent. The rogue is an agent. And this type of agency, comedy tells us, is acceptable, laudable. We relish the tricksters, root for them as they rend the social order to shreds, topple the thrones and pop the balloon egos of the high and mighty.
Fusing tragedy and comedy then, and often incorporating the domestic drama and the melodrama within it, there can be and is a drama that refuses the easy assurances that agency will only bring us grief in the end, as tragic hero or comic buffoon. By turns satiric and sentimental, its absurdity sometimes horrific, sometimes hilarious, the tragicomic drama slips the leash of convention and fulfills the potential of a form focused so heavily on you, on drawing you into the drama, immersing you in it, engaging you with it, confronting you with your own agency. It knows, after all, that the audience has little choice once they have bought their tickets, taken their seats. If they don't like being faced with agency not bound to fail, being faced with something that might -- shock horror -- remind them of their own potential, they can always leave. That is at least the action of an agent.
The epic is drama with the stakes raised, the scale increased. I have already dealt with the idea that epic is of the past, denied this, said that, no, it is here and now; I'll simply add that if it seems to be intrinsically of the past this is only because we fail to recognise it around us, refuse to admit of it in the real. We are wary (perhaps rightly so) of raising a hero to epic status when they are so recent as to be real, so real as to be open to critique, to the discovery of vices and flaws. We realise that we had best not mythologise our heroes until they have passed out of memory, into the unreality of history. We are only fortunate that memory is short, that the past is, for so many, another country. So we allow Lawrence as an epic hero, and Churchill and JFK and Malcolm X. If epic is of the past, well, ultimately, yesterday is the past. In this society of the spectacle we should not be surprised if we begin to see the epic hero of a year ago, a month ago, a week ago, today.
(And we should remember that the epic is as often as not written by the imperialists, and we should be wary for that reason. The Straussian philosophy of the Neo-Cons is founded on the storification of reality. It is nihilist, essentially fascist, in its teaching that truth is what you can persuade people is the truth, that people require control, and that control is best achieved by means of a story, a re-presentation of reality as a struggle between Good and Evil. This is the philosophy at the heart of the War on Terror. The Bush administration has done its utmost to persuade us that we are living in an epic era, with the Western World as the Shire, Bin Laden as Sauron, Mordor in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the Nazguls of Al Qaida on the loose.)
If the epic corresponds to the third person, meanwhile, this is simply because the epic hero is as grandiose as the tragic and a success where the other is a failure; and to present such grandiosity in third person is immodest. The epic hero who tells his own story will only seem a braggart and a boor. I saved the world once,you know. I was an orphan, raised in obscurity, a nobody, but secretly a prince. Yes, I'm of royal lineage, actually. First-born son of the king and rightful ruler of the land, but the evil blah blah blah and the couple who raised me were so nice, blah blah blah, but times were hard, blah blah blah, gravel for breakfast, blah blah blah, then the call to adventure came and blah blah blah, the things I've seen, let me tell you...
This is part of what distinguishes the epic mode from the heroic. The hero of picaresque can tell his own story, as a rogue who knows he is a rogue, admits it even in his claims of nobility, hints at it with a tongue firmly in cheek, a glint in the eye, a sly smile or wink or arching of the eyebrow as a signal of irony. There is always a self-deprecating wit behind even the wildest boast, and so first person is admissable for this hero, may well be indispensable in so far as it's the hero's roguish persona that charms us. But the truly epic hero's deeds must be told by another, in third person, because we will hardly be persuaded of this hero's gravitas by their own grand claims. With third person, there is an illusion of objectivity, at least, in the fact that the narrator is extolling the virtues and valour of someone else.
With the transition of epic from poetic narrative to prose fiction, however, and from fiction to drama in the form of cinema and television, and from there to the new media of video games, a potential that was always there becomes increasingly obvious. Yes, the epic is unsuited to the first person, the story reading as a brag if told by some inflated ego of an "I". But what of the second person? In its transition to fiction, mimesis opened up the epic to a greater degree of immersion and identification, and this was only furthered by the transition to cinema and television. Epic has always involved drama in its role as narrative, but now it is drama, played out before you, around you, right here and right now, as you watch. In video games, in fact, the immersion and identification is about as complete as it can be short of virtual reality and memory implants, with you as the hero. And in the HALO trilogy, as one example, I think there's little question but that what we're dealing with is epic.
Where epic becomes drama, where drama becomes epic, the pathetic pretence of contemporary realism is blown away. The audience is faced with agency in its boldest form, the hero not just of picaresque adventure but of outright monomyth. The everyday scale is abandoned, and the ante is upped to the limits of imagination. Does it lose reality, cease to engage, become mere spectacle? Admittedly, it can and often does, offering immersion and identification only as a panacea, a compensatory fantasy, an escape. As much as drama's mirroring of the audience's passivity, this is one key reason why drama, in so far as it corresponds to the second person, often seeks to distance itself from the epic when it aims for profundity, and why the fiction of cinema and literature has therefore becomes so bound to the domestic, the "real". Writers are intellectuals, and intellectuals are often intellectualists. Good writing must engage, and engagement, they think, should be on an intellectual level, in terms of thought rather than feeling. In so far as immersion and identification work against that, allowing the reader or audience to simply experience without reflection, they are to be avoided. This is only the old fallacy of Reason and Passion in intrinsic opposition rearing its ugly head again. Let us spit in its face and move on.
This epic drama or dramatic epic, in its focus on the second person, in its potential for immersion and identification, can and does act as compensation, consolation, but there is no reason at all that it must. There is no reason (other than commerciality, the pressure towards symbolic formulation) that it cannot also challenge us to engage with the quotidian, the domestic. Indeed, this fusion of forms is perhaps the perfect medium for a writer who would assert the continual presence of the epic. Engaging with the domestic -- with the "real" drama of psychological, inter-personal and socio-political issues -- does not deflate the epic. Rather it can raise the domestic to epic status. This is, to some extent, what Joyce sought to do -- and, I would argue, succeeded in doing, to some extent -- with ULYSSES.
Bioy: All these people see in the epic the theme of the origins of villages and not the impulse and the magnanimity of courage.
Society is certainly a key theme of the epic, though I'd say "the origins of villages" is rather underestimating a literary mode that works on the scale of realms, that deals largely with "the struggle for the kingdom". But again I'm with Bioy and Borges, whose response to Dallas's mapping of mode to person and tense is "Very neat but without feeling". The key feature of epic is the scale of endeavour, and the scale of "the impulse and the magnanimity of courage" required to take that endeavour on. This is the reason I qualify my comment on ULYSSES with the weasel phrase "to some extent". There is, for me, in that book, a sense of life itself as a great endeavour, all the wonder of the myth it takes as framework superimposed upon, or palimpsested by, the real-world story of one day in Dublin. But it is as much an investment of the domestic with a sense of the sublime that is taking place in the novel, and it may not quite qualify, for most, as truly epic in terms of the actual struggle. Ultimately, it's something of a subjective judgement with a work like this, I'd say.
Where I do think a transformation of domestic into epic is achieved, definitely and, for me, definitively, is in Whittemore's JERUSALEM QUARTET. I won't go into the how and why of it, because I'd be here for another four thousand words, but I will say that these four books are more profoundly epic, as far as I'm concerned, even in their most mundane moments of intimacy, than anything that Tolkien ever wrote. They begin in the past, in the Middle East of Burton's Arabian Nights, in a realm of legend and fancy, with the Great Game as the background and a set of characters who are all much larger than life. The domestic and the historic slowly enter, the "real" slowly enters, and even as we are dealing with the grandest things -- a twenty-year-long poker game for control of Jerusalem, the original Bible in all its chaotic and utterly heretical confusion, the longest undercover mission in the history of espionage -- we also find ourselves dealing with characters of monumental courage, even where that courage is only, as in one of the most powerful scenes I've ever read in a book, the courage to choose to live.
This "real" courage, this epic courage made real by its fusion with the mundane, is only one of the things that raises Whittemore's magnum opus to the level of epic. Another character's dream of making Jerusalem a Holy City for Jew, Christian and Muslim alike is also a factor, as is the role played by the Armenian Genocide. If Whittemore's characters are not orphan-princes, not darlings of destiny, not even so heroic as to be the masters of their own lives, agents on the level of a Roland or a Cid, throughout the four books of the quartet there is a sense of that impulse towards agency, a willingness to take on the struggle with history and with the present. Whittemore, I think, recognised that history remains with us, that the epic is not past but always present, is in fact our struggle with that history. His use of the Armenian Genocide is deeply significant; as he returns to it at numerous points in the novels, as his characters return to it in their memories, he is reminding us of this presence, defying Hitler even in the quotation of him:
Who now remembers the Armenians?
The epic is not the past. The past is not another country. Not as long as we remember.