Stephen M. Oberhelman, Van Kelly, Richard J. Golsan (edd.), Epic and Epoch. Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre. Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1994. Pp. iii + 313. ISBN 0-89672-332-1. US$30.00.M
University of Cape Town
Is it still possible to read and appreciate - let alone write - epic in the 20th century? Or is epic a 'fascist' genre, hopelessly compromised by its close association with monarchs and ruling e/lites? If epic is still to be read, how are we to do so? What are its connections with other genres such as history and the novel? These are the sorts of questions addressed by Epic and Epoch, a collection of essays by 16 scholars of Comparative Literature and of Classical, French, English, Hispanic, and Russian languages. The volume is the latest in a series of 'Studies in Comparative Literature' published by Texas Tech University Press.
For a book entitled Epic and Epoch the contents are strangely unbalanced. (It seems that the volume originated as proceedings of a symposium, and that the editors were constrained by the range of papers that was offered.) We have no fewer than four essays on the Odyssey, but none devoted to the Iliad or Aeneid, which are touched on only in passing, in essays dealing with other subjects. And although the scope of the book is generous enough to include discussion of French and Spanish novels of the 19th century, no account is taken of Joyce's Ulysses.
Books of this kind consisting of very disparate essays are notoriously difficult to review. I shall give an indication of the range of material covered, and of which pieces I found most worthwhile.
In the Introduction Van Kelly surveys the various views that have been taken of epic down the centuries, and offers a lengthy portmanteau definition, summarized as follows: 'The epic is thus a range, or changing set of borderlines, between the lyric and the novel' (p. 18).
Part One: The Ancient (Greek and Roman) Epic opens with a conversational, rather slight piece by W. R. Johnson, in which he tries to dismantle 'what has come to seem a no longer very helpful literary bipolarity, that of oral epic/written epic' (p. 25). Johnson argues for the literariness of Homer and the orality of Statius (in his Achilleid). I would certainly agree with his main thesis, but the matter needs a more detailed treatment than it can be given in a short essay.
The other four essays in Part One all deal with the Odyssey. Far the best of them is Sheila Murnaghan's 'Reading Penelope', a thought-provoking examination of the nature of a major female character in a text composed by a man for men. Finding indeterminacy of identity to be a major issue in the Odyssey, Murnaghan argues that it is dealt with in a gendered way. For male characters such as Odysseus and Telemachus the issue has to do with establishing an heroic role, while for the female characters (above all Penelope) 'indeterminacy . . . is cast in terms of what they are thinking, of their possible double-mindedness, and conceived of in terms that bear on male goals and male anxieties' (p. 84). A carefully written, nuanced piece, well worth reading.
Jenny Strauss Clay contributes a six-page discussion of the notion of thelxis ('enchantment') in the Odyssey, maintaining that the epic insists on the superiority of the thelxis of poetry over that of sex and drugs, as manipulated by figures such as Circe.
Victoria Pedrick, in 'Eurycleia and Eurynome as Penelope's confidantes', tries to establish, on the basis of the Nurse scene in the Hippolytus, and the Dido-Anna episodes in the Aeneid, a typical scene in which a female confidante gives a noble woman bad advice. This sort of scene would have been known to Homer, and would help to explain aspects of the much-discussed passage in Od. 18 where Eurynome advises Penelope to beautify herself and appear before the suitors.
The thesis of Marylin A. Katz's essay, dealing with the Recognition Scenes in the Odyssey, is that a common pattern underlies most of them 'and that this pattern derives from the convergence of the paradigms of nostos ('homecoming') and xenia ('hospitality') . . .' (p. 50). I must confess to having lost confidence in the author's control over what she was writing when I read not once but twice in this essay the phrase 'precipitate(s) to the surface of the poem' (pp. 61 and 71).
Part Two: Post-Classical Epic through the Renaissance contains a diverse group of essays ranging from Dante to Milton. J. K. Newman writes in a learned but somewhat unfocussed way about Dante's Commedia arguing that the poem represents an alternative tradition of epic, aligned more with Callimachus and the Ovid of the Metamorphoses than with Homer.
'Spanish Epic of Revolt' is the subject of Mercedes Vaquero's essay, a solid piece of specialized research (perhaps too specialized for a collection of this nature) on the social, geographical and historical context of the Cantar de Ferna/n Gonza/lez and the Canta/r de Bernardo del Carpio. For a classicist almost entirely ignorant of this field it is fascinating to see that questions very similar to those encountered in early Greek epic arise here. Is the manner of composition oral or literate? And in a tradition where we have one great epic (Cantar de Mio Cid) and a number of lesser ones, are these latter simply derivative from the great one, or do all go back to an earlier (lost) tradition?
George S. Tate applies to the Icelandic sagas Rene/ Girard's literary-anthropological theories concerning the origins of violence in a 'blurring or dissolution of sexual difference' (p. 171). The result is an interesting reading of episodes of intrafamilial violence in the Laxdoela saga and Nja/l's saga, works which are shot through with references to ambiguous sexuality.
In 'Milton and Epic Revisionism' John T. Shawcross shows how Milton remoulded the classical form of epic, first in Paradise Lost by allowing the authorial voice far greater scope, then in Paradise Regain'd by concentrating on a single central figure, leading to greater internalization of the action.
I enjoyed Ullrich Langer's essay, engagingly entitled 'Boring Epic in Early Modern France'. The genre had an enormous vogue (35 historical epics in the 16th and 17th centuries alone),'yet the French epics from this period are profoundly boring. Not only are they boring to us, but they are also boring to many contemporaries, and I have the suspicion that the most successful epic poets did not really believe in what they were doing, either' (p. 210). Langer's explanation of this phenomenon: 'The epic was primarily a social gesture, intricately connected to the career of a famous poet, that is, a way of assuring patronage and of performing theoretical maneuvers' (p. 213 [like the Ph.D. in the 20th century?]). The essay makes one think about the social role of many of the epics produced in antiquity.
In the final section of the book, Epic in Post-Renaissance Literature, the first essay is Allan H. Pasco's 'Toppling from Mount Olympus: The Romantic Hero'. This rather reactionary piece surveys the Romantic and realistic French novel of the 19th century, and declares that 'as God and gods were denied and ridiculed, as noble poetic forms and rhythms were mocked, all standards were called into question. Without the noble vehicles that had served to bear the ideal, the epic as previously understood had become impossible' (p. 245).
This is followed by one of the best essays of the collection, Reed Way Dassenbrock's 'Constructing a Larger Iliad: Ezra Pound and the Vicissitudes of Epic'. As Dassenbrock points out, 'In the history of the epic from Homer to Vergil to [the] Renaissance apologists of conquest, we can see the flattening out of ethical complexity in an increasing subordination to ideology' (p. 253). As the 20th century no longer glorifies war or colonization, epic as a genre has come in for heavy criticism. Dassenbrock examines the paradox of Ezra Pound: admirer of Homer, tireless critic of an 'imperialist' Vergil, who eventually produces an 'epic', the Cantos, that resembles no classical model but rather the Renaissance ideal of epic as a storehouse of exempla. But 'Pound's epic is not a textbook for princes, it is a textbook for Fascists' (p. 261).
It is a great pity that Derek Walcott's magnificent poem, Omeros,(1) appeared too recently for Dassenbrock to be able to notice it. As the first epic to look at war and colonization from the point of view of the subjugated, Omeros will surely force critics to re-assess what the genre can mean in the late 20th century.
In 'Stalin and the Death of Epic: Mikhail Bakhtin, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak', Frederick T. Griffiths and Stanley J. Rabinowitz pursue a related theme: the way in which the three authors of their title reacted to Stalinist authoritarianism. Bakhtin set up 'epic' - authoritarian, monolithic, e/litist - as the antithesis of the 'novelistic'; but Griffiths and Rabinowitz argue that for 'epic' we should read 'socialist realism'. Pasternak, in Doctor Zhivago, 'recalls and revives another tradition wherein epic springs from the resistance to princes and tyrants' (p. 280). Mrs. Mandelstam opposes a 'discourse of truth' to Stalinist lies.
Epic and Epoch concludes with a somewhat laborious discussion by Stephen Miller of whether the First Series of the great cycle of novels, the Episodios nacionales by the 19th C. Spanish novelist Galdo/s, can be considered epic.
There is a scattering of trivial misprints through the volume; the worst are 'Penelop' in the running head to Pedrick's essay, and the ghost phrase (a by-product of wordprocessing) 'Hence, we can see how Za/rate in the novels of Sir Walter Scott' on pp. 300-1. But the standard of the editing and of the essays themselves in Epic and Epoch is generally high - higher than is often the case with volumes of Proceedings. At the reasonable price of $30 the book is certainly worth acquiring for institutional libraries.
(1) Derek Walcott, Omeros (New York and London 1990).