Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.02

Margaret Beissinger, Jane Tylus, Susanne Wofford, Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World. The Poetics of Community.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.  Pp. ix, 314.  ISBN 0-520-21038-7.  $17.95 (pb).  

Contributors: M. Beissinger, E. Fantham, J. Farrell, J. B. Flueckiger, A. Ford, T. M. Greene, P. Hardie, S. Murnaghan, G. Nagy, D. F. Reynolds, W. S. Sax, S. Slyomovics, J. Tylus, S. L. Wofford

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Word count: 3102 words

Is Epic Dead? This volume answers a resounding "No!" From an academic perspective, this collection is extremely successful in exploring the vibrancy and variety of epic in past cultures and in contemporary society, surveying Egyptian, Indian, Caribbean, ancient, medieval, Renaissance and modern works. In spite of this high quality, it is difficult to discern living epic in the U.S. or England: virtually no mention here of those "street Homerists," the rappers of the past decade or so.1 While the essays are divided into five themes (see below), recurring issues include competing genres, performance variation and performer-audience interaction, lament and the female voice, and allegory. Individual contributors combine a range of theoretical approaches always anchored by close attention to details of song and performance, yet the greatest excitement results from the ways in which songs are revealed in their social and historical context (hence, "Poetics of Community"), as the essayists either recreate or actually witness the performance.

In an introductory essay, the editors say their aim is to "revitalize interest in the Western canon ... place contemporary work in oral epic within a broader poetics ... and provide a source for teachers, scholars, and readers ... [especially] to those with training in only one [area]." (2) Their emphasis on "the contemporary world" leads us to "think about epic as a genre that is an ongoing attempt to tell the stories of things past in such a way as to make them relevant and even necessary to the present." (16) Their subtitle, "The Poetics of Community," is expanded into a working definition of epic: "a poetic narrative of length and complexity that centers around deeds of significance to the community." (16)

The first section, "On the Margins of the Scribal: From Oral Epic to Text," begins with G. Nagy's "Epic as Genre," which takes on the difficult task of defining epic. N. examines the origins of the notion of epic in Greece with a combination of etymological analysis, speech act theory (building on R. Martin's work),2 and a comparative approach. Against Aristotle's absolutist notion of epic as a fixed genre, N. insists that genres are dependent on performance traditions and have a relationship of interdependence with other genres; thus the concept of genre must be determined by the social context of the performance, especially one where "the technology of writing is involved in neither the composition nor the performance of any given poem or song." (21). So far, so good. I endorse the idea of a flexible, inclusive definition of epic: not all oral narrative poetry is long or heroic. While N.'s exploration of the issues is valuable, I am not wholly satisfied with the concept of epic as "the ideal multiform," or as a kind of "container ... of a vast variety of other genres ... a medium of discourse that sees itself as all-embracing of the society identified by it and identifying with it." (28-29)

In a fascinating exploration, "Performing Interpretation: Early Allegorical Exegesis of Homer," A. Ford traces ancient attempts to find hidden meaning in the words of Homer. Based on lexical evidence, Ford shows that the term allegoria comes relatively late (our witness is Plutarch ca. 100 C.E.). The earlier term is huponoia, found in Xenophon and Plato (Rep. 378D, e.g.), which reflects a fifth-century practice by Sophists of uncovering "subtle and unapparent meanings." But now F. takes us back one stage further -- to ainos, which often refers to animal fables carrying "an implied message ... for the hearer." (41) Based on evidence in the Derveni papyrus, F. finds the earlier verb for "to allegorize" or "to search for hidden, nonliteral meanings" to be ainittesthai. To the extent an ainos may be analyzed "structurally as a coded message ... it was defined as a message that had a special meaning for a special audience; it was a socially rather than rhetorically constructed riddle." (41) The first allegorists thus worked to find a place in a "culture of competitive interpretive expertise," analogous to those adviser-companions of tyrants or Eastern kings, who -- due to social inequality -- could not openly challenge or correct their superiors. Against the usual view of allegorical readings "as a defensive measure for sustaining the authority of aging narrative traditions whose literal interpretation is becoming inadequate to new ways of thinking" (Theagenes fending off Xenophanes' attacks), F. argues for "allegoresis ... [as] originally a positive stategy, exegetical rather than defensive." (37)

S. Slyomovics, in "The Arabic Epic Poet as Outcast, Trickster, and Con Man," draws connections between "the role of the Upper Egyptian outcast-poet in his society and the Arab trickster-epic hero in the epic narrative." (54) The poet, Awadallah Abd al-Jalil Ali from the province of Aswan in southern Egypt, is paradoxically both social outcast and "artistic bearer of his group's cultural history." The trickster-hero of one of his songs, Abu Zayd, not only must take on disguise (as an epic poet no less), but must use "the language of the outcast, the double-talk and double meaning of puns" (57), much like the poet himself. S. does a superb job of recapitulating the "plot" (both story line and conspiracy) for those who may be unfamiliar with this tale, including translation and a transliterated original of excerpts to demonstrate the ambiguity of the Arabic, with its "heavy availability of homophones," puns ready and waiting to emerge. She builds persuasively to her conclusion: "disguise, metamorphosis, multiple meanings, and the variety of effects achieved by the use of linguistic puns serve ... to reestablish a serious hierarchy. Abu Zayd can play with becoming a black slave ... the epic poet Awadallah ... can never be seen as an epic hero -- certainly never in his own society, but then not even in performance." (65)

The fourth essay, M. Beissinger's "Epic, Gender, and Nationalism: The Development of Nineteenth-Century Balkan Literature," analyzes the ways in which epics from Montenegro, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania in the 1800's "sought to appeal primarily to men, the main participants in nineteenth-century nationalist movements," a sharp contrast to the earlier oral tradition which "reflected women's varied roles in society and whose intended audiences were multigender in character." (70) The "Vuk collection" (1814) contains heroic, "male" narratives which, while reflecting patriarchal society, still found room for significant roles for female characters. Yet in the 1830's epic The Mountain Wreath which celebrates the Montenegrin resistance to the Ottoman Turks, only two of forty individual characters are women, both unnamed and without identities beyond "sister of the hero Batric," e.g. Women are limited to roles of giving birth to heroes and celebrating death rites. The ideals of liberation and of regaining power were seen as antithetical to the status of women. As we know too well today, rape is "a particularly powerful mode of warfare, because it not only attacks the honor of its female victims ... but it also shames and thus dishonors their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons ... [challenging] male honor [which] is deeply connected to power and control over females." (78) The old stomping grounds of Parry and Lord take on a new color: there are no Penelopes here.

The second section contains three essays exploring "Epic and Authority." In "Metamorphosis, Metaphor, and Allegory in Latin Epic," P. Hardie focuses on the problems generated by Ovid's Metamorphoses, especially the "tension between the allegorical drive to fix and define univocal categories [the "Atlantean" mode], and the text's resistance to interpretative fixation [the "Protean" mode]." (89) The journey begins with Homeric anthropology which "emphasizes the inescapably fixed limits of human nature ... Odysseus's changeability is at the service of the hero's own mastery, of himself and of others, and is not the sign of an essential instability." (92-3) By the time of Virgil, however, "the imperial ideology of the apotheosis of the dead ruler ... destroys the absolute boundary in the Homeric world picture between human hero and god." (102) For Ovid, "the vocabulary of permanence ... [is] betrayed ... [as] it is becoming very difficult to say what exactly does constitute the human." (93) Finally, in his exploration of "personification allegory," H. opposes the figure of Atlas (who may be "read allegorically ... [as an attempt] authoritatively to fix meaning" -- 100) against Fama "as a figure for the fictional powers of the epic poet himself." (98)

The next two essays do a superb job of both recapitulating less familiar works and offering insights into how historical and geographical context shape the story-telling. In "Tasso's Trees: Epic and Local Culture," J. Tylus examines the competing claims of local cult significance and epic's aspiration of universal meaning. Eclogue 5 reveals "a magical vision of Roman community based on simple ritual and reverence for a stable past." (111-12) For Aeneas, however, the wanderer who cannot return to Troy, the episode of the bleeding branches of Polydorus "is a harbinger of the reality that Aeneas will be forced to confront ... one in which land and genealogy are continually divorced." (116) With respect to his Augustan audience, Virgil "articulates the demonstrable need, if not the unequivocal desire, for a single law, for a universalizing deity who will bring coherence and order to a disorderly empire composed of various popular and local cults." (115) This offers a context for a study of Torquato Tasso's 1579 epic Jerusalem Delivered, which recounts the journey of Godefroi de Bouillon from France to Jerusalem during the First Crusade. T. sees this epic as "anxious to establish the hegemony [of a Counter-Reformation Europe] not only over the Muslim and Protestant worlds but over a newly discovered America as well." (117) Tasso's epic offers an ultimately disappointing "vision of universality" which "effaces" the significance of local cults and communities.

"Appropriating the Epic: Gender, Caste, and Regional Identity in Middle India" by J. B. Flueckiger offers an analysis based on recent fieldwork (this is the only essay which has previously appeared). F. contrasts two versions of the epic of Candaini, one performed in Uttar Pradesh ("the heartland of orthodox Brahminic Hinduism") which reinforces the male audience's view of themselves as a "local warrior caste." This more martial ethos is markedly different from the version in Chhattisgarh (a region in central India where women have relatively higher status), which centers upon the elopement journey of Lorik and Candaini, the heroine and "primary initiator of action." By her "resourcefulness and courage," Candaini figures out how to cross a flooded river and wins her trapped lover in a round of dice ("a reversal of the gender roles in Sanskritic, male dicing games, which are played to win a woman in marriage" --142). After a vivid recreation of several performances, F. remarks upon the uncertain future of traditional singers who must "compete with video halls, movie theaters, and television." (148)

While the third section, "The Boundaries of Epic Performance," contains only two essays, subsequent essays by Greene and Murnaghan in the fourth section also examine the dynamic between singer and audience and the breaking of epic pretense. In "Problematic Performances: Overlapping Genres and Levels of Participation in Arabic Oral Epic-Singing," D. F. Reynolds seeks to "challenge our commonly received notions of the 'boundedness' of epic as a textual genre and as a performance genre." (156) Based on field work in Egypt in the 1980's (recording 76 full performances -- one thirty-four hour song "takes nearly twice that time to sing ... when performing for an enthusiastic audience"), R. explores the interaction between epic itself and "auxiliary genres," which R. argues are "critical parts of the epic itself." (162) A song of praise to Muhammad (the madih -- in rhymed quatrains) precedes a short lyric of 5, 7, or 9 lines (the mawwal, eliciting approval or criticism from the audience) finally the epic itself begins, yet here with glossing and asides to the audience (social and political commentary, e.g.), the poet mediates between the world within and outside the epic tale.

In "Worshipping Epic Villains: A Kaurava Cult in the Central Himalayas," W.S. Sax demonstrates that the Mahabharata ("the longest epic poem in the world, more than eight times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined") is never and has never been a "fixed rigid text," but proves to be "not only as a book but also a political model, a bedtime story, a tradition of dance, a dramatic spectacle, and much more." (174-5) A clear retelling (with timely etymologies) of the tale of rivalry between the five Pandava brothers and the hundred Kaurava brothers is followed by S.'s pursuit of rumors of a Kaurava cult (honoring the "bad guys"?!), a pursuit both scholarly and personal. Our intrepid academic disregards warnings, gets caught up in an exhilarating dance ("I had the distinct feeling that it was not I who was spinning the weapons around, but they were twirling me" -- 183), and confesses uncertainty ("To assume that the god has a permanent, stable personality is as mistaken as assuming that a person has one" -- 182).

Section Four, "Epic and Lament," begins with T. M. Greene's brilliant piece, "The Natural Tears of Epic." Covering an astounding range of material in twelve pages (from Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, Milton, and the Nibelungenlied to the twelfth-century Russian epic Igor's Raid and the Iranian Shahnama), G. explores tears as "the best criteria of the rhapsode's success," tears as "the authentic narrative telos" of the two Homeric poems; in fact, "the resolution of tears ... ends most of the European poems that we commonly describe as epic." (192) Granting the exceptional solitary grief at the close of Gilgamesh and a "dry-eyed" ending to the Aeneid, G. explores the paradigm of epic grief -- "that common field, the grief of the poet, the character, and the hearer [which] seem to blend in a form of communion." (195) In spite of the poems' distance, G. persuasively argues that "tears break down most effectively those boundaries that epic presencing erodes. The sharing of tears provides a contact with a hero more intense than the wonder at his accomplishments; it levels the planes of human excellence, and it invites the intimacy of a simple shared humanity." (195) This volume again challenges a commonplace about epic, which G. argues is "not so much concerned with heroic achievement in itself as with the affective cost of achievement." (192)

S. Murnaghan explores the complex connection between epic and lament in "The Poetic of Loss in Greek Epic." Her many insights include: epic's claim to accuracy opposed by the tendency of lament to "dwell on fantasies, hoped-for events that now can never take place" (207); the problematic status of male lament; and, most valuable, her clear and persuasive discussion of how "women's laments are subversive ... because they ignore the death-defying kleos that provides a positive compensation for heroic sacrifice and constitutes a major function of epic itself." (215) Homer's portrayal of Hector and Andromache (whose "female impulse [is] to block heroic action") leads to the paradox that "heroic epic cannot do without lamentation ... even though laments often seem to subvert epic's purposes." (217)

In "The Role of Lament in the Growth and Eclipse of Roman Epic," E. Fantham demonstrates how Roman epic innovates upon its Greek precursors. In Ennius fr. 61, F. finds "a new kind of lament, the mourning of the people deprived of their leader [i.e., Romulus]." (222) Virgil balances such communal laments with private laments (Euryalus' mother, Evander), yet these are "dangerous voices." Rather than boost Trojan morale, they serve to incite vengeance. F.'s focus is Statius' Thebaid, in which "his intensive use of lament [serves] as an instrument of condemnation," as female lament answers "in frequency and scale" every male heroic deed. Anger, punishment, and vengeance are the consequences of the entire mourning process, which "appropriates from the miseratio or conquestio of forensic rhetoric the role of generating resentment (invidia) against the adversary." (222) Statius' closing double lament for Polynices offers "a rival version of the epic Statius has just told, seen through women's eyes and in women's terms." (231)

The final section, "Epic and Pedagogy," is as much about what texts to teach as it is about how to teach. S. Wofford explores epic and aetiology in "Epics and the Politics of the Origin Tale: Virgil, Ovid, Spenser, and Native American Aetiology," beginning with the stories of metamorphoses in Ovid (Daphne, Philomela, e.g.) which "represent an excessive violence, often exemplified in or combined with an account of forbidden sexuality or desire ... followed by a catastrophic and irreversible metamorphosis that produces the element of landscape or being in question." (244) Such origin tales "resist the tendency to represent its founding act of violence as natural," as the trees, birds, and flowers "retain always the marks of crime, grief, or excessive passion." (250) W. then examines two Labrador Indian origin tales ("The First Loon," "The Origin of Robins"), both of which have incest as the central issue. While one lesson of both stories may be to enforce the taboo of incest, the portrayal of the tender love of siblings and mother and son -- coupled with the violent enforcement of social norms -- suggests the risk in telling such tales. The third focus is the Faerie Queene, in which Spenser "learned something about reversible and irreversible metamorphosis from Dante, for the Christian epic is designed to reveal precisely God's power ... to redeem fallen nature." (259)

In "Walcott's Omeros: The Classical Epic in a Postmodern World," J. Farrell explores the question of whether this 1990 Caribbean poem is truly an epic, arguing that "the problem of literary categorization is ... merely a special case of one of the poem's central themes," that of belonging. (273) F. challenges two arguments, neither of which he finds sufficient to deny Omeros its epic status. First, after a quick study of comparative epic songs, F. demonstrates that apparently non-western features of Omeros (connections to Africa and a grounding in oral Caribbean culture) are in fact manipulated within the epic, which redefines Homer as "an oral poet of the sea and of nature." (279) Second, he argues that "if the European epic is what the theorists [Schiller, Hegel, Lukacs, Auerbach, and Bakhtin] tell us it should be, then clearly Omeros is not epic. But those theorists are wrong." (283) Epic poems need not be closed, authoritative, monologic, and transcendent; therefore, Omeros cannot be denied the name "epic," even if its narrative voice is "personal ... uncertain ... idiosyncratic ... and uncomfortable with the mantle of authority." (280) This final essay appropriately reminds us that "the capacity for inversion and reinvention ... is itself a property of the epic genre." (284)


1.   Nagy's bibliography does include V. Edwards and T. J. Sienkewicz. Oral Cultures Past and Present: Rappin' and Homer. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass. 1990.
2.   R. P. Martin. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the "Iliad." Ithaca, N.Y. 1989, a work frequently cited in these essays.

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