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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, November 15, 2007

epic as world-view

Back at my post--blogwise, anyway.

Two days ago a big box arrived in the mail: an order of books from Amazon.com. It contained three picture-books on Victorian fashions for Kimmie, and two books for me: the Penguin Classics edition of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (translated by Robin Buss), and The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums, a text on the epic genre. The first I got as part of an investigation of "escape" stories, since this is what Mom and I think her memoir-in-progress might be (and also because of the unanimous acclaim of reader-reviewers on Amazon). The second I discovered while looking on Amazon for another book on Greek epics, under the heading "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought". The readers' reviews for this one were also glowing.

As far as I can tell, genre is not a well-studied aspect of literature. After Aristotle's original categorization of poems into four kinds--comedy, tragedy, epic, and "dithyrambic" or what we would call lyric--it seems that much of what is known about genre is a matter of received assumptions and checklists of structural features. My Webster's gives this definition:

epic n (1706) 1 : a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero

There: an epic is long, a poem, in "elevated style", and recounts the deeds of a legendary/historical hero.

The view taken by the authors of The Epic Cosmos (it is a collection of essays) is different. Their thinking is based on the ideas of Louise Cowan, who in fact was the teacher of all the authors at something called the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, connected with the University of Dallas. Cowan herself provides the introductory essay, "Epic as Cosmopoesis". My compressed notes from paragraph 1 of the introduction are as follows:

Epic is both more frequent and more diverse than the recognized canon tends to indicate. Characteristics intrinsic to its nature include its sense of totality and its consciousness of mission.

Yes! I thought. Fantastic! A sense of totality and consciousness of mission!

Cowan goes on to state that the epic genre is characterized by four main features:

  • penetration of the veil separating material and immaterial existence, allowing an intimate relation between gods and men

  • an eschatological expansion of time

  • restoration of equilibrium between masculine and feminine forces

  • a sense of motion, linking human action to a divine destiny, toward which epic senses history moves

Any work, however humble, that has these aims as part of its agenda, qualifies as epic from this point of view. Any one of those four features would be a major undertaking, and alone would make for a work of serious purpose. Taking them all on at once, of course, is a gigantic and ambitious task--one so large that all true epic authors have invoked divine help for their work, either explicitly in the text (calling on the muse for aid) or "offline". The epic author requires help to gain access to the realm of the gods and channel divine energy. There is an element of theurgy here--or maybe sorcery.

The introduction, which I've not yet finished reading, has already given me a huge amount to think about, and a great boost of inspiration. Looking through Ms. Cowan's magic mirror into the dark inner world of the epic, I have felt an elevation and renewed appreciation for my chosen task. And my various life problems, my worries and kvetches about career, money, relationships, and so on, seem puny and pusillanimous in the presence of such concerns.

Ms. Cowan, and her students and coauthors, are saying that epic is, first of all, a point of view. It is a way of seeing and artistically representing the world as a whole. As I dip into this book, I feel strongly that this is my own point of view, and that I'm reading--and doing--the right thing.

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