The epic drive

Knowledge, taken in the abstract - say, by the vulnerable ephebe just starting out in college - displays a frightening visage : abyssal, disorienting, nightmarish. Knowledge, in its authorized, authoritative forms, is demanding (all those martinet-professors, those requirements, those deadlines & examinations), impersonal... fundamentally inscrutable. Say our tenderfoot student is curious about History. The question is, where to begin? If all "facts"are equal... & if the historians, each with their particular perspective and expertise, number in the thousands upon thousands... Indeed, there is a specific demon of angst which persecutes the undergraduate - whose malicious intent is to induce a painful, extremely self-conscious (to the point of paranoia) sense of being lost . What do I know, in the midst of all this formidable universe of chilly and alienated learning? How can I know anything? How can I trust my own feeble capacity to find meaning, to understand?

It is just here (as has often been pointed out) that the arts attempt a rescue mission. Art is synthesis, not analysis; its aim is not to detach elements of experience by means of abstraction in order to re-align them into codes of information, hierarchies of data. Art does not truck with the supposed "objectivity" of formalized knowledge; rather, Art produces holistic representations of experience - images which we need not learn, because we already recognize them. We do not "acquire" these representations - we immediately identify with them. And in these identifications our inward sense of personal understanding is encouraged, fortified, strengthened, and above all, expanded. (Perhaps the paradigmatic expression of this commonality of experience is John Donne's famous passage from Meditation 17 : "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.")

Is this the happy end of story, then? Art comes to the rescue, trouncing adolescent despair? Well, yes, perhaps. But for the artist the picture may be more complex. How, say, in poetry, are these holistic representations - these charmed and charming narratives, capable of evoking sympathetic understanding and identification - to be successfully created? The endless debates within the various guilds of poets over issues of subjectivity/objectivity, personality/impersonality, individuality/commonality, point toward unresolved difficulties, internal contradictions. How does the poet achieve a balance between self-indulgent, anecdotal subjectivity on the one hand, and a bloodless, abstract objectivity on the other? How few are the poems which succeed in integrating these polarities - in presenting "concrete universals": those characteristic particulars which are nevertheless capable of global relevance.

Works of the past called "great" are just these poems which have achieved a kind of wholeness and universality. The Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare... these are some of the familiar benchmarks - narratives which fuse representative, characteristic individuals, with a shared history - Pound's "tale of the tribe" - the many and the one.

We could call this the "epic" drive in poetry : the struggle to present multiplicity in the form of holistic order. Northrop Frye described this totalizing impulse as the defining characteristic of the epic mode. The works which achieve such encyclopedic synthesis become foundational texts, paradigmatic narratives of peoples and cultures. They construct a kind of aegis or rooftop of mutual understanding - or, to use another image, a sort of network of vital pathways, which encourage individuals to emerge from isolation into the ethos of a shared tradition.

The path toward such epic achievements involves the most intense struggle : because no imagery of wholeness will be accepted as authentic unless it has been earned. It would be impossible for an audience to assent to epic pretensions, if the work itself did not display an indwelling awareness, a comprehension, of actual, lived experience in its heights and depths. The achievement of an epic narrative is thus a kind of celebratory moment - when individual artistic making is matched with the real existence of the whole society.

- to be continued, maybe... -

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