Monday, 2 February 2015

My Very Own Epic: Part 3

Thinking of those Branches Green
Which to express, he bends his gentle wit,
And thinking of those branches green to frame
A garland for her dainty forehead fit,
He plucked a bough; out of whose rift there came
Small drops of gory blood, that trickled down the same.
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, modernized by me

Content warning: suicide, depression.

In the last post I noticed how scientific and historical discoveries imply that there is always something we don’t know about the world; I think beginning in media res is an opportunity to think about how there is always something we don’t know about ourselves

Epics are supposed to open in the middle of the story (in media res = in the middle of things) and reveal the early parts with flashback. Paradise Lost begins as Satan falls, and the angels describe the way in heaven and the creation of the world to Adam; The Faerie Queene begins as the Redcross Knight and Una are already on their quest. However, in media res reminds me of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself, in which she describes the ways in which we do not know ourselves. One of these is that even in our own lives we start belatedly: the situation into which we are born already exists and is part of a long history, but also the moment when we start asking, “Who am I? How did I get to be this person?,” happens well after that process has begun. Our own origins are shrouded in forgetfulness, in the fact that we actually couldn’t form memories when it happened, and (as Laplanche would argue) we didn’t understand what was going on while those events shaped us.* In a sense, every story begins in media res because the character development begins well before the narrative does. For instance, even Harry Potter, which starts with Harry as a baby, leaves as backstory the terrible event which shapes that baby’s life, signified by the lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. However, I’m not quite sure how I would render this in a narrative, especially since I just argued that literally every text begins in media res. Something to think about, I guess, but a necessary theme would be that the conditions which gave rise to the present action remain, in certain ways, mysterious.

I should point out, too, that Butler says these vexations break our narrative. Digressions, as I discussed them, might represent a sort of break in the narrative, but I know I’m still not sure what Butler means by this—she doesn’t give many examples—and I’ll need to think more about that problem, too.

On the topic of character and idea, let’s think about epithets. Most traditional epics have epithets for its characters or concepts, referring to them by catchy poetic names. In Homer, women are often “white-armed,” the sea is “wine-coloured” or “wine-dark,” and Achilles is “lion-hearted” and “swift-footed.” Now, I have in the back of my mind Leah Libresco’s discussion of epithets, which warns against them as a possible limitation to personal growth or new decisions, I want to set that aside for the moment. I think an epithet might be useful to mark a distinction between social roles or identities; in both postmodernism and empirical social psychology, people’s personalities/thought and behaviour patterns change between contexts. This fact (and it is a fact) challenges certain na├»ve conceptions of identity or authenticity which I think still need challenging in some quarters. It isn’t a huge deal, but it is somewhat important to me and I think epithets might be a way of signalling this but also exploring context collapse, in which social contexts start to collide or overlap: what happens when an epithet is used in front of the wrong people? (Today, social media—and Facebook in particular—is where context collapse happens the most for most of us, but it has always happened.) And it might be a way of thinking about the sorts of expectation which get foisted on a person: what happens when a person outgrows their epithet or feels it never applied in the first place, and they start to chafe under it? And what if someone finds themselves with conflicting or competing epithets?

They might have a catalogue of epithets, and catalogues of objects are another epic convention. (That was a segue, right?) Ovid spends stanzas listing the names of Acteon’s dogs; Spenser spends them naming the kinds of trees in a forest. The first thing that leaps to mind for me is a library catalogue, and I would certainly be tempted to include a literal library catalogue whatever the setting. However, this provides an opportunity to think about something I like to think about: taxonomy. Specifically, the difference between classification and categorization is one of the most interesting things I’ve learned so far in library school. I could talk for a while about it, but I won’t. However, there are two different kinds of taxonomy: a classification is exclusive and exhaustive, meaning that every object under its purview must fit into a class and only one class, and it must do so unambiguously; a categorization has fuzzier boundaries, in which an object might not really fit anywhere or might fit in two categories about equally well. These two facts have other consequences—notably, in categorizations some objects might be more typical of the category than others, which isn’t true of classifications; in classifications, whatever is true of the class is always necessarily true of all its members, which isn’t true of categorizations. Catalogues might be a way of playing with this? Again, this might be a place to think about nominalism and realism, and what abstract groupings even are in the first place. This is pretty minor, though, both in terms of the epic itself and the things I’m interested in, so I’ll move on.

Ekphrasis, a description of a piece of art, also depends a lot on setting. I think this would be no problem for me: there are lots of artists in my family and even if I know very little art theory I care a lot about it. If it were a contemporary setting, I could use photography, about which I do know a few things. If not, I’m sure I could still manage. Architecture might be an interesting way in, too. I could also include a Borgesian technique, where characters describe and discuss non-existent novels (or poems or legends or whatnot). There are a lot of directions I could take this: the way in which art allows us to see through another person’s eyes or ears, however briefly, or appears to let us do this but probably doesn’t do it as well as we think; the reasons people create art, and how those reasons shape the art; art as a metaphor for all human society and the nature of creation, the order-giving artist working with chaos-tending matter. Take your pick.

Two of the weird features that I’ve saved for the end do fit well together for me, even if they wouldn’t for everyone; I refer to the talking trees and the snake-ladies. Epics conventionally included trees which spoke, often because they were people transformed into trees; they also included half-women half-snake beings, usually with the human woman part above the waist and the serpentine part below the waist. The trees might often be warnings; the snake-ladies (drakaina in Greek) were often minor villains, especially boundary guardians. This would be a place to indulge in my environmentalism and general love for plants and animals, but I also see in these figures a combination of the human world and the natural world. Much as the centaurs of Greek mythology were a mix of civilization and barbarity, as are humans, these figures might show how the human and the natural worlds aren’t so separable after all; humans are animals, as the snake-lady might suggest; the natural world isn’t so inert and unthinking as we make it out to be, as the talking trees suggest. But there’s a hazard to humanizing the natural world too much: I wouldn’t want to undercut how radically Other it is. Perhaps, then, it might be fair to have trees which ought to talk but don’t (the sky does not speak), and a drakaina that appears human at first but turns out to be entirely otherwise. It might be difficult to address these in a realistic setting, but Wade Davis did it (probably unintentionally) in One River, so it can be done. A woman with a snake, for instance, or a snake tattoo, might stand in for one idea; trees that ought to tell us things—in the sense of scientific evidence, or in the sense of clues in a mystery—might do for the other.

Another note on the trees: in Dante’s Inferno, these trees appear in the Wood of Self-Murderers. Everyone who commits suicide either becomes a tree or is entombed in one; these trees are then plagued by harpies. I have strong feelings about suicide: it is a tragedy when anyone does kill themselves, but at the same time we must be cautious to avoid making people with suicidal thoughts feel worse because they have them. Condemning suicide could make people who have suicide feel worse; therefore we might have to avoid condemning it. (I have no evidence of this, but I am sufficiently convinced that I’m concerned about this.) So talking about suicide is a tricky thing to do. I’m not sure I’m up to the task, but this issue with trees might be a way in: perhaps, in fantasy setting, some people have turned themselves into trees in order to avoid dealing with the world or themselves, and this is why it is conspicuous that the trees do not talk.

I saved the discussion of the protagonist’s aristocracy for last. In Greek, Roman, and to some extent early modern epics, the protagonist must be an aristocrat or royal. The justification is usually the same that Aristotle gave for making tragic heroes aristocratic: when an aristocrat falls, the society falls with him, but when a peasant falls, the society does not notice. In order for the epic to depict an event of any importance, aristocrats must be part of that event. But I think this is pretty clearly a rationalization of the true reason they wrote about aristocrats: the culture in which these epics appeared cared about aristocrats and no one else. So if we transplant the epic into another cultural milieu and ask, “Who is equivalent to the aristocracy here?,” there are two aspects to that question: 1) who do we think actually make a difference in this society? and 2) whom do we care about at the expense of others deserving our attention?  For Tolkien, the answer was “the common man,” and specifically a hybrid of the middle class men and the working class men who both fought next to him in the trenches of WWI, and so his heroes were male hobbits. Not female hobbits, of course. Male ones.

This is therefore an embarrassing question. For me, the answer is probably “intelligent people,” or maybe “educated people with intellectual empathy.” I admit that this is a problem, or could be one if I wasn’t careful and specific; I’d write about it, but Scott Alexander has just done it better than I ever would. So, in a bad way, intelligence would be my aristocracy: I am simply more interested in people who I feel can keep up with me (or who I have trouble keeping up with) than people who can't. I don’t think intelligent people are of more moral worth, but I do pay more attention to them. This is a fault I'm trying to overcome. And, in a neutral way, intelligence would be my aristocracy: intelligent people probably are the ones who will change the world for the better, in the broad sense of creating the ideas which allow all of us to improve the world. They are the ones with whom we riseor fall. So, if my goal was just to create an epic depicting my ideas, good and bad, intelligence would be my aristocracy; if my goal was to challenge my own ideas, I would have to think about what a less-intelligent protagonist could do in my epic.

That’s all of the conventions I plan on discussing for the time being. In the next post I’ll talk about what’s missing, and how this might fit together.

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*I’m not very convinced by Laplanche’s whole theory, but his enigmatic signifier probably has some limited value; more than that, the fact that other people’s desires shaped us before we could understand those desires seems undeniable.

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