10-4 literary

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.4 (Fall 2010)

 

LITERARY ANALYSIS

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courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Narrative Haeretics: One Key to Understanding an Artfully Made Story

(Part Two)

 John R. Harris

IV.  Destiny Versus Free Will: The Central Haeretic Question

     Several of my own encounters with these issues are owed to teaching a World Literature survey to undergraduates for over two decades.  I have little expertise in any Asian tradition; so when my class studies a work like the medieval Iranian Shahname (set down in approximately 1000 A.D.), I naturally fall back upon Mediterranean works that suggest parallels.  A Homeric parallel seems particularly promising.  In our excerpt from this vast opus, we focus upon the hero Rostam’s tragic slaying of his own son in battle.  To be sure, there is no Homeric counterpart—or even Greco-Roman counterpart, that I know of—to the sequence of hero begetting child on foreign princess, hero leaving princess with instructions to send child along later if born a son, hero failing to recognize son upon his being sent, hero slaying son in mortal combat.  (As we shall see, there is indeed a precise counterpart to this sequence in ancient Ireland.)  Though one might invoke the non-Homeric myth that has Telegonus, son of Calypso and Odysseus, slaying his father while raiding Ithaca, this is a very crude parallel, disrupted in many critical details.

     Nevertheless, the following elements of the Shahname resonate with the Iliad.  A premium is placed upon martial valor: kleos is won by force of arms on the field of glory.  The fame purveyed by circulating report is the full and true measure of one’s worth, uncomplicated by any consideration (introduced by the narrator or otherwise raised) of one’s hidden motives or purity of intent.  Rostám, in fact, fathers the ill-starred child on Tahminé because the lovely princess knows of his reputation and, on that basis alone, has determined before they ever meet to lie with him: a situation not at all unlike some which attend the Greek Herakles (viz., the daughters whom King Thespius craftily beds with his semi-divine guest).  Rostám, furthermore, appears to be often at odds with the Iranian shah, Kay Kavús.  At one point, the tension between them boils so hotly that the hero stalks out of the Shah’s court after his arrest has been ordered, and Kay Kavús (having been advised by a Nestor-like elder) must send an embassy to chase down Rostám and beg forgiveness.  The Iliad models an identical variety of stress between the politically dominant Agamemnon and the physically peerless Achilles: the one major narrative difference, of course, is that the Shah’s embassy succeeds in calling Rostám back to his duty.  Meanwhile, the stunningly precocious Sohrab approaches the kingdom with a hostile army of Turks, expecting (reasonably enough) that his father must materialize sooner or later as word of the invasion spreads.  He insists that one of his captives identify the Iranian generals for him as they survey the vast plain together—a scene directly reminiscent of the teichoscopia in Iliad 3 except for the absence of a wall.  (Sohrab’s informant, Hojír, even tells lies: could this have any connection to the presence of Antenor—sometimes presented in Greek myth as a traitor—among Helen’s listeners?)  Reconnoitering on his side, as well, Rostám slips into the enemy camp one night to spy upon the mysterious young invader, dispatching a guard as he sneaks in.  Here, of course, we have a hint of the nocturnal foray of Diomedes and Odysseus in Iliad 10 which leaves several Trojan allies slain in their sleep.  Some of the matches are sufficiently striking that one may well suspect the Iliad’s influence somewhere early in the Iranian epic’s provenance.

     I should at once stress that the latter work was compiled by a literate author—Abolqasem Ferdowsi—who enjoys a solid historical pedigree rather than a shadowy legendary status.  Ferdowsi was more Vergil than Homer in the terms of his employment, which involved primarily the commemoration of Iran’s glorious pre-Islamic heritage through an atavistic work not openly offensive to Islam.  In other words, the Shahname (as is so often—too often—said of the Aeneid) was political propaganda, its author somewhat (if not very) dubious about the traditional belief system projected in it superficially.  Yet one must also note that the Iranian author, admittedly quite literate by his day’s standard, was setting down an established narrative tradition rather than “inventing tradition” in the delicate manner forced upon Vergil; and, from the other direction, that the legendary Homer was surely somewhat literate himself, even if we must compound a traditional bard and a collaborating scribe in his sketchy identity.  In any case, literacy in the Islamic world (as I observe to my undergraduates) has never meant—and does not mean to this day—quite what it does in the West.  Arabic is seldom written or printed with short vowels added (an oddity which I believe extends to other languages in its family).  As a result, words are more readily confused than in a fully alphabetic system, and learning to read and write involves a much tighter adherence to tradition than in the Western world.  Indeed, time-honored texts are typically committed to memory in high oral fashion before students learn to spell them and in order that students may learn to spell.

     We have every reason to suppose, in short, that the Shahname will reflect the values of a somewhat advanced oral-traditional world.  Among these values is the assumption that human beings have relatively little free will—that the gods or destiny make them act as they do.  (Recall that Agamemnon attributes his provocative behavior to Atê, Goddess of Folly, in Iliad 19 without raising any eyebrows—essentially a “devil made me do it” defense.)  One of the curiosities of Middle Eastern texts, when viewed against the classical model, is that they do indeed project such a severely restricted concept of freedom while being far from polytheistic, and sometimes claiming to be monotheistic.  Belief in one god generally accompanies the notion of a unitary source of moral inspiration: i.e., a conscience.  Where the agent seems disinclined to hold himself responsible for doing what he detests, on the other hand, we usually find a universe populated by several competing gods who pull at the individual’s strings like rival puppeteers.  Even if we concede that the Shahname’s metaphysical framework is vaguely pre-Islamic, the Zoroastrian nuance of its backdrop is no more polytheistic than is the Manichaean heresy.  Good and evil (Ahura Mazda and Ahrimán) strain in an epochal tug-of-war for dominance; yet a single great creator (Izád or Yazdán) arches mystically over the whole.  This is a far cry from Homer’s bickering Olympians in many respects.  At least in the matter of freedom, however, there is no great disparity.  Destiny rules: men but think that they choose their acts.[1]

     No tale could couch this idea much more insistently than does the Rostám/Sohrab sequence.  My predominantly Western students are truly mystified that father and son cannot manage to identify one the other before tragedy hammers them both.  Sohrab sets out on his journey to find his father at a remarkably early age: this alone renders Rostám’s lack of suspicion reasonable.  (The motif of the boy-superman is also apparent in such Greek heroes as Herakles, Achilles, and Neoptolemus, by the way.)  The father had given Tahminé a signet-ring to tie around her son’s shoulder as a means of identification on the day of his departure.  She fulfills this injunction, and the failure of the marking to draw Rostám’s attention in a timely manner (he sees the ring only after Sohrab lies mortally wounded beneath him) is never explained.  Tahminé also sends along a faithful servant to indicate the father to the boy.  This is the very man whom Rostám slays as he steals into the enemy camp by night.  The captive Hojír, as has been noted, lies to Sohrab though threatened with death if he does not name the Iranians’ largest, strongest warrior as the mighty Rostám.  (In his defense, Hojír supposes himself to be saving Rostám from certain destruction rather than from warm reunion.)  The shahs of both sides connive repeatedly at the misunderstanding, since they fear that father and son may be irresistible if they should ever fight in concert: the status quo would surely be overthrown.  Finally and most perplexingly, Sohrab bluntly asks the older warrior on two occasions during their three-day combat if he is not the palaván Rostám.  Since the son mentions his motive in asking the question neither time, the father denies his identity twice.  Yet the denial is odd from a Homeric perspective: Greek warriors want very much for their opponents to know them by name—how else would they win kudos?   Perhaps the correct analogy is Odysseus giving out a false name to Polyphemus; perhaps, that is, Rostám fears that some sort of hex may be put upon him.  A scholar far better versed in this tradition than I may have the answer.

     Yet students tend to find this roll-call of unfortunate coincidences rather much.  The tale is like a bad dream.  A word more here or a word less there would have secured a much happier ending.  The presence of destiny is overpowering.  In the end, when Shah Kay Kavús eloquently counsels an inconsolable Rostám to accept the will of fate after having refused him a life-restoring plant with which to medicate the boy (on the ground, once again, that two superheroes would be one too many), I confess that I myself am chilled.  The story fails to work aesthetically for me, because the motives behind destiny have too often been human, deliberate, and malign.[2]  As a man who has left adolescence far behind, I can allow (as my students cannot) that life can sometimes be immensely unfair—that the single word which might have saved a situation sometimes simply doesn’t come.  That the wicked ambition of scheming politicos, however, should be comfortably received as the same species of bad luck repels me.  In Greek mythology, the pettiness and malice of powerful people adds depth to destiny.  We may conclude that oracles are fulfilled often—or always—because they trust in perverse human nature to trap itself while running away from the snare.  Destiny does not force Laius to expose the infant Oedipus, but rather his own vain craving to control events.  Had that king’s hubris been less—had he reared his son properly despite the dire prophecy—all might have come to pass as Jocasta explains in ll. 981-983: through some sort of harmlessly ironic play of dreams, that is.  Even so does Achilles seal his own doom, not by taking arms, but by allowing Patroclus to take them as he begins to rethink his commitment to early death and lasting fame.  In the Greek world—even in the first recorded Greek tales—the destiny visited upon us is almost always woven from those choices through which we fight destiny.  Arrogance is destiny: character is destiny.

     In contrast, the Shahname represents tragic destiny as nothing but a string of pure misfortunes: it refuses to differentiate the voluntary elements of Rostám’s tragedy from inscrutable wrong turns.  I contend that this refusal vitiates the story’s quality as a story—that it does not satisfy as a whole made of various parts because the parts are not distinguished as basic morality demands.  One might well argue that the Persian world has been deeply affected by this “aesthetic” blind spot.[3]  Though indisputable masters of the East for a time, the Persians were easily scattered by Alexander once he had realized (through reading Xenophon’s adventures) that their troops had no individual taste for a fight.  To follow the Great King was their fate: and to follow routed elite divisions, as well, was their fate.  Destiny appears to enjoy excessive esteem as a guiding force in this culture.  It has sometimes inspired a quietism which fuels marches to the abyss.  The Greeks found such resignation to despotic forces strange and unappetizing.  As a Westerner reared in their tradition, I also find it morally troubling; and the moral distortion of basic humanity involved in accepting unrighteous rule—in advancing such acceptance as a virtue—hinders me from seeing the classic Iranian epic as a fully successful work of art.  

     My use of the personal pronoun is almost ostentatious, because I do not wish to deny that my judgment is subjective.  I wish to repeat the Kantian formulation, rather, that all aesthetic judgment is subjective yet conceived with objective force; and I wish to emphasize that my understanding of freedom inevitably and significantly affects my judgment of this narrative, as yours must your own.  The ground of the judgment, then, is doubly subjective in being both aesthetic and moral.  We should not interpret this, however, to mean that it is invalidated—that stories can teach us nothing because we cannot help but import our prejudices to them.  Both aesthetic and moral verdicts are presented to us by our minds as truth: that is, they stir in us a special urgency to avoid the subjective to the greatest degree possible.  If my response to the Shahname is unduly biased, then why is it so—simply because it does not correspond to that of the epic’s creator and culture?  But then all narratives must be equally compelling… or equally neutral.  My response demands answers to specific questions—and they are moral questions.  My culture of origin, furthermore, must not be held solely responsible for my questioning, for at issue is the very basis—the very possibility—of morality: the freedom to choose and to act upon choices.  Below I have reproduced an online assessment of the Shahname written by an Iranian.  The passage does a fair job of attempting to take human events at the traditional Persian estimate yet does not conceal profound doubts about that assessment:

God’s choice is indeed unfathomable, but it is also unchallengeable [in the traditional view].  Its wisdom is known only to God, and man has no right to dispute it.  That explains why Rostám, of all people, should be responsible for killing his son.  It also explains why the brave Sohrab should die at the hands of his own father: he has attempted to overthrow God’s chosen Shahs, Kay Kavús and Afrasiyab…. 

However, this is far from the workings of blind fate.  God’s scheme of things in Shahnameh ultimately has a meaningful purpose to it: to protect and sustain Iran—God’s favorite nation—in the face of attacks from its enemies….

In some ways the overemphasis on blind fate in Shahnameh and Persian culture has blighted people’s lives because they assume they cannot change their destiny.  So whatever the circumstances, there can be a tendency in the Iranian heart to just resign themselves as there is nothing they can do.[4]

These observations, not unlike my own, allow me to reduce my questions to a single variety: if all that happens can be seen as God’s will, then to what atrocity should we not yield passively?  Or if God’s will is expressed specifically through His chosen rulers (who are the existing rulers, ipso facto), then what deranged or corrupt despot could ever do an act which one might righteously oppose?  And if such is indeed the nature of God, then what metaphysical terminus can there be for the human heart which reveres unconditional goodness rather than arbitrary power?  Is that human heart more descriptive of what we regard as truly human, or is the other heart—the heart that accedes to strong men who “get results”?  Which is the better description of the human soul?  Why would the worse description merit our acclaim in a work of art any more than would a rose painted with square petals in a still life?

     Lest I be thought guilty of slighting a culture not my own due to a jingoistic kind of loyalty (a charge that falls on all these days, like the rain), I hasten to add that the medieval Irish version of this same tale is even more off-putting aesthetically—much more.  The Aided Óenfir Aife, or Death of Aife’s Only Son, was probably recorded late in the first millennium.[5]  It has all the foibles of such a transcription: terse to the point of the stylistically threadbare, it was very likely more an act of scribal note-taking than a verbatim text of a scéalaí’s performance.  Indeed, to rate such a skeletal work for the quality of its narrative suspense would be about as unfair as applying the same rigor to the all-but-inscrutable clay tablets out of which poetically licensed translators have teased Gilgamesh.  Yet we have enough of the plot to make two assertions: that it is astonishingly similar to what will become the Sohrab section of the Shahname, and that it invests none of the Iranian epic’s care in disguising the son’s identity to his father.

     In my view, the similarities are too numerous to be accidental: the ancient Celts must surely have brought the rudiments of the tale with them from Eastern Europe, where a connection with Asia Minor might be easily supposed.[6]  In his youth, the Irish arch-hero Cú Chulainn is studying warcraft under the Scottish Amazon Scáthach.  Cú manages to impress his instructor so much that she has him sleep with her daughter Aífe in hope of his begetting a child.  Readers of the Shahname will recall that Rostám’s initial encounter with Shah Afrasiyab, while not violent, was likewise no mere social call, being tinged with threats of mayhem because of the champion’s stolen horse.  The daughter in both cases is sacrificed (or sacrifices herself) without objection, for the opportunity of bearing heroic progeny seems self-justifying in both cultural settings.  The hero in either case also instructs his bedmate to send the conceived child, if a son, with a mark of recognition upon his shoulder.  In the Irish tale, this is a brass arm-ring (ordnasc—probably an offensive weapon of Scandinavian origin for crushing skulls).  Cú Chulainn bestows it upon Aífe not only that he may recognize his son, but that the boy may not come seeking him too soon—for the child is to stay home until the thick ring fits firmly around his shoulder.

     Yet no great wait is needed.  If Sohrab is precocious, the young Conlae is still more so: he sails for Ulster, comfortably wearing arm-ring and other martial gear, in his seventh year!  Like Sohrab, the boy proceeds to terrorize the locals upon entering his father’s land, refusing to utter his name or purpose to anyone—though unlike Sohrab, he has no army at his back.  For that matter, Sohrab’s intimidation is reported as coming exclusively through his mano a mano encounters with worthies of the opposing side, so his host is narratively otiose.  Conlae, too, bests a succession of the greatest heroes that the kingdom of Ulster can send against him.  They stagger back to the dún one after another, smarting and humiliated, until only the mightiest of all remains.

     Here the tale veers from the Shahname in a most striking manner.  Somehow or other (the story provides no explanation), Cú Chulainn’s lawful wife Emer knows that the lad is his son.  She implores him at great length (by this tale’s telegraphic standard) not to enter the fray.  The hero brushes her aside contemptuously.  “It’s not the restraint of a woman,” he declares, “that shall keep great deeds from a bright triumph!”  In this frame of mind, the father engages his son with every trick at his disposal and with every ounce of strength at his call.  So determined is Cú to win—so little inclined to show quarter—that after the boy more than matches his attack, greater blow for great blow (like Sohrab), he resorts to the ultimate act of craftiness (like Rostám).  Using his redoubtable gaí bulga (a kind of exploding spear, apparently), he mortally wounds Conlae.  “Scáthach didn’t teach me that one,” says the expiring boy; and then, with his final words, he laments, “If I had been among you five years, I would have slain all the men of the world round about you on every side till I had taken the kingdom to Rome.”  Curiously, though the Ulstermen celebrate Cú Chulainn’s glorious victory, they also bury the young invader with full honors and mourn him so vocally that their cattle cannot calve for some while afterward.  Yet there is no indication that the father himself is especially distraught; indeed, it is he who announces to the Ulstermen that Conlae was his son.

     What are we to make of this brutal narrative?  Though the theme of world domination appears in Conlae’s dying words, it is not coupled with an overthrow of Ulster’s rightful king, as is the overthrow of the shahs with the possible teaming up of Sohrab and Rostám in the Shahname.  In any case, though Ulster’s noblemen might understandably have divined such a threat, the story never hints that they do.  The context simply does not exist to claim that Cú Chulainn is defending king and kingdom from imminent collapse; in fact, Conlae seems to wound rather than kill his adversaries so that they may tell others of his prowess—his threat amounts to more of a thumb in the eye than political subversion.  Here the cultural historian may step in and observe that honor—kleos, gloria, reputation—was so prized in this community that to lose it was indeed to undermine the clan politically, whose stability rested far more on a fluid, abstract fear and respect than on hard boundaries and constitutional checks and balances.  This is the best case that can be made for Cú Chulainn’s “defense” of the realm.

     Why, then, does he not make it himself?  Why does Emer not consider it when she pleads with her husband to stand down?  The father’s preoccupation, rather, seems to be with the chance to embellish his personal reputation.  That so many of his courtly rivals in glory have already been humbled by the nameless visitor appears of infinitely greater importance in his calculations than any possible political turmoil.

     I fully comprehend the primacy of such honor in traditional societies: as a Homerist, I imagine that I do so better than most.  As a human being, however, I regret the absence of any exculpating ignorance here such as we found in Rostám.  The Ulstermen themselves plainly mourn the boy’s loss, though far less plain is whether their grief arises from the fully manifested human tragedy or from a ruined chance at world dominion.  Might they not, like Emer, be feeling that, incomparably great as Cú Chulainn is, this latest proof was one that he might have forgone in all decency?  Is there a similarity, perhaps, between Cú at this moment and the ferociously traditional Okonkwo of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart when he needlessly participates in the ritual stoning of his stepson?[7]

     One is irresistibly tempted to impose such a deeper reading on the text—to “finish” it the way one might finish a multicolored sunset by thinking of far places and eternal truths.  Yet the text itself is just a splash of incoherent colors.  Human nature, for this reader, cannot pull it into any sort of form or knead it into any sort of metaphor.  Perhaps grotesquerie of this kind, painfully abundant in many ancient mythic traditions, was the inspiration of such generous and ingenious theories as Max Müller’s solar mythology or Lord Raglan’s reduction of crude story to primitive ritual.  All efforts of the sort seek to explain tales as extensions of non-moral, quasi-scientific sequences into an area where they were never meant to tread (e.g., Kronos eating his children as a garbled rendition of a solar eclipse).  For argument’s sake, let us concede that the Aided was originally an account of an eclipse or an earthquake, wherein—before divine natural forces were euhemerized in reverse—a producer appeared to devour its progeny.  Then we have an explanation of what would otherwise be a moral monstrosity: that is, we excuse the Aided from having to generate any narrative pleasure whatever.

     Many ancient tales from many different cultures may belong in the same basket.  I would underscore that this is just another way of acknowledging their aesthetic failure.  Perhaps there is no “failure” of a lion to be a giraffe since the lion had no intent of being such: if that point takes the sting out of the present case, then I offer it into evidence.  I insist only that the Aided, far from being a beautiful story, is a very ugly one, thanks to a topsy-turviness of motivation in its lead character that would render humanity truly despicable if true.  The narrative may be given highest possible marks, as far as I am concerned, for allegorizing the Sun’s eclipse of the Moon or the sea’s reclaiming of a channel island.

     Having alluded to W. B. Yeats through the title of Achebe’s novel, I am bound to add that twentieth-century Ireland’s master poet tried to redeem the Aided in his own ingenious manner: a short, magnificent tragedy titled On Baile’s Strand.  A summary look reveals that Yeats has essentially transformed the medieval Irish text to resemble its Persian cousin much more closely.[8]  Cú Chulainn does not know the young invader’s identity in this telling.  At most, he discerns in the lad a resemblance to Aoife’s tribe of the north, commenting without enlightenment, “There’s more likeness—a pale, a stone-pale cheek.”  He had used these very terms in recollecting Aoife a few lines earlier; he had recollected Aoife because Conchubar, High King of the Ultonians, had drawn him into discussing the absence of women and children from his life (Emer having been purged from Yeats’s text); and the crafty king was apparently trying to underscore the hero’s social isolation to him by way of cozening him into swearing an oath of submission.  The theme of political authority is back in bounds.  More specifically, the theme of devious politicos with little physical power or moral authority exploiting wild, free nature to legitimize themselves has been resuscitated from the Shahname—and indeed, one might say, from the Iliad.  To be sure, Yeats’s Cú Chulainn mounts no overt resistance to his would-be ruler.  The play’s hero, rather, seems to be in a sadly dreamy mood for most of his time on stage.  He is an older man, lonely but not willing to concede (work him as Conchubar will) that his absolute freedom has carried too high a price.  “We in our young days / Have seen the heavens like a burning cloud / Brooding upon the earth,” declares Cú, revisiting his tie to a superhuman reality—and then, insisting on the brutal honesty which is a privilege of the gods, he scorns the king’s family to his face.  The hero is a veritable Gilgamesh in his attachment to the rule of whimsy.  His mistrust of reasoned, orderly rule deserves to be called principled.

     Whether or not Gilgamesh actually could have represented some such principle to his original audience—whether Achilles or Rostám could have done so, even—Yeats’s  Cú Chulainn certainly does.  He is a supremely literate author’s vision of all that literacy has cost the human spirit.  His sublime madness is not tarnished—must not be tarnished—by anything so squalid as a genuine oral-traditional regard for public opinion.  So the Cú Chulainn of the Yellow Book of Lecan must retreat into the dense shadows of mythic evolution, replaced by a father who vaguely recalls the woman he once lay with as a fierce adversary subdued in battle (no hint here that she is given away by her bellatrix-mother).  The woman’s recollected fury, indeed, seems to confound hopelessly in the hero’s mind their savage combat and their love-making: to him, they were the same moment.  Nor did the Yeatsian superman do anything so foresightful as bestow a portable sign upon his mate for the child’s future recognition: the boy-hero’s appearance finds Cú Chulainn utterly and honestly without suspicion.

     That Conchubar himself was equally ignorant of the boy’s identity is far more problematic.  He probably knew.  His inciting the combat (or the incitement stirred by his nameless, serviceable entourage, to be exact) probably aims at sealing Cú Chulainn invincibly into that very isolation which the king has sought to exploit throughout the play’s single scene.  Once the hero has killed his only flesh-and-blood offspring on earth, that is, he cannot but become the “king’s man”, for he will have nothing else left.  Certainly the Blind Man—who begins and ends the play, along with his constant companion, the Fool—knows the boy’s provenance; and Yeats openly admitted in a letter to a friend that the Blind Man is Conchubar’s demotic projection, just as the Fool is Cú Chulainn’s.  The great hero “is the fool—wandering passive, houseless, and almost loveless.  Conchubar is reason that is blind because it can only reason because it is cold.”[9]

     It seems very likely, then, that the play’s coherence depends upon just what we make of this confrontation of two contradictory forces in human nature, presented to us first at “street level”, then with the gilding of heroic myth, and finally back in the alley.  (In the play’s last lines, the Blind Man urges the Fool to help him in pillaging other houses for food while all of the settlement’s other inhabitants gape at Cú Chulainn’s grief-stricken, mad assault upon the waves washing over his son’s body.)  The unsavory chore of pondering how a father might slaughter his son for no more than personal glory has mercifully been removed from before the critical cathedra; and the obfuscation of human conniving behind an inscrutable destiny has also been disallowed.  We confront head-on, thanks to the invitation to allegorize implicit in the Blind Man and the Fool, the abuse of wild spontaneity by interested guile.  Euripides and Vergil handled their mythic traditions in the same way, vivifying them by suggesting to the audience that they were a vast mirror before Everyman’s soul.  While allegory cannot fuel the taut, suspenseful plot that Aristotle seems to praise due to the insoluble shadows around its edges (what does Aoife mean in this scheme? what exactly do women mean to Yeats, more than sexual desire and frustration?), it acquires in subtlety what it loses in definition.  Even if design alone is superior to color alone, a tastefully colored design remains more captivating than a black-and-gray one.

     Is Yeats’s allegory “tastefully” colored?  The reader must decide; but the decision must be reached, once again, by what is primarily a moral judgment rather than an aesthetic one.  Is it fair to pit a bourgeois kind of reason against a Nietzschean kind of freedom?  Is nature spiritually superior to culture?  I myself can agree with this proposition at some level: I think most of us can.  Skene reads the struggle between high king and hero as between ”the claims of family and race” and “the claims of the individual”; and later he believes that Cú Chulainn “turns away from those forces in life which he has always served” in fighting Conlae (whom Yeats never names in his tale).[10]  This is a good general assessment.  If we take the play in such a vein, then most of us can supplement the allegory with “real life” instances of naïve, good-hearted people who are duped into committing immoral acts—perhaps even atrocities—by trusting in society’s appointed authorities.  (A soldier or a policeman might tap into better examples than the rest of us: the more rigid the power structure, the more severe its abuse.)  Personally, I find Cú Chulainn’s sudden turning on Conlae as soon as the boy is charged with witchcraft a bit mystifying, as an allegorical motive if not as a specific one.  The mythic hero would eventually be done in by sorceresses (three of them working together), and his heroic career was much bedeviled by them; but if we are now in the territory of multiple significance, then the witches must mean something else, besides, to succeed aesthetically.  I could hazard a few guesses as well as the next critic… but perhaps the playwright should not have left us quite so free to guess.

     At least I do not have to adopt as genuine a measure of humanity that views filicide as compatible with heroism, or that views despotism as a morally neutral agency of fate.  For that reason, I prefer Yeats’s work to Ferdowsi’s, just as I prefer Ferdowsi’s to the anonymous medieval Irish scribe’s.  I cannot separate my own convictions about what is right and wrong from my determination of how well these—or any other—narrative works mimic reality.  Because of my convictions, I find that the allegorists (Euripides, Yeats) and the ironists (Sophocles, probably Homer) win my vote.  Another judge may bring another standard to bear: but part of that aesthetic standard must be moral, and to argue to the contrary is tell oneself and all those awaiting one’s verdict a great lie.

V.  Conclusions: What Common Sense Knows That Ideology Denies

     That the aesthetic experience of narrative inevitably enlists moral judgments—i.e., deliberated assumptions about right and wrong and about human nature—hardly needs further emphasis at this point.  It is surely possible that the moral assumptions of certain young or naïve readers may be changed by a powerful narrative, or that ironclad ideologues may relax their view of duty if a story’s characters seem real to them and touch their heart.  Yet I am tempted to say in such cases that the people affected have never developed a very clear moral philosophy or, in reverse, have been indoctrinated so mechanically with a creed that they have not been permitted to see human behavior straight on.  Perhaps they come to stories in a kind of flight, eager to find answers which they know to be lacking in their own experience or eager, similarly, to put suspiciously rigid answers to a hidden but “real life” test.  Narrative is indeed the proving ground of morality.  If human beings must be caricatured to distill the proper lesson from the creator’s Aristotelian crucible, most adult readers will perceive the corruption of the experiment; and if the unitary experience in which several real-seeming characters collaborate does not imply any sort of coherent verdict on life, then demanding, intense readers will perceive this, as well, and indict the story for an aesthetic failure on moral grounds.  For just as every painting has edges and a mid-space constantly responding to each other, and just as every symphony has an overture and a crescendo, so every narratively represented life must have a “point”, a message.  If it has none–if the whole is chaotic flux–then that message is chaos, and the reader must determine if such a message can be morally true.

a) literature is not propaganda

     To be sure, a story’s moral chaos may be purposeful.  incoherence may mount a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy: the narrative’s values may be “coherently incoherent”, that is, if the ruinous coarseness or silliness of the characters’ beliefs is represented as a single conceptual fault line causing all the story’s problems.  Huxley’s Brave New World might be placed in this category: a dark comedy of manners wherein progressive thinking undermines ordinary decency and common humanity.  Many of Chekhov’s greatest short stories (“The Lady with the Pet Dog”, “The Teacher of Literature”) also end in a moral confusion which seems splendidly artful.

    Yet such works could never be charged with didacticism–far from it.  The anguishing bemusement of their characters must surely stir compassion in most readers.  At the opposite end of the spectrum sits the kind of story which fumes at moral hypocrisy with an inflexible, humorless outrage close to monomania.  Unfortunately, the contemporary academy, in its zeal to see all art as propaganda, has done much to encourage just such silliness-verging-on-madness in fiction.  The novels most celebrated by our intelligentsia indeed have little to separate them from a hellfire-and-brimstone kind of sermonizing which would strike the same judges as insufferably repellent in a religious context.  For instance, if all villains are of a certain race or social status or all victims seem to draw their suffering from monogamous bourgeois marriage, then the story’s “amorality” is bound to thunder moralistically like a fist on a pulpit.  More than a few college instructors (and perhaps most graduate professors) consider texts worthy of actual attention, alas (both the scholar’s and the student’s attention), only to the degree that they subvert the status quo in this manner.  Yet merely rejecting the dominant value system can no more suffice to aesthetic coherence than caricaturing dated works can qualify as productive, dynamic formulation of a new moral vision.  Mockery of the status quo’s inefficacy or hypocrisy may indeed produce an amusing–even a classic–comedy of manners (after the fashion of Sheridan and Congreve).  When done with serious single-mindedness, however, it is among the most propagandistic, un-aesthetic varieties of story-telling.[11]  The novels of Zola are perhaps the most readable of this heavy-handed lot.

     One may remark with surprise that such narrative proliferates on television and at the movies: surprise, because these media ostensibly exist only to entertain.  No doubt, the oversimplification of moral values here offers the easy access of a children’s story or a comic strip.  The “us against them” binary opposition (toggle on for good guys, toggle off for bad guys) obviously provides the mass mind with quick entry into very basic tensions (rather like a staged wrestling match).  Yet in contemporary literature, the tensions are often scarcely less polarized–and such works have typically been the darlings of educated critics for the last half-century.  The highly politicized novel I, Rigoberta Menchú, was fervently celebrated in academic circles upon its appearance, even after several of the events described therein were revealed to have been “dramatized”.[12]  Of course, as a work of fiction, the novel should not have lost any of its thunder once its plot was found to be fictional… but the situation was vexed.  Praise was originally meted out precisely because the novel’s events were believed to represent fact: truth generalized from horrifying and minute details about the author’s personal poverty in Guatemala and the torture and slaughter of her family members because of their Mayan ancestry.  The “generalization”, as so often happens in such endeavors, became an uncomfortably intimate tango with fantasy.

     For the aesthetic truth is this: when specific historical events rather than broad issues of human nature and human free will motivate the plot, the story can only be coherent if the specifics have been correctly portrayed. What other option exists? What type of insane “psycho-fiction”, á la science-fiction, would result if a novelist imagined Napoleon an enormously tall man with a passion for astronomy or Amelia Earhart the first female Major Leaguer? How would we judge such a book—to what real points of stability would we tie its referents? Say that a novel is constructed around the pretext that J. Edgar Hoover designed the Kennedy assassination. If Hoover was in fact innocent of such a dastardly deed, then the novel is aesthetically flawed, because the motive forces in its universe only operate if the historical J. Edgar Hoover indeed committed treasonously murderous acts. Would friends of Hoover enjoy a corresponding right to produce novels about his building the Lincoln Memorial or discovering penicillin? Where would such unmoored absurdity end?

     The reader who splutters, “But people like Hoover do commit atrocities!” would probably also say of the Rigoberta Menchú controversy, “Capitalist interests do brutal things all the time to peasants, even if they didn’t in this particular case.”  Yet the reader’s judgment of the book then becomes a measure of how he or she “feels about” certain historical personages rather than how he or she assesses the human heart.  The judgment would fall along politically sectarian lines, in short: it would become an intellectual shakedown to ascertain whether you “like” Richard Nixon or are “for” Shell Oil.  Our hypothetical author would have been far better advised to give his fictional Hoover another name, just as Menchú would have had a more legitimate claim to portraying reality if she had not insisted upon the book’s minute historicity (had taken herself out of the title, for instance, and the narrator’s role).  The aesthetic verdict hinges upon the reader’s view of human nature, and a writer who seeks to preempt that view by insisting that represented events really did happen is cheating at the game.  A responsible author must say, “This is what happens, given the way people are”—not, “This is something that in fact happened, whether you want to believe it or not.”[13]

     I recently ran across a short story by Heinrich Böll in which a rather outmoded but still faithful Marxist packed her daughter away on a plane for a two-year absence.  Turning away, the woman remarked pathetically to a friend, “Aren’t tears just a remnant of bourgeois sentimentality?  Can there still be tears in the classless society?”[14]  The fanatical ideologue tries to rewrite reality so that tears flow at all the “right” moments—or else (as a reader) only picks up books which promise to bring tears just at those moments.  The writer who has not broken faith with his high calling and his public lets the tears flow where they may—where they do, in his experience of life—and then tries to fill in consistent, credible motives around them.

     When a work like the Shahname will not allow us to pry into the shahs’ moral corruption, even though it sets the evidence plainly before our eyes, it constrains us in this same ideological manner.  Religious fervor has undermined many a promising story—not through caricaturing the motives of the “target villain class” with invidious simplicity so often as through whitewashing human tragedy to appear as “God’s will”.  One of the selections in the medieval Gesta Romanorum relates the tale of an ingénue accompanying an angel on his daily rounds about the countryside.  The angel commits several ghastly crimes in which various seeming-innocents—including an infant—meet their demise, then explains to the mortal that all the victims are presently or would have become (if allowed to live) horrendous malefactors.  Most of us don’t buy such moral nonsense.  Manzoni’s pioneering historical novel, I Promessi Sposi, is an incomparably finer creation; yet one may well object that even Manzoni uses the plague rather too conveniently as a deus ex machina to dispose of all his villains and secure the happy ending of all his favorites.  Most of us find the proposition quite unconvincing that God strikes with fatal diseases only those He wishes to punish, just as we would not regard a ruler who turned a blind eye to such a disease’s ravages among his people as doing God’s work.  Sophocles may handle such issues as well as Manzoni, who certainly handles them better than either the Gesta or the Shahname.   

    If we can agree that a novel where all the  characters who say their prayers end up dancing on the villain’s grave, healthy and wealthy, is a poor piece of writing, why may we not also agree that a novel which sorts heroes and villains rigidly according to race, class, or political belief is scarcely worth opening?  Let the prophets declare entire nations damned: the story-teller, in his humble earthbound role, will not pass for “real” if he does not adequately ponder the universal human heart while respecting its individual mutations.

b)  oral traditions are not aesthetically plotted narratives

     Ironically, many of the two-dimensional good-versus-evil “testimonies” so popular in academe hail from Third World environments, about whose plagues and pograms a spokesman (or “spokesperson”) for an oppressed pre-literate populace curiously manages to churn out hundreds of pages of detailed description and poignant dialogue.[15]  As we well know, true products of such settings think and speak in formulas (especially when they tell stories) and see reality as moving in grand cycles.  In fact, a genuinely, profoundly oral-traditional community would very probably be unable to create narratives of the sort treated here.  The Aristotelian drama has a distinct beginning and end: the oral tale begins arbitrarily medias in res (to pull an apt phrase entirely out of context from Horace’s Ars Poetica) and ends with almost equal randomness, for a given tradition is often so complexly interrelated with other myths and legends that all human generations from the formation of earth and sky would have to be reviewed.  Aristotle himself concedes that his rules of drama must be relaxed to accommodate Homer (though, of course, he is unaware that the difference lies in early epic’s oral pedigree).[16]  The Iliad begins with a promise to sing of the wrath of Achilles, but this turns out to be a weak crystallization of the narrative’s matter.  We do not even know which incidence of wrath the Muse is invoked to recount: the feud with Agamemnon or the vengeful slaying of Hector.  What has the night raid of Diomedes and Odysseus to do with it all?  Why insert the episode where Diomedes wounds Aphrodite?

     Oral narrative, in short (which Homer’s narrative at least approximates), cannot play by the intense aesthetic rules of coherent parts surprisingly harmonized into a complete sequence of action.  In the “oral text”, heroes’ lives are seen as beginning long before birth—in the machinations of gods or the enmity between clans, perhaps—and continuing after bodily death through their descendants.  Since such a broad grasp of the greater tradition cannot find its way into any specific text (unless through the assumption that the audience has heard all the tangential tales concerned), the oral narrative spills hopelessly over the boundaries of any particular recitation.  Story-telling cannot really become an art form involving self-sufficient units until a measure of literacy has arrived.

     Yet this is not so only because mythic tales extend indefinitely in vague associations felt to represent some level or other of cause (a family curse, a destiny awaiting fulfillment, etc.).  It is also true because the essentials of moral philosophy cannot be satisfied in a fashion that the later reader (even, perhaps, one with just a smattering of literacy) would find acceptably real.  A very primitive tale represents its characters as having a significant degree of free will only if they are demigods.  The story has nothing to say about the rest of us mortals.  We are “as flies to wanton boys”, toyed with by one divine whim after another; and our entire collective is usually the toy, since we as individuals have not even the importance of interesting insects.  When the Bull of Heaven (in Gilgamesh) breathes fire, hundreds of mortals die at once; and when Cú Chulainn rumbles about the battlefield in his “sickle chariot” (from whose wheels scythe-like blades extend), nameless commoners by the hundred are mere cannon fodder.  Such a mentality, taken on its own terms, can scarcely help the thoughtful individual ferret out the good life.

     Certainly no modern reader, at any rate (if we understand the word “modern” to go back, perhaps, to the printing press), could believe in earnest that rival gods are constantly determining events in his life—not if his views had reached a level of maturity current for his time.  I am aware that as I write these words, some in my own society fancy that they can draw in touch with invisible powers by burning a candle or reading tea leaves.  This is a romantic flirtation of late literacy (the sunset period, as literacy actually begins to lose its grip on the general public) typical of those who yearn for a simpler life.  Were their electricity to shut down suddenly, they would more quickly be on their cell phones demanding renewed service than deploying a sacred candle for light.  The same sort of person, often educated above the average, reveres testimonial novels about Third World oppression because reading them is a kind of self-flagellation—a renunciation of Western standards that have given one far too much, fed one far too well.  The implied conclusion, “Maybe Gilgamesh got it right—maybe a bunch of immortal brats and idiots are throwing earthly pieces in a heavenly war,” expresses an understandable frustration with our high-tech habits, which force us to live at a machine’s pace rather than our own and involve us in collateral damage that we seem wholly unable to control.  Yet what truly would be the “Gilgamesh alternative”?  To allow local gangs to rape and plunder until a clear “leader” (i.e., a master rapist and plunderer) emerged?  To build pyramids for monumental egotists and hope that a god somewhere would briefly smile?

     I love the epic of Gilgamesh—but I love it as a stock of very basic, uninhibited, dream-like images for the excessively complicated lives we lead.  The generations of tellers who contributed to the epic did not have us in mind, nor were they trying to symbolize or allegorize their way back from reality’s confusing daily moil a few steps.  The sun and the spring floods really were anthropomorphs with brutal passions and a life-force that never gave out.  They symbolized nothing, in the original setting: the fanciful representation was the reality, and hence represented no fancy.  Anyone in our midst who believed implicitly in such a scheme would be ruled incapable of distinguishing right from wrong—of showing responsibility for his own actions—by a court of law, and quite properly so.  He would be thought insane.  I shall continue to teach ancient mythology, because its sequences clearly did become tropes for complex human experience at some point (I think this is historically happening already as Homer writes–or dictates).  We are enriched—are morally fortified—by being able to assemble seemingly unique and senseless personal struggles into a vast, simple narrative.  To credit the bardic transmitters of such fertile, useful fictions with creating their deeply suggestive resonance, however, would prove a doubtful proposition; for the true authors of that narrative depth were not only anonymous when the myths were first written down, but not even born yet.  We are they: our allegorizing Greco-Roman progenitors are they.

c)  critical consensus does not depend primarily upon historical epoch

     No doubt, I have irritated more than one reader at more than one point with my claims about human choice and moral reality, about dramatic suspense and narrative beauty—that fully oral tales deny human free will sufficient scope to mimic reality, that a truly supreme moral being cannot be represented as shrugging while his appointed agents ruthlessly ruin lives, etc.  I will not apologize for any incidental offense given, because my final conclusion is indeed that narrative art necessarily elicits such differing responses (it is destined to stir controversy, one might say).  If our moral convictions—our understanding of freedom, duty, conscience, and the rest—does indeed impact the strains which build tension within a story, then I do not see how people with different moral values can appreciate the same stories in the same way.  Now, the characters in stories obviously do generate tension when we perceive them struggling with a decision.  Other sources of tension are possible, as has been conceded above; but the character’s intimate sense of right and wrong is certainly among these sources, especially in more literate works.  Shakespeare’s Isabella in Measure for Measure finds herself in an agonizing dilemma when she must choose between delivering herself to be raped by Angelo and allowing the corrupt judge to have her brother executed.  The play’s tension rises to its peak when Angelo baldly confronts Isabella with his horrid proposition in Act III; and indeed, Shakespeare might well be faulted for allowing a “bait and switch” folkloric ploy to shift the tension to another, far less psychological axis.

     Granted, then, that a moral crisis can make drama very intense, what is the effect when different audiences have differing views of that crisis?  Many readers see Isabella’s dilemma as a false one (and have seen it so in the past: Coleridge rated the play “the only painful work among Shakespeare’s dramas”[17]).  Such critics may argue that chastity is of no intrinsic value whatever—indeed, that it represents moral benightedness insofar as the chaste nourish a bourgeois illusion that extramarital, recreational sex is wrong.  Proponents of this view would even object to my characterization of Angelo’s project as rape, very likely (though I would observe that the word’s legal definition requires only force of some variety, not specifically physical restraint or threat).  They would further deplore Isabella’s willingness to sacrifice her brother in order to sustain her silly illusion of purity; they would view her, in extreme cases, as little short of a murderer.  The editor of a 1968 text of the play sums this heartless sister up as “hard, cold, and self-righteous, for it requires no exalted nobility to preserve her own honor at the cost of her brother’s life.”[18]  Readings of this sort appear to overlook an important clue about the cruel judge Angelo’s soul that Shakespeare carefully plants: i.e., that Claudio would not have been saved at all by Isabella’s compliance, since Angelo merely speeds the brother’s execution once he believes that he has harvested the sister.  With ingenuity, Isabella’s detractors might counter that intent is more significant morally than result: hence she would have been a better person if she had slept with Angelo intending to liberate Claudio thereby.   Yet the “hard and cold” interpretation also leaves quite unexplained Isabella’s sublime display of forgiveness in the final act, when, believing that Angelo has had Claudio beheaded, she nevertheless pleads for his life.  Are we, perhaps, to suspect this innocent girl of such monstrosity as to suppose that she secretly rejoices in her brother’s death?

     So goes the “critical debate”, at any rate: back and forth, forth and back.  I have found few texts that elicit more spirited disagreement than Measure for MeasureThe Shahname is probably not among them.  Most readers join me in finding Sohrab’s being crushed by destiny a little too comfortable a dismissal of human culpability.  The disparity of consensus in these two cases deserves examination.  Notice that the work more distant from us twenty-first century Westerners, in both time and place, probably arouses moral reservations in us all of a very similar sort, while the work much nearer to us—the product, indeed, of our most canonical English author—stirs a veritable hornet’s nest of moral controversy.  Moral judgment is not a species of taste or custom: we do not view the villainy of battering women, say, or the probity of honoring promises as a category of arbitrary response like preferring chicken to dog at dinner.  If moral values were merely inculcated by cultural tradition, then one would observe an overwhelming tendency for citizens within cultures to agree about such issues as proper treatment of a human fetus or proper sexual practice or proper public speech.  Instead, our choices in these matters and others turn out to vary widely.  An American Southern Protestant may find out that he shares significantly more such views with a Nigerian Catholic or an Iranian Sunni than with his urbane countryman from Boston or Seattle.  To be sure, such values are influenced by culture—but they are not conditioned.  My own belief in a metaphysical reality was not imposed upon me by my upbringing, which indeed exerted a pronounced influence in the other direction: it was chosen freely by me after years of assessing the limits of knowledge and the nature of virtue.  If our moral values mean enough to us that we ponder them, we accept the judgments of friends and communities as no more than advisory.  To hold them aloft at any greater height would be to renounce that inner compulsion which characterizes the truly moral judgment, and so to retreat to the position that such values do not really exist at all—are only cultural conditioning in masquerade.

     That this is not so is implied by the wide variety of favorite authors cherished by literate people; for moral convictions, as I trust is now evident, significantly affect our determination of whether a certain story-teller has captured reality or not.  When I was younger, Joseph Conrad sat atop my pyramid.  As I aged, I learned to appreciate allegorical authors from earlier epochs (for I began to suspect that something important is almost always lurking beneath life’s surface).  I remarked above that Isabella’s hard, cold academic detractor republished his tome in 1968: perhaps he has re-thought his verdict in the less delirious years that would eventually follow.  Our standards evolve—but in response, I find, to our understanding of reality, not our desire to fit in (for this would be devolution—a retreat to the skittish behavioral clustering of adolescents).  As I grew intellectually, I would discover Vergil, and Saint-Exupêry, and the Welsh Mabinogion, and Ariosto, and Antonio Azorín… and lately I have unearthed a “new” Chekhov through studying Russian.  The literary meander which describes my own life would make no sense if our tastes were dictated by our surroundings, and would make little enough sense even if I were somehow rebelling against my culture (in high academic fashion).  What I find, rather, is that most of my favorite authors and favorite works (Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, Undina by Lamotte-Fouquê) have a delicately sad quality about them, as if something—the thing that really matters—were getting away, were there but not for long.  Such are my values: such is my own assessment of reality.  And the thing that slips away, to me, is not even primarily beauty.  It is goodness, ever having to be chased.

     A different person with a different value system would be sure to have a different list of favorites.  I would surely disagree with him; but, at least concerning the fine art of telling stories, I would know that he and I would have to agree to differ until one of us should see human behavior in a new light.


NOTES


[1] Pure speculation might lead one to suspect that topography and climate have influenced the severe paucity of gods in Middle Eastern cultures seemingly oral-traditional in other respects.  Where seasons are scarcely differentiated and the land’s surface is brutally monotonous, the major factors motivating the belief in low-technological cultures that rival gods must sometimes quarrel have been removed.

[2] Every commentary I have read emphasizes that the Shahname purposely presents some of the shaws as morally unworthy, the idea being to underscore that God has divinely ordained the political status quo even when unworthy people occupy its premier positions.

[3] My use of the present perfect in this sentence is intentional.  While I make no political comment about Iran’s current leadership and her suffering masses, I believe the implications must be clear to anyone who wishes to draw them.

[4] Issa Dibaj, “Hunchback Fate in the Tragedy of Rostám and Sohrab in Shahnameh; article published at Elam: The Love of Christ for Iran and Beyond, at <http://www.elam.com/articles/Fate-in-Poetry>.

[5] A. G. van Hamel gives a text of this short tale in Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968), 11-15.  In his introduction, the editor notes that the tale belongs “to the later Old-Irish period, probably the later ninth or tenth century” (9).

[6] The truth is that there are many such connections between Celtic lore and Middle Eastern traditions after which one seeks vainly for traces in the mainstream Greco-Roman world.  A magical ring lost to a hungry fish and later recovered from its belly figures prominently both in the classical Indian playwright Kalidasa’s Šakuntala and the Ring or Recollection and also in the Middle Irish Táin Bó Fraích.  Herodotus dredges up several elements of Asian narrative which share these resonances, such as the story of the young woman who selects to have her brother’s life spared over her son’s or husband’s since only the brother can never be replaced (3.119): the vignette is also found in a poem by an unlettered Gaelic bard of the early eighteenth century, Rory Morison.  Of course, Herodotus was recording a Persian tale, not a Greek one.  It is entirely implausible in these cases that the authors of the Celtic material might have read or heard of the Asian material.  The solution can only be one involving a common ancestor.

[7] The boy Ikemefune was in fact entrusted to Okonkwo as a hostage; but the treaty upon which his safety depended was not broken for years, and Oknkwo had come to view the boy as a son, in the meantime.  His insistence on avenging the treaty’s violation by participating in the ritual killing is supposed (in his mind) to demonstrate to the village that he places communal duty before personal feeling—yet the community exacts no such display, and is indeed somewhat outraged.  Achebe’s highly literate representation here of the contradictions latent in the oral mentality, by the way, is as fine a thing of its kind as I have ever read.

[8] It seems wholly plausible to me that Yeats had actually read the Shahname and thought of it in “correcting” the Irish myth—far more plausible than his being ignorant of the Iranian epic.  Yet I can find no scholarly support of this thesis: the reader may decide for himself how much emphasis that fact deserves to bear.  At any rate, the Yeatsian version of the Irish myth appears to be the authoritative one now for many commentators, whether because they have never heard of the Yellow Book of Lecan or because they share my distaste of the ninth-century version.

[9] Cited in Reg Skene, The Cuchulain Plays of W. B. Yeats (New York: Columbia UP. 1974), 169.  The letter’s addressee was Frank Fay.

[10] Ibid., 170 and 189.

[11] The Latin satires of Horace, Juvenal, and Petronius are clearly not of this sort, since their vein is more light than bitter.  Something in the line of Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay or Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, while far more devastating, is still not propagandistic.  The reason, I believe, is this: the moral coherence of such works depends upon a kind of decadence and corruption not peculiar to any certain historical period nor presented as assailing any exclusive group of people.  In other words, the moral chaos which they project can only be appreciated against a morally stable and intelligent backdrop.  They are conserving as much as undermining: they are not launching a new faith by heaping all human inadequacy upon the old one.

[12] Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her novel/chronicle.  Anthropologist David Stoll began to raise questions about her veracity more than a decade later when examining some of the locations mentioned in the book.

[13] Nevertheless, the academy continues to move in this tasteless direction.  The parlance significantly mentions “voices” at every turn: authors are “seeking a voice” to “tell their story” much as ignored witnesses to a crime might look for a judge’s scribe.  Implied is that we have only competing testimonies—that there can be no arch-narrative, but only the dominant narrative of the powerful and the many suppressed narratives of their victims.  If this were true—if it were to be accepted as moral doctrine—then no principled position would be possible, and human society could only degenerate into millions of toddlers screaming for sole possession of a toy.

[14] From the short story, “Im Tal der donnernden Hufe,” in Heinrich Böll, Erzählungen (Köln: Kiepenheur & Witsch, 1994), 663.

[15] An exceptionally engaging work in this genre—far from two-dimensional—which my own institution is currently requiring all freshmen to read goes by the Sphinx-like title, What Is the What? (New York: Vintage, 2007).  The putative author, Dave Eggers, subtitles the book, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the recent ethnic slaughters in the Sudan.  While the long, rambling tale is refreshingly free of political parti pris and interlaces scenes of appalling mayhem with others of humane good-humors, the “whatness” of What? still disturbs me.  With his refugee-camp education, Valentino could very probably not have created this highly sophisticated shifting of times and scenes without the literate author Eggers’ assistance.  Eggers therefore presents the work as a novel, fairly enough… except that all of its events are given out as factually correct.  Is the novelistic pose being used to foreground Eggers’ role in arranging the tale, or to background liberties taken with the facts in the interest of “drama”?  Is the book an autobiography, or not?  Such testimonies can scarcely have more strength than an oath on the order of, “I swear to tell the truth as I want it to be at the moment,” if this literary trend continues.  One must wonder at some point if the late-literate Western readership needs the Third World for some reason to be a constant scene of carnage and injustice.

[16] In Poetics 1459a-b. 23-24, for instance, Aristotle applauds Homer for dedicating the Iliad to a mere part of the whole Trojan War, and for relegating irrelevancies like the Catalogue of Ships to episodic status.  In short, there seems an eagerness to salvage coherence by making allowances, but not much explanation of why these allowances (e.g., the freedom to append episodes) should enjoy special poetic license.

[17] From Walter Pater’s 1889 critical work, Appreciations; cited in the Signet Classic edition of Measure for Measure (New York: 1964), 147.

[18] G. B. Harrison offering prefatory comments to the play in Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1968), 1101.

Dr. John Harris is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.