Epic and Lyric

Epic and Lyric

Finishing up Practical Reason by Bourdieu this morning and perusing the excellent comments of people who have stumbled onto my meanderings, I feel like I need to clarify something regarding my usage of “epic” and “lyric.” These terms are appropriated from their poetic syntax, and pressed into the service of larger questions I’ve been thinking of.

As I noted yesterday, as I try to make sense of modernism (not my main focus of study), I have this sense that there is a fracture between the “epic” mode of totalizing narrative and the “lyric” mode of particularizing narrative. Labeling these “fields” of interference seems useful to me. It’s not meant as an oppositional binary, merely as a locus of artistic intentionality.

The aim of epic is to contain (traditionally in poetic form) the codex of a culture. The aim of lyric is to contain the specificity of a moment, a relation of distinctiveness, of individuality. Few artists have asserted as boldly as Milton did the aim to “justify” the ways of god to men. That is what I mean by epic, in the deepest sense. Lyric, on the other hand, seems to lean toward justifying the ways of men to god. Several people have suggested Moby Dick as the epic vision of America. I’m not so sure. It lacks the pervasiveness of a Paradise Lost; I would almost nominate The Scarlet Letter in its place, if I were really searching for an American epic. The guilt, shame, and price of conformity seem as much a part of the American codex as the futile quest. But I digress.

I’m not really searching for an American epic, just wondering at the tension between the fields of lyric expression and epic expression, between universality and particularity, and of the parameters that define both. Moby Dick is on my list. I started to read it last December, but I got derailed by school. A Thousand Plateaus has received a cursory glance, but I wandered away when I finished reading about rhizomes. I’m not a rhizomatic kind of person. I’m a tree kind of person. I’m not promiscuous.

I’m trying to stay on track. Next up on my list was The Waves by Virginia Wolfe, though I may do Moby Dick instead. And though it may seem as if I’ve forgotten to keep writing about The Bridge, I haven’t. It’s just a matter of swimming in an ever-deepening context. Also on deck is Pnin by Nabokov, Gulliver’s Travels, Gilgamesh, and The Road to Wiggan Pier by Orwell, not to mention another biography of Walker Evans now on its way. Sometimes I feel like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. Unlike Henry Bemis, I don’t need glasses, just time.

Of course littered through this there will be a few critical texts I want to pick up along the way. So, how were you going to spend your summer? I realize that most people don’t get so deeply involved in things as I do. But these things all feed into questions I have, and since I have no life, I might as well read about them. It can easily be assumed that I have too much spare time. This will change, since I’ve signed up to start writing a book in the fall, as well as teaching and other theoretical diversions. I should be working on some articles I need to write, but instead, left to my own devices, like Henry Bemis I’ll chose to read.

1 thought on “Epic and Lyric”

  1. If I were going to nominate a book as the American epic, and I’m not really sure such a book exists, I think I would nominate Mark Twain’s Huckelberry Finn with its emphasis on rugged individualism and standing up to, and exposing, the weaknesses of society and government.Though they’re both great novels, in my opinion, both Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter focus too much on Purtanism to stand for the entire American codex.

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