Tuesday, 3 February 2015

My Very Own Epic: Part 4

What in Me is Dark, Illumine 
                    What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

In the previous posts I thought about how I might use the epic conventions to depict my own worldview. But I think there’s another question to ask: what’s missing from that discussion? A cursory glance through my recent interests would notice that I haven’t yet mentioned these things:

  1. the idea that any truly radical change in social organization—a revolution, in other words—would create a new society and culture that we cannot predict from our current position, because people would have new arrangements of choices that we’ve never seen before; this is scary because it means we can’t tell in advance whether that society will be “better,” but it is also an opportunity for hope because it means there might be solutions to problems which we have not yet been able to imagine; but anyway if we can’t go on in the present condition, revolution is the only thing we have
  2. the idea that the property relationship (the idea that you can own things) is nothing more than a legal construct, and an unnecessary one at that; and, furthermore, that that legal construct has produced conditions which are actively bad and tend only to get worse (ie. income inequality, environmental degradation) and it is only through persistent violations of that construct, and the ideology built around it, that the system can be sustained
  3. things about bodies, and the ways bodies don’t adhere to our expectations of them; almost all of my thoughts on bodies come from Alice Domurat Dreger’s One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, though a graduate seminar on Shakespeare and Marlowe gave me some ideas, too
  4. multiculturalism, by which I mean both cultures learning from one another and also creating a meta-culture in which multiple cultures can all function
  5. religion broadly, though most ways in which I am interested in religion are implicated in things I have already discussed
  6. social justice, which I guess makes me a social justice warrior or cleric or druid or whatever
  7. a postmodern suspicion of metanarratives
  8. a particular vision of freedom, and what freedom means, which I don't think I've ever discussed here
In an epic, which is supposed to give a complete vision of a worldview, I can’t dispense with these concerns, some of which are pretty important to me. Of course, I don’t have to address them with conventions exactly; they might be part of the plot or the individual episodes without transforming the conventions. But I have a few ideas nonetheless: the in media res turn might be a good way of suggesting revolution, since the structure would suggest, or lend itself to, a radical break from the past; even as it grows out of that which preceded it, in another sense it truly is a new beginning. And that might suggest the event of great importance: a revolution, involving the defeat of the previous system and the creation of the new one (and its possible challenges). For bodies, the drakaina and the talking trees seem obvious avenues; I would be concerned about making them do double (or triple) duty, but I might either find ways to make these ideas relate or have multiple drakainae. In a fantasy setting, I could also just populate the world with Arkans, handling both the thing about bodies and the thing about multiculturalism; the Arkans might allude to Spenser’s habit of using lots of doubles—lookalikes, in particular—in the Faerie Queene, but that’s not exactly a convention in other epics. Otherwise, I don’t see at the moment how I’d implicate these ideas in epics specifically.

A word on the suspicion of metanarratives, though: I hope my idea about digressions already addresses this. Epics, by their very nature, are metanarratives. Thus I should be suspicious of any epic, even my own. (Indeed, what this might be good for is to make my metanarrative explicit so I can be suspicious of it.) But I hope this epic seriously attempts to question its own arc, right? The idea is that the quest is changed by each encounter with the other, and the sense might be that the quest must always, forever by changed by future encounters. Hopefully that would be clear.

Let’s try and tie these together a bit. Regardless of setting, it might make sense to begin with a revolution, though not necessarily a socialist one: if the opening scene were a parliament or conference of some kind, that might call back to the Parliament in Hell which occurs near the beginning of Paradise Lost, though that might not be a favourable comparison. If the setting is historical, I’d have to choose a real revolution (if I chose the French Revolution, the first National Assembly might make a good opening), or perhaps the founding of a new society—a commune somewhere, maybe—or a post-disaster attempt to rebuild society, as with survivors of a shipwreck on a deserted island. A pirate vessel just after its mutiny might work. In a fantasy setting, I could tailor the events as I needed them. Either way, half of the story would involve the formation of society from that point on; the other half would be flashbacks to the events which led to the revolution. The protagonist or protagonists would likely embark on a quest in order to help secure the new society; after all, the new society would still have enemies. The quest may involve a journey of some kind, but it might also be more like a project: drafting a constitution, building a defensive wall or tower, designing a monument. As they try to complete the quest, they’ll encounter other members of the new society who, while on board with the whole revolution thing, have needs which the current direction of the new society is not meeting or is actively thwarting. The protagonists hear these characters’ stories, try to help their problems, and are changed as a result—or, anyway, they ought to be, but they may fail in this. Thus the nature of the quest must change, too, in order to account for these stranger’s needs. The protagonist and protagonists would eventually have to ask themselves why they were on this quest, and acknowledge that they could not get to the bottom of the problem “Why I am who I am?”; at the same time, they had to take responsibility for their commitment to this quest, whatever version it is, from here on out. Having begun it does not mean they must finish it, or finish it in its current form. So they keep re-interpreting what the quest is as they encounter strangers. I’m not sure how it would end. The katabasis and underworld might well happen in flashback—the moment of shipwreck, or the deplorable situation which made revolution necessary—but it might be more exciting if it happened during the “present,” in which case it could be a subterranean prison or a ruined city, or, again, actual depression.

I think I’ll stop there. I haven’t worked out how the natural world—its Otherness, but also our embodiment, and also environmental concerns—would play out, but that’s largely because it depends so much on the setting. If it takes place most shipwreck, it seems easy enough to figure out; in a fantasy setting, I could use fantastic elements as metaphors. It would take some thinking for other settings. But I’m not actually planning to write the epic, after all; this is an exercise.

So what did I learn? Well, I learned that I need to be careful not to treat intellectual people as the Greeks treated the aristocracy. I learned that my tendency to treat the natural world as kin to us might make me forget how Other it is. I learned a few writerly things, too, which are harder to communicate: that it will be hard or impossible to convey the Otherness of other people’s stories in my own voice, and that doing so might in lots of ways break my narrative—and maybe that’s something I need to try and do on purpose. I learned that I’m not sure what Butler means by vexations disrupting or interrupting narrative, and what that means for storytelling. And I learned that I haven’t talked about existentialism enough here—though that’s because I’m only really started to get into it now—and that I haven’t yet written out how I think I can reconcile nominalism and realism, or how I understand freedom in a political sense. Maybe, as this settles in my brain, I’ll realize other things, too.

Most of all, though, I hope I’ve demonstrated how you can use this yourselves. Please, let me know if you do this exercise and how it turns out. (Obviously, you can replace the epic with a genre you prefer.)

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