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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

epic musings

Just as the truth about the future would be attained only if man were in touch with a knowledge wiser than his own, so the truth about the past could be preserved only on a like condition. Its human repositories, the poets, had (like the seers) their technical resources, their professional training; but vision of the past, like insight into the future, remained a mysterious faculty, only partially under its owner’s control, and dependent in the last resort on divine grace.

Thus E. R. Dodds in his excellent 1951 book The Greeks and the Irrational, which I'm still reading.

This extract is from chapter 3, "The Blessings of Madness", in which Dodds discusses the different kinds of madness as understood by the ancient Greeks. Some types of madness were known to be ordinary and pathological--disease in the same sense that the body can be diseased. But others were regarded as divine, and conferred special superhuman powers on those visited by these states.

Two of these forms of divine madness were conferred by Apollo and Dionysus. But a third was regarded as bestowed by the Muses; this form of "madness" was poetic inspiration. In contact with a Muse, the poet received special knowledge not available to anyone else, and was able to express this in his verse.

As Dodds points out, the epic poets, when they supplicated the Muse for inspiration, were looking not for the technical ability to express themselves, but for hidden factual knowledge of the past. In an era without recorded media, the all-seeing, all-remembering Muse was the repository of the truth about the past, and it was this precious truth that the epic poet needed above all in order to fulfill his task.

I find this idea fascinating and, yes, inspiring. At this stage in my own epic work, I feel that I understand exactly what my great forebears were asking for, and why.

The past is a great unknown, as is the future. We have memories of our own lives, but as psychology has shown, memories change. What we remember, if we remember, and if that memory has any relationship with fact at all, is colored and shaped by our need to account for the present as we understand it. Our personal memories are mainly a kind of personal mythology that explains and supports our current attitudes and actions. Very broadly, we remember what we want to remember--the way we want to remember it.

And when we look back to times before our personal memories, we move even further onto mythological ground. Textbooks of national history are notorious for showing an edited, self-serving view of the past. Their aim is to create generations of patriots.

The epic poet, then, prays to the Muse for the truth about the past. What he gets is what he gets--whatever she decides to give him, if anything.

Now we have a long tradition of recorded history, as well as an actual science of the past in archaeology. Does this mean the Muse is obsolete, retired?

I think not. For the poet--and here I mean poet in its broad literal sense of "maker"--is still a limited being, who has only so much time and energy in his mortal frame. Confronted with a sea of recorded information, how is he to find what he needs?

You can call it chance, or method, or association--but I think that a research process that relies only on these things will come up empty. Speaking for myself, I have a certain feeling of being guided. Not all the time--in fact, not usually. But nonetheless. And after all, it takes me time to collect and read through the material to which I'm guided. I just need to be nudged and steered a little from time to time. I do get these nudges, and they must come from somewhere.

The "unconscious" would be the usual explanation. But what is the unconscious? By definition it is the great unknown, what is outside the field of consciousness. Because we claim not to believe in gods, we take it to refer to essentially mental processes happening below the threshold of awareness. But the entire notion of an unconscious mental process is quite mysterious, if you think about it. And to the extent that it exhibits purpose and knowledge, well, then, it's all the more mysterious.

I say: the Muse is as the Muse does. The gift of Calliope, the Muse of epic, is not poetic prowess but knowledge. The epic poet knows things that other people don't--and then he tells them.

O Muse, thanks for your help thus far. Please don't abandon me now.

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