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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, September 26, 2008

epics, holograms, and hell

Writing, studying, thinking--these three converge for me. I keep a separate folder on the computer labeled Thinking, in which I have documents devoted to different topics that interest me. For example, one of these is "Literary Criticism", which I've set up to record any thoughts I might have on literature as an art form. Some of these Thinking documents I find myself copying and pasting into my Encyclopedia folder for The Mission. The compartments between my different creative and thinking activities are dissolving. Gradually it's all becoming one enterprise, involving my whole being.

This relates to the idea of the epic as a total form: an epic, in some sense, is a complete image of the world. The epic form places the maximum demand on the writer. It reflects the totality of his being, which in turn reflects the totality of the world he lives in. I think of a hologram. One of the properties of the hologram is that each piece of the whole contains all the information in the whole--just on a smaller scale. A hologram of, say, a car, can be cut up into little pieces, and each little piece will have the image of the whole car.

The epic is a hologram of the world as the writer understands it. Perhaps this could be said of every work, but the epic is specifically an effort to make this image as complete and deep as possible. The epic gives meaning to the existence of a nation--or of our whole species.

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Mark Musa's translation of Dante's Inferno. Excellent stuff. Quirky and weird, like all the greatest literature--but bold and brilliant. The Divine Comedy was Dante's effort at producing a total work, a complete image of the cosmos in all its significant features. All the levels are there, from the microcosm of the Pilgrim's soul to the mesocosm of his society to the macrocosm of the created universe. They are integrated and related. As Virgil leads him ever deeper down the trenches of the vast crater called Hell, centered under Jerusalem, Dante describes what he sees and feels with an awestruck but sober eye.

And 700 years later, he's still in print. Next up: Purgatory.


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