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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.1 (Winter 2007)
Romanticism and Society
Facilis Descensus Averno, Part I
A Diffusely Comparative Study of Romantic Illusion and Social Dissolution
John R. Harris
Dr. John Harris is founder and executive director of The Center for Literate Values. He has taught English and foreign language (Latin, French, Spanish) in numerous settings from elementary to graduate school.
“Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averno :
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.”
Vergil, Aeneid 6.126-129
“Trojan son of Anchises, easy the descent to the Avernus.
Night and day, the door of gloomy Dis lies open.
But to bend back one’s steps and escape to the bright air above—
Herein lies the challenge, the labor.”
I. The Synthetic Approach to Comparison
For some time, I have nursed the intention of writing about the literary genre of romance in a broadly comparative fashion and for the sake, at last, of better understanding our current cultural catastrophe. The romance fascinates me in several respects, among which are the following. 1) It is utterly absent from literary history for centuries, then proceeds to dominate that history and—in our own time—to oversee the transformation of literature into electronic story-telling. 2) It is the epic’s lubricious mate at an early stage, borrowing from the same popular sources and adopting the same vastly ambient style; yet it rejects formal epic strictures such as verse and “high” speech while favoring details and individual characters over epic’s blunt formulas and rigid heroic archetypes. 3) The romance’s initially close relationship with literacy is surely no accident. However, the genre perversely fuses with “low” literacy as time goes on—and even, in contemporary terms (as I have observed), with television and cinema—rather than cementing a bond with the highly developed literacy of, say, the psychological novel.
These curiosities of the genre are but the first-comers. The list already fumes with an odor of betrayal, writhes with the motion of a snake shedding its skin. Viewed beside the oral saga’s chanting old prophetess or the literate epic’s stately muse, romance seems something of a strumpet. It laces arms with the most admired genres of its day, pretending to dance dutifully to their tribal drum; yet as tastes begin to change, it somehow alters its footwork without missing a beat to the different tempo of a new drummer. Did I write “something of a strumpet”? The romance may well exhibit the most readily metamorphic wantonness of any narrative form known to humanity!
The method of my investigation will be comparative in a fashion which honesty compels me to call diffuse. My ultimate objective is to feel out the genre’s sentimental ground rules, its unique aesthetic fingerprint, for the purpose of studying how it has paralleled, finessed, and infused our economic and political life and our moral outlook today. In so wide-ranging an investigation, I fear that the mincing style of “scholarly writing” on the genre would suggest such minute and under-the-foot reference points as to forestall any genuine advance. Excellent scholarly works there surely are, and far superior in their way to anything of which I am capable; but I cannot say too often (and will never waste an occasion to say) that the art work’s appeal is to fundamental human reflective patterns and tendencies—not to social or cultural conditioning. The human being who turns existential crises in his head interests me vastly more than the human animal which turns a treadmill in its cage. I seek to make sense of a given age’s habits and morals as a extension of human nature forced to follow a certain vector. Art particularly assists us in isolating the point of the compass where the strongest currents veer at any historical moment, because works of art are both concrete and imaginative: they assemble an objective, clearly perceptible image from vague ambitions, prejudices, longings, fears, and other imperceptible but vital human data. They give us something to look at compiled from the human world’s most important invisible elements.
The conventional scholar, in contrast, is altogether too deterministic and linear with phenomena which have much of the whimsical about them, and whose interrelations are hopelessly complex (being both causes and effects most of the time). “Historical cause” is the scholarly point of origin; the fact of war or disease or catastrophic natural event then proceeds to social order, politics, morality, and the rest, all aligned as neatly as a row of falling dominoes. The scholar’s paradigm is not a compass’s circle with distinct quadrants, but a straight, sealed corridor; for the point of departure is not the native resources of the human intellect, but the empirical catalysts suggested by a royal mausoleum or an inscription. The scholar wants to hear not a word about how people think or feel—only about what sword or spear was nudging them from behind and what golden carrot was dangling before their nose. That such preoccupations in themselves imply a theory of the human psyche is not his concern. Once he has “hard evidence”, the idle dilettante may toy with implications all the livelong day.
Yet we cannot ignore the fact that our species is sentimental in the most puzzling ways just because sentiments make unsteady ground for objective research. Although human beings often appear to indulge or stress different emotions in differing cultures, the convergence of emotional expressions at certain stages of culture licenses some speculation about essential human nature beyond the particularizing influences of environment. Correlations across cultural lines need not be minutely exact: knowledge of historical circumstances need not be flawlessly thorough. (For that matter, how could it be?) The true literary comparatist does not seek to put the scholar out of business, but only to restrain the scholar from eliminating synthetic, generalizing thought from intellectual life as “dilettante” or “belletristic” (if I have correctly spelled that stuffy academic barbarism).
In the case of the romance, the classical scholar’s labors illustrate my reservations in a stunningly naïve manner. Graham Anderson begins his fine little book by reviewing the generations of perplexity inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman romance:
It is not clear why we should have to wait till the first century BC or so for someone to think of putting two adolescents on a boat but effectively preventing their sexual union for most of the plot. The problem has concerned scholars since at least the seventeenth century.1
Is it such a problem, then, that other ages should delay embracing what we regard as the most obvious of story-lines? One would have thought that scholars, more than anyone else, would haste to point out that cultural setting can significantly affect even the most natural and forthright of human emotions. The problem is really that classical scholars are too little aware of how human emotions work—of how certain environmental pressures are apt to bring sexual love and intense anxiety about the immediate future to the fore, in this case. Anderson reveals that his 300 years’ worth of predecessors have been seeking a literary progenitor (Egyptian, Hebrew, Indian) for the romance, as if only those infamous falling dominoes of historical cause-and-effect could explain anything. “A final solution is at hand,” he reassures us—and then unveils Babylon as the appropriately exotic domino which toppled upon theretofore non-romantic Greek literature!
Of course, as comparatists have been bred in our own time, such synthesis as I propose is entirely out of bounds. It assumes the possibility of aesthetics—that is, of a universal deep structure to the human manner of processing perceptions. The mood of contemporary academe is all diversity and relativism (along with the naïve confidence in historical or material cause which we have just witnessed). To suggest a common bottom stratum to all human experience is to be a cultural imperialist, forcing one’s own prejudices upon others rather than rendering oneself infinitely pliant to other value systems (even those which have never existed among any large group of sane adults for any length of time). So the kind of study prosecuted here is in no danger of replicating anything to be found in recent publications: it is Comparative Literature of the sort which might have been, had that undisciplined discipline not been shanghaied at birth (to use a “culturally bigoted” verb whose colorful history I like) by lock-step politicizing. Today’s comparatists, as I have also written often, are but the stodgy historicists of the past requiring a revised passport for admittance to a revised literary canon. In the blanks demanding proof of literary qualities characteristic of the work’s time and place (proper metrical form, proper degree of optimism or pessimism, etc., etc.) are new blanks requiring proof of allegiance to favored groups and causes (author of proper gender and race, proper indignation with proper villains, etc., etc.). I shall not be passing out any such questionnaires.
Instead. I shall strive after an inductive Aristotelian approach, recruiting candidates hither and yon and tabulating their literary qualities while at the same time tentatively advancing a hypothetical definition of romance. I shall work in crudely chronological order, as do those anthologies for World Literature courses from which many of us have been condemned to teach for years; and, after the same fashion, I shall take minimal notice of cultural boundaries (though the anthologies usually pride themselves on insisting that no tradition is like any other, apparently ignoring that such a premise undermines the possibility of teaching World Literature coherently). Sensitive scholars should therefore be warned. I was once chided in print by a legendary scholar—most certainly the perigee of my own scholarly celebrity—for daring to bring the Gaelic bard Mary MacLeod into extended comparison with the Greek poetess Sappho: I was the quintessence of what had gone wrong in the world. With no great respect (for the legend in question had not actually read my article), I contend that, on the contrary what has gone wrong in the world—and a very great deal continues to go very wrong—is owed to the disappearance of synthetic thought from intellectual circles. Studies have been progressively compartmentalized over the past century in dull emulation of scientific method (a trend from which science itself has suffered severely). Even when the attempt is made to reassemble the pieces under some comparative or interdisciplinary aegis, presumption bullies induction, and evidence is suppressed or distorted to suit ideology. I might note, by the way, that the legendary detractor was careful not to choose a “gender critic” or social revolutionary to occupy his cross-hairs, though many such feed on Sappho’s savory fragments: even legends have to watch their back these days.
The simple truth cannot be avoided: no amount of circumstantial commentary can reach the heart of the literary phenomenon’s literarariness, its special arrangement of objects in a manner whose dynamism exceeds a casual inscription’s or a legal document’s by powers of ten. Gaffes, miscues, anachronisms, and all (and the aesthetic text, we may note, possesses a heightened ability to over-excite the reader’s imagination), the love of literature still trumps the knowledge of historical setting, for the literary text has survived history’s erosion, in most cases, precisely because it is not a mere cultural artifact. That our nation at the moment of this writing struggles hopelessly in certain endeavors due to its collective ignorance of other cultures cannot be disputed; but the only chance to resolve such struggles lies in locating the essential human datum beyond clouded cultural peculiaria. Sappho and Mary MacLeod meet at the top of the apple tree, where the reddest, ripest fruit grows just out of reach in a frustrating paradox. Why, any humble farmer knows that much—and any boy with an empty stomach knows the frustration!
II. Definition—and Criticism—of the Genre
A defense of the aesthetic experience’s uplifting, disinterested, and profoundly human pleasure is probably not what the reader expected to encounter after my initial warning about romance. I could easily evade the implicit contradiction by saying that those faces are most dangerous which are prettiest to behold—and, indeed, this is a large part of my case. The romance must surely rank as one of the most unconditionally entertaining narrative forms ever devised. It takes us to faraway places, often exotic or dangerous. It teases us with mystery, since the character of its central figures is not destiny (pace Aristotle) but a puny leaf, rather, in the vagrant winds of wholly external forces. It tends to stretch on and on in its various forms, consuming thick literary tomes or a decade’s worth of television seasons, defying all classical and neo-classical rules of coherence and concentrated effect, creating for us in its amplitude something very like an alternative reality—an escapist haven always rich in new adventure. Beaming upon the eternal trek, finally, like a discreet but self-willed Evening Star, a happy ending looms over that horizon which we have not quite reached (and may arrival be long postponed!), but which the romance assures us will be the Garden of Eden approached where west turns into east.
It appears that I have already begun advancing my hypothesis about the romance’s essential literary qualities: the sequence of exotic settings, the emphasis of external physical challenge over internal moral struggle, the almost self-renewing episodic démesure, the promise of idyllic peace at last. I may well append to the concluding trait the detail for which romance is most famed, and which indeed has come to monopolize the word: sexual fulfillment. While the rambling narrative’s ultimate end may in fact be catastrophic for vast numbers of people—may involve a flood or earthquake or volcanic eruption or alien invasion which decimates humanity—we are often comforted by seeing two sympathetic characters of opposing gender, having laboriously discovered themselves to be soulmates, finish safely and (to all appearances) permanently united on an island, a space station, or whatever other locus can reproduce Eden in almost chaotic circumstances.
None of this sounds very realistic—which is, of course, a perennial criticism of the genre. Dante portrays Paolo and Francesca as reading a chivalric romance about Lancelot and Guinevere just before, seduced by the tale’s charm, they ruinously commit adultery. The royal affair which broke up the Round Table was a calamity, too—but the guilty partners were both said to have survived the ensuing slaughter and to have ended their days as sincere penitents. Dante hints that the “real life” lovers (killed in flagrante delicto by the wronged husband) may have been duped both about the sweets of transgression and about the luxury of negotiating a pardon. Life tends to end far more abruptly and untidily than a story.
Yet when Dante and Virgil have a chance to interview the footloose Ulysses in Inferno’s Canto 26, each of them stumbles over the other, with Virgil at last—rather comically, I think—enjoining Dante to let him do the talking. The condemned Ulysses does indeed spin a gripping yarn: he and his aging crew very nearly gate-crash the island of Purgatory , no less. Here is the only canto of the Inferno to be closed by the words of a sinner suffering eternal punishment: Ulysses has rendered his small bardic audience literally speechless. “You were not born to lead the lives of brutes,” he reports himself as having exhorted his crew. Romances frequently display this same quality of drawing veils, of raising far-off shores. The “quest” for knowledge is a romantic undertaking.
If Dante the author is hinting (through Dante the character’s enthrallment) that such intellectual magnetism is also a seductive danger—and Homer’s Sirens, recall, sing of knowledge (Od. 12.184-191)—then we of the modern world, on the other hand, are less apt to be alarmed. We have drawn so many veils, in the meantime—we have cured so many diseases by “tampering with nature”! Look at it this way, however, since my hypothesis has now blossomed into a series of caveats corresponding to each literary trait: fascination with the unknown can prevent or retard one from dealing with the known, at the very least. Those who must be ever drawing veils are very likely to spend too little of their lives maintaining whatever has been unveiled. (Maybe we would have fewer diseases, to begin with, if we were less invested in the technology of cracking nature’s codes.) In other words, the romantic habit of advancing to the next horizon, even if we dismiss the notion of forbidden knowledge like well-enlightened minds, undermines the moral virtue of persistence in routine tasks. It turns robust workers into daydreamers, healthy farmers into anemic wielders of pipettes.
In these criticisms (if such they be—for Dante would not deny that his rambling comedy has several romantic qualities), we foresee subsequent reservations about novels and, indeed, about television. The misgivings are typically two-pronged: they relate to content and to style (with Paolo and Francesca having been seduced by explicit behavior and the wayfaring pair of Canto 26 by Ulysses’ questing mysticism). We are all aware of what travail the novel would endure as it probed closer and closer to the “sordid” realities of un-heroic mortals struggling to keep their heads above a hostile world’s turbulent waters. Les Liaisons Dangéreuses and Madame Bovary both sparked controversy, despite the care taken by Laclos and Flaubert to “punish misbehavior” severely by the final page. Of course, these romans were scarcely “romantic” in any sense of the word. Keats’s Eve of Saint Agnes, though versified, fits the bill much better—and Blackwood’s Magazine famously decried this “pretty piece of paganism” in terms that shortened Keats’s life (if one may believe Shelley’s highly romantic account of events). Extra-marital sex had never looked so good: Lancelot and Guinevere, in dozens of medieval literary attempts, couldn’t touch Keats’s bedside manner. Of the caresses and tickles with which television and the movies have proceeded to better Keats in this regard, I shall write not a word.
Frankly, criticism of licentious content as a spur to vice in the audience’s impressionable youth has always struck me as rather lame. One might as well argue that epic has brainwashed generations of young men to hurl themselves into senseless wars. The protest against style seems to garner more cogent evidence. Several studies have concluded that television, far from inciting violence or sexual appetite, actually renders viewers more passive by siphoning off their vital energies as they lie wallowing on a couch. It may indeed be (though I have not seen any study advance such a suggestion) that endlessly watching others make love with Geisha/Casanova-like expertise has rendered contemporary youth rather bashful about mimicking the “masters”, so that their overtures are increasingly barbarous (date rape, pre-sedation of the “lover”, sodomy) or increasingly withdrawn from the objective event (pornography, sexual “playthings”, homosexuality).
To contemplate a behavior cast in impossibly exotic or exciting circumstances, and to contemplate thus it in a sequential narrative wherein it is renewed over and over, strikes me as hypnotic, a formula for inducing paralysis. A sober Immanuel Kant had precisely the same reservations. The reading of romances, he lamented, “gives one the appearance of a dreamer and makes him inept in company, since he blindly follows the free flight of an imagination unordered by any use of reason.”2 Walter Scott’s Waverly (at the beginning, let ironists note, of a vibrantly romantic novel) charged romance-reading with having captivated too many of his youthful hours and bred into him just such a tendency to whimsical abstraction. With the reader’s indulgence, I might also cite my own experience as a very withdrawn youth in the days when television still aired a great many classic movies on “The Late Show” and when well-scripted serials (many now being recycled on cable) were flourishing. Had I enjoyed no such surrogate for social interaction, I would have been forced—few and unpromising though the opportunities for friendship were in my environment—to confront what may be the most difficult part of a young man’s education. As it was, I embraced the romantic fantasy that things would eventually arrange themselves—that, at worst, worthy people would press to be around me once I managed to transplant myself to a foreign setting. The hope was absurd, and the wasted time irrecoverable.
To be sure, a certain amount of “over the horizon” thinking is necessary for any thoughtful human being’s survival. If living with one foot in an imaginary world is folly, then living with both feet in immediate reality can lead one either to despair or (perhaps worse) to a tawdry conformity. Cervantes seems to have coded this observation into his classic burlesque of the chivalric romance. As uproariously inept as Don Quixote is at every quotidian undertaking, those who deride or exploit him usually cannot resist being pulled into his fantasy, however shallowly, and charmed by it, however briefly. Yet one can hope too much, and for the wrong things. Hope can truly make of one a fool. To my mind, the romance’s greatest moral shortcoming is its tendency to project protagonists as grossly, often comically overmatched ingénues toiling against forces quite beyond their comprehension. Such figures are by no means passive—but they might as well be, for all the progress their energetic endeavor makes toward the desired end. Indeed, the lover is often further distanced from his beloved or the castaway from his home or the explorer from his Shangri-La by his most vigorous efforts to draw closer. Medieval romance at least presents such groping as morally informative. For instance, Sir Gawain’s acceptance of the pseudo-magical green sash, though turning out to be the one false step he makes in his quest, also finally introduces him to a profound truth about human fallibility.
Otherwise, especially in their most broadly popular forms (e.g., blockbuster movies), romances purvey the notion that impulsive behavior is winsome, and that some power benign to fair-haired young people will escort a very small elite of bungling, bright-eyed darlings through meteor showers and laser blasts to kisses, riches, and peace. The severance from social and moral responsibility—from sober deliberation, from distress over the wide world’s plight, from retrospective assessment of errors committed—is very close to the pathology of narcissism.
III . The Evolution of Romance
But I anticipate myself. The romance most certainly traveled a higher road before ending up in the trough of Harlequin novels and box-office thrillers where silver-screen heart-throbs are chased by evil CIA agents, hungry tyrannosaurs, and the Sirian first onslaught in clever Earthling disguise. We could do worse than to take a cue from Dante and go back to the Odyssey. Homer plainly did not compose the first romance—yet the Odyssey’s tendencies in that direction are remarkable, especially when the epic is viewed beside its august predecessor in mythic time, the Iliad. (Later romanciers would mine the Odyssey for subject matter: Parthenius summarizes a lost work in his Peri Erôtikôn Pathématôn about the handsome traveler’s affair with Polymela, daughter of the wind-king Aeolus.) Odysseus’s tale is one of wandering far and wide, as the poet declares in the opening lines. Even the Land of the Dead appears on the crafty Ithacan’s itinerary. The Trojan War, in contrast, is intensely concentrated into a single space and, as Homer relates it, a single narrow range of time. The participants in that struggle battle with their own passions, all unknowingly, at least as much as with an armed adversary; the menaces encountered by Odysseus are so distinctly extrinsic as often to grow bizarre, forcing the hero into disguises, off-the-cuff fabrications, and unrehearsed roles. Of course, Odysseus is no casually marauding pirate. He has a long-term objective, and at its apex awaits—with exemplary patience—the one woman in the wide world to whom he has pledged his soul. Try as we might, we cannot turn Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon into an outraged lover’s fury. The girl-prize whom the Maecenean high-king commandeers was originally carried off by Achilles after that worthy had slaughtered her brothers, her father, and indirectly (as Briseis reveals when weeping over Patroclus’s body—tears she would have shed for no other Greek) her mother. There is no romance on either side of Troy ’s great walls—only tragic destiny, wherein such resigned determination as Hector manifests is merely one more thread on the Fates’ spindle.
Odysseus’s steadfast will to prevail is another matter. Though it sometimes misguides him (the excursion into Polyphemus’s isle was entirely unnecessary, and the captain’s downplaying of his disposable forces probably emboldened the ogre), fixity of purpose nevertheless brings him at last to a happy ending. As if to emphasize that he is saved more by faith than works (and I shall write later of Christianity’s romantic aspects), Homer strews Odysseus’s route with the invincible denizens of nightmares, endowing the tale with yet another romantic quality. Neither Hector nor Ajax nor Achilles himself could prevail against the loathsome Scylla, let alone an Underworld gorgon. Naturally, they do not have to do so, since their epic pits man against foreknown destiny rather than against inconceivable horror. Yet through a gamut of such horrors, Odysseus makes his way. In this limited sense, the Odyssey is a comedy.
Herein is implied a further romantic tendency of the Odyssey which strikes me as most significant. Odysseus is extremely lucky. The traditionally breast-beating, sky-defying sublimity of the tragic demigod-hero has yielded to the low-profile, time-biding cleverness of the folk hero. Sir Lancelot has become Robin Hood (complete with a proficiency in that least heroic, churlishly remote weapon, the bow). The Odyssey’s many ties to folklore have long been recognized.3 I must not overstate the degree of scholarly agreement about such issues, for several scholars (e.g., G. S. Kirk) deny that any meaningful distinction whatever exists between myth and folklore. For those of us who are less persnickety, however, the Odyssey appears to have a stunning affinity (always in implied contrast to its alter ego, the Iliad) with the common man’s virtues. The hero is even disguised as a beggar for about half of the narrated adventure. On those few occasions when he fights hand to hand, the outcome is not brilliant: the raid of the Cicones ends in massive loss. To be sure, the arrogant suitors are made to pay for their crimes with blood—but in this fray, we see no berserker’s mênis such as Achilles displayed in avenging the death of Patroclus. The unmasked hero, rather, coolly sends shaft after shaft into a band of disordered young profligates who have apparently evaded military duty all their lives. And he is aided by Athena, that lucky sprite who flits hither and yon in the epic like a genie or a leprechaun. The luck is with him, as the Irish would say—not the Ulster kings who heard tales about Cú Chulainn, but the humble farmers and fishermen of Kerry and Clare. Odysseus would be their kind of hero.4
The obvious question ensues: what forces brought the Odyssey so much closer than the Iliad to the genre we style as romance? Was Homer striving to appeal to a different class of person in the post-Trojan epic—or was a completely different bard whom posterity would fuse into the Iliad’s legendary aoidos leaving clues to his identity within his altogether novel view of heroism? Nothing of the kind is plausible. Oral poetry (and poetry written in the oral style—the category to which the Homeric epics properly belong) does not radically transform itself to express an independent-minded poet’s worldview or to flatter an unusually motivated audience’s prejudices. The content is fairly fixed, not only in formulaic phrases but also in type-scenes feeding into universally familiar myths.5 The remarkably distinct thrust of the two Homeric epics can only result from evolutionary forces beyond the reach of authorial intent. In other words, the early inklings of romance in the Odyssey must be something of an accident.
Here is my theory of how such a happy accident would have occurred. (Virtually none of the following conjectures is “demonstrable”, as that scholarly plurality would say which prefers the mystique of obscurity to reasonable speculation; for scholarship, too can be a romance, the questing hero swathed far above the masses in his Mount Sinai ’s tingling clouds of witness.) The evidence is really quite transparent, though it does not consist of historical artifacts. Most myths are tragic. This is so because most mythic heroes are demigods, greater than the rest of humanity but not quite divine, and hence prone to vie with Olympians in a rivalry which always leaves them second best. The peaks and chasms formed by their falling, smoking bodies have bequeathed to subsequent generations of puny mortals a set of clear parameters demarcating life’s uttermost possibilities. If the hero died trying to cross the desert or halt the cataract, then the desert is not to be crossed nor the cataract to be stanched. Heroes go too far: their sobering lesson defines for posterity exactly where “too far” begins.
The central myth behind Odysseus, however, is different. There is ample reason to conjecture that Odysseus was at one stage a “psychopomp”, or a minor divinity who leads the spirits of the dead to the Underworld. Hermes, the spirit-guide who prevailed in mainstream Greek mythology, is Odysseus’s grandfather by some accounts (not Homer’s: but, of course, it is Hermes who frees his mortal semblance from Calypso and had earlier saved him from Circe’s designs). The very name of Odysseus—“the hated one”—is stunningly ill-suited to a Greek king, and its explanation in Od. 19 falls singularly flat. So strange a handle would far better fit a figure associated with death, whose terrors the Greeks tended to pad with circumlocutions (e.g., Pluto—“The Wealthy One”—for Hades). Then, too, we have that most unlikely of kingdoms, Ithaca , located on the wrong side of Greece for prosperity and civilization and peculiarly isolated by the sea. Islands, of course, are often either entries to the Underworld or are themselves otherworldly settings, like the Irish Tír na-nÓg, the Land of the Young. In Odyssey 11, the overt spirit world is reached by crossing the River Ocean .
Not that the other islands visited by Odysseus (I count ten, excluding Hades and including the Sirens’ shores, the fig tree above Charybdis, and Scheria) do not themselves suggest the Other World and also, for the most part, offer strong hints of subterranean darkness (either by cave or by placement in the far north): all of these adventures, I would suppose, were at one time stories of The Hated One’s shuffling to Dead Land before poets made of them narrative beads to string upon a romantic necklace. One can easily manipulate such tales in such a manner, you see, because the guide/traveler returns to daylight. Most heroes would perish if they strained at the border between life and death (e.g., Peirithoüs, and also Theseus according to Virgil). Even the greatest of heroes, like Herakles and the Sumerian Gilgamesh, can only make the journey once. For a figure who can flit back and forth across this dread boundary, however, an abundance of exotic outings lies waiting for some raconteur to collect—and each excursion, unlike other mythic cycles, has a happy ending. The hero emerges from his dark hole, not so much to fight another day (for his deathly passage enforces a chilling passivity upon him, often attended by speechlessness, paralysis, or loss of identity), but to pry once more into things never before witnessed by human eye.
The original eye to make such a mythic trip, far from being human, was probably not even a demigod’s, but the Sun’s—that Eye which Seeth All. The very earliest version of the Other World Journey is the solar myth about how the setting sun passes from west to east through a tunnel, renewing its energies dormantly as night rules the heavens. (The poet Stesichorus talks about a cup in which the Sun rides Ocean’s currents from west to east; but landlocked communities prefer a tunnel account such as we glimpse when Gilgamesh penetrates the subterranean Garden of the Sun.) Optimism is news, indeed, in any mythic tradition. A narrative assurance that the sun would indeed rise again tomorrow—and, at a slightly more complex level, that it would return after the winter solstice—is bound to have been about the first formal expression of hope in any primitive society, for uncertainty over the very source of life’s warmth and power would be crippling. We may say, then, without fear of contradiction by any but the most antagonistic sticklers for “historical proof”, that the sun caused romance to grow.
Less metaphorically, I am simply avering that sequences involving a high-risk outing followed by a safe return home—the solar cycle and, based on its pattern, the psychopomp’s activities—would naturally become a magnet for other optimistic narratives as culture “advanced”: that is, as more intricate cares were substituted for those of bare survival. No, the Odyssey poet was not a budding Marxist who had discovered the nobility of the beggar—but he was a member of a society which was beginning to travel more and observe strange alternative ways and habits in the world. Even the Iliad implies as much. Whatever historical war may have been fought in Troy ’s vicinity surely resulted from commercial rivalry: the Greek alphabet itself had been imported from Phoenicia , and its earliest samples are clay tablets recording inventories. Literacy, we often forget, is technology, and its arrival creates revolution. Homer’s world was both the dusk of prehistoric antiquity and the dawn of humane civilization. Achilles, in an immense and grossly underreported irony, actually rejects conventional heroism, opting instead for a long life of obscurity (with its promise of rich internal rewards) by the time Patroclus’s death sucks him impulsively back into the fray. The rambling tale of Odysseus’s homecoming records the other side of this revolution. His cultural arrogance shaken by a wide exposure to the world, his priority of values reshuffled when tradition’s orderly assignment of privileges is shattered, this king born and bred has become a conduit, not of social upheaval (for Ithaca will revert to the old ways under her old ruler), but simply of new thoughts. The stories he has brought back with his gifts and plunder will confirm the old order up and down, but will also undermine it simply by being new. For listeners, even in perceiving that their ancestral categories can dryly navigate broader horizons, will be more confident than ever about testing new waters: the winds are out of the bag.
As much as is not romantic about the Odyssey (and there is a great deal: the story’s motions are essentially backward-turning rather than trail-blazing—viz. Penelope), the romance does indeed seem to supply hope of this kind in unsettled times. Strange terrain must be crossed, but safe return is possible. Though what knowledge tradition offers of the world will be shockingly surpassed by the unpredictable traps and ghouls of a topsy-turvy No Man’s Land, no revised set of rules will really work any better. Trust in your lucky stars… and when low clouds block Polaris, hunker down and hang on.
IV. The Romance’s Protean Changes in Antiquity
By no means do I have the space to trace in detail every moment of specific change in the romance’s evolution. I wish above all to supply sufficient context that I may proceed to analyze the genre’s encrypted messages in our own troubled era, when it has run true to form by being false to its earlier forms. The nearest epic approach to romance I know of after the Odyssey which doesn’t quite reach that happy shore is Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, an account in dactylic hexameters (about 6000 of them) of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. It is tempting to read this third-century (B.C.) yarn as a parody, for the story of heroic daring dissolves halfway through in the young Medea’s tears as she pines and swoons for the handsome Greek stranger. Of course, when a genre is disintegrating in response to changing times, posterity often mistakes its last gasps for parodies. I think it far more likely that Apollonius, endowed with the thorough literacy which ponders every verse and leads irresistibly to a more close-up quality of detail, zoomed in altogether too close (to use a cinematic metaphor) and could not recover a properly epic indifference to “fine sentiment”.6 The Latin Argonauticon of Valerius Flaccus (written about the time of the Vesuvius eruption) has few of the same problems, but only because its author sacrificed his new powers of magnification on mythological trivia—with an epithet of recondite allusion in every other line—rather than on intimate emotions.
Apollonius, then, had taken the next big step by foregrounding (perhaps without fully intending to) an intimate, star-crossed love between two picturesque young people in a cutthroat world virtually exploding with outlandish menace. Like the Odyssey’s Homer, he had seized upon the Other World Journey as his narrative’s skeleton (for the Colchis of Greek myth, with its Cerberus-like dragon, far-northern location, sun-descendents, and golden prize pulsates with infernal imagery), Unlike Homer, however, Apollonius had recognized in the Other World princess a ready-made prototype for the lonely man’s imprisoned dream-bride (unless we see a hint of this figure in the lovely Nausicaä). A trek through the darkest wilderness simply to observe disembodied ghouls and bright ingots shed by the sleeping sun had become a blueprint for how an alienated youth might snatch away the one soul in the universe able to understand and soothe his isolation. Individualism was looming.
Yet the works of late antiquity which scholars have agreed to call romances are, if anything, less finely literate (e.g., less endowed with minute representation of sentiment) and more popular in style than the Argonautica. Indeed, the adverb romanice seems to have been coined somewhat after the birth of Christ to describe new prose fictions being composed “as they speak at Rome ”: i.e., in vernacular dialects and with little regard for literary language. Properly speaking, classical antiquity has left us with about a dozen fairly intact examples of the romance, most of them belonging to the Hellenistic variety (that is, produced in the Western Mediterranean by transplanted Greeks). The best-known of these is probably Daphnis and Chloe—about whose author, Longus, virtually nothing is known, in contrast, other than that he lived in the second century A.D. and inhabited one of the Greek-influenced areas of southern Italy. The tale is typically rambling and fraught with unpredictable incident.7 Though one would not have thought a shepherd’s life particularly exposed to sudden danger, the naïve young lovers of the title are delayed from blissful union by such irksome interruptions as pirates raiding inland and spoiled city-slickers on a hunting expedition. Once he has returned from being kidnapped, Daphnis (the male) must also be instructed in copulative technique by the local femme fatale; for the lovers’ delayed embraces prove frustratingly awkward when finally given their moment, and the coastal grasslands of Lesbos are not supplied with bawdy houses or abundant in lewd orgies.
The fusion of pastoral setting with erotic mysteries is puzzling, especially since it occurs over and over in ancient romances. One might note that even the two divine charmers whose bed Homer’s Odysseus reluctantly shares—Circe and Calypso—inhabit remote settings and are tinged (heavily, in Circe’s case) with sorcery. Perhaps the traveler to the Other World is required to assure his homecoming through ritual intercourse with a fertility goddess—so that he becomes, in a way, part of the vegetal world’s cycle of death and rebirth.8 (Gilgamesh joins with the wine-goddess Siduri in some translations of his epic, and the Irish Cú Chulainn clearly mates with Fand in the Serglige Con Culainn.) The association of knowledge with sexual experience has a far broader history than Genesis—and the Garden of Eden, for that matter, is the pristine pastoral setting.
I would suggest, however, that romanciers like Longus were playing to a more cogent impulse than the desire to follow an ancient paradigm. If the mythic traveler’s sex act was once a passe-partout in the land of wonders, making him one with nature’s cycles, it would now have become something more like an initiation into the “right, honest, true” practices with which self-abhorring urban cultures begin to associate nature. City and country are most definitely involved in a dynamic struggle as the romance develops. Perhaps the struggle’s polarities are not quite as simple as corruption and innocence… or perhaps they are, if we can understand erotic exploration as innocent. Certainly uninhibited nature is generous in scenes of fertile mating. The contrast, then, would arise between two uncorrupted hearts achieving a climactic physical union as nature intended them to do and a lost soul seeking its mate amid the city’s numerous squalid, mercenary, often truncated or unnatural couplings. (The citified sot Gnatho, enlisted into the visiting master’s entourage, attempts to rape Daphnis at one point.) Romance, as Dante knew, is not abstinent: those who find their princess only to place her on a cold pedestal will lose her, as Ariosto’s Orlando—in his infinite folly—does Angelica. In this context, nature seems to import the “wholesome” knowledge of living as one was created to live, while the city strains one’s being with perversion and unsatisfying experimentation. The rigid (sometimes enforced) male abstinence found in certain Eastern religious cults like that of the Bona Dea, after all, and in early Christian monasticism is a response to urban decadence, not a hearkening back to ancient practice.
I suspect, then, that one of the needs served by popular romance (today no less than in antiquity) is to sustain a symbolic view of sexual experience as wholesome, fulfilling, and even mystical—to link that experience, in short, with the discovery of one’s true being. In the proto-literate world, communal ties and ancestral traditions have been shattered even for the yet illiterate. Life is growing more commercial and itinerant, more urban, more eclectic with imported tastes. The result for virtually everyone is a new degree of deracination and consequent loneliness, with plenty of room to worry about a future whose typical course has never been mapped. People naturally look for security in the smallest possible units under such unstable circumstances. The village of yesteryear becomes a tiny circle of true friends—and the expressive intimacy of the sexual relationship helps to bestow a unique character upon it. The man united with his true love has a kind of nuclear resiliency which can survive all the external pressures of transplantation, expatriation, unemployment, and social indifference—at least until children arrive (a wrinkle in paradise never addressed by the romance).
One must mention Apuleius’s Metamorphosis (or Golden Ass) along about now, much the most celebrated of late antiquity’s Latin romances. To be sure, Apuleius twists and strains the Latin language with a truly vernacular vengeance, so that the earnest student may be less repelled by what the author says than by how he says it. There is plenty to roil delicate sensibilities, however. The sorceress Pamphile’s maid Fotis gives Lucius a very thorough initiation in love-making; if that part of his education had been lacking before, he emerges from her arms enlightened.9 Yet Fotis is far less conversant with her mistress’s ointments and potions, one of which Lucius is aching to try out. Having famously transformed himself into an ass—a real ass, with hooves and long ears—he is led off before the mistress’s return by what we would call today home-invaders. They overcome their shock at finding a donkey in the house to pile the dumb beast with loot, then take it with them to a remote cave which serves as their hideout. We are back among pirates again, and in the countryside: a victimized countryside, be it noted, whose criminal population has overflowed from the city and generally returns to the city for its depredations.
Lucius eventually recovers his form after numerous coarsely comic adventures (and even more narratives overheard by his long asinine ears). His “rebirth” merges with an initiation into the cult of Isis, a variety of mysticism apparently preached by Apuleius throughout North Africa in his charismatic images and dialect. So the elements of romance thus far identified are largely represented: the excursive plot, the harrowing peripeties succeeding one another unpredictably, the repeated lucky escapes by a tooth’s skin, the exploration of an underworld’s (now the criminal underworld’s) mysteries, and the initiation into greater knowledge which overlaps or is catalyzed by sexual experience. Yet the proportions do not always seem quite right—or not right at all. Particularly unseated from its position of importance in other romances is the quest for sexual fulfillment. Lucius’s “initiation” by Fotis comes early and easy, nor is his physical satisfaction accompanied by any of a more spiritual nature. Once transformed into a quadruped, he is irrelevant to the tale’s subsequent amorous adventures—for the most part. (Having escaped back to “civilization”, he is rented nightly by a lovely, bored housewife to play the bull to her Pasiphae, in his own words.) The space which Daphnis and Chloe—and even the Argonautica—had devoted to love talk here appears dedicated to portraying social chaos. Bravos plunder, rape, and murder without warning along Main Street, sometimes in broad daylight; while Main Street’s most respectable façades, from the opposite direction, conceal fraud, larceny, depravity, conspiracy, and homicide. It is a frightful picture. The protagonist’s great good fortune consists, not in his having found and won the queen of his soul, but in his having survived. Indeed, had Lucius not been “assified”, his throat would have been slit several times over. Even in his deepest misery, he turns out lucky.
It is such luck, I think, which disqualifies the work as a parody—for the Metamorphosis does seem to abuse the romance’s earnest naiveté with a certain deliberation even as the Argonautica might be thought to undermine the epic’s stately progress by design. Once again, I would argue that any such identification must be mistaken. A parodist would expose more systematically such favorite absurdities of the genre as abrupt and shocking occurrences, equally abrupt and improbable reprieves, and the perfect recompense of love as the surrounding world melts down. Apuleius has no clearly designated targets of this sort. Instead, he seems to me most sincerely interested in and convinced of a certain mystical patronage’s reality. He seems to worship luck. This may well be styled the next step, the final step, of the romance (for the next narrative stage would have to be the safe navigation of a planetary calamity—which would be no more a narrative, no more possessed of comprehensible progression, than safely traversing a mine field under machine-gun fire). The soul-mate solution to the literate world’s rootlessness depends, after all, on another person: the dependency is greatly reduced from traditional levels, but not yet minimal. The least dependency of all is to be self-contained: not an option for the popular romance, because such asceticism requires a concentration of which very few human beings are capable. The Stoics indeed recommended perfect independence of contingency (only ta proairetika, “things affected by moral choice”, were allowed within the scope of their concern) throughout these very years of late antiquity. Many, like Zeno, were having to live under political subjugation; some, like Epictetus, had actually been enslaved. Early Christians often found themselves in similar predicaments, and their writings can be almost indistinguishable from Stoic treatises. Few romantic heroes were equally tested by fortune.
But the sublime remove of the true Stoic sage, to repeat, must have been a wonder of the world, if it ever existed at all—as rare as true Christian martyrdom. The popular romance did not plumb the human soul: it sought an outward solution to an outward problem, maintaining one foot (with that maddening agility characteristic of the genre) in the oral mindset.10 The minimal solution to a chaotic social environment in a narrative form which declines psychological dissection is magic: a rabbit’s foot, an indentured genie, a mystic wand or ring, a tutelary spirit… that sort of thing. The tormented traveler can keep it in his pocket, under his tongue, or perhaps in thin air within whispering distance. (That a prominent element of early Christendom tried to reduce the faith to just such proportions is chronicled by the church’s struggle with Gnosticism.) Apuleius has chosen this expedient—so much more sure, really, than a mortal lover, who may die or be kidnapped or simply prove fickle, no matter how celestial her kisses.
The efficacy of the metaphysical inside-track, of course, is best emphasized by putting the initiate (or the candidate for initiation, in this case) through the most staccato, cacophonous chain of disasters imaginable: a torturous kind of hazing well known to initiation ceremonies. Hence the romance as a genre is not really the target when poor Lucius’s ordeal quickly grows quite unbelievable. The sword’s temper is being forged, rather, by blow after blow of hammer after hammer. Luck that can endure such a test can endure anything. The excess looks silly, no doubt—and we are the freer to laugh once we have identified the romantic universe (an easy assessment to make when the victimized protagonist is also the story’s narrator). Romances, like Dante’s romantic epic, are comedies: they are infused with the assurance that everything will be all right for a small group of central characters, even when the group turns out to consist of one. The flip side of this “bending but unbroken” durability in the protagonist is vast social ruin. To run the “test”, villages must be put to the torch, virgin brides violated, children massacred, populations decimated. The romance, at least in this terminal degree (and the reader may have remarked that I am describing a great many contemporary films)—the romance, that is, of the magically endowed survivor—does not in the slightest concern itself with collateral damage. It invites that debauch of narcissism which I mentioned earlier. The consumer of such last-ditch fictions presumably draws satisfaction from finding that survival in a slaughterhouse is, after all, possible with the right patronage… but the protégé’s neighbors must expire in their own gore to establish the slaughterhouse setting.
It should be mentioned that the evolution I have proposed does not advance in a rigid manner which leaves each previous species of the genus fossilized. A tendency for epic to die out as the genuine romance thrives is certainly manifest, but noble mastodons or strange cross-breeds can linger for quite some while. The dominant force driving the process is literacy; and, naturally, the literate phenomenon always divides into “high” and “low” literacy—into patient, reflective self-analysis and “pulp fiction” mass-produced for those who are probably read to, or who at best read for diversion rather than for enlightenment. Ironically, that great dissecter of souls, Epictetus, left something on paper to posterity only because disciples scribbled down his utterances. The same was true (in chronological order) of Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus, all of whom tapped the energies for introspection unleashed by literacy. Theirs is the exception that proves the rule: literacy revealed a universally human terrain within each individual, its glories dwarfing such superficial features as physical appearance and social class to insignificance. The guides to this terrain, following its humanitarian imperative, rejected literate transmission of the message as too exclusive; for the road to the heart’s crypt, once the vault is laboriously unsealed, leads one straight out upon the full human universe. Now here was a romance worth telling, and attending!
Eventually, I believe, the psychological novel (Dostoevsky, James, Martin du Gard) becomes this confessional romance, the story of a prophet forced to write instead of speak. Apuleius, as we have seen, is not that prophet. His charism is a Gnostic blessing that allows him to land on his feet even when they have hooves: he is the prophet of good luck and secret revelation—a “eudemonist”, in Aristotelian terms. The epic, tied down by hexameters but also—and far more importantly—by social responsibility, inevitably provides the only adequate venue for studying the effects of “close-up, slowed-down” analysis upon inherited myths. The results are predictably schizophrenic. They suggest that an abiding, at last fatal tension besets all literate epics, because the romance (with which all literate epic must be imbued) is both intimate and comic. Romantic travelers survive their journey, and even achieve that for which they were questing. Their success is self-centered, however, and the epic will have none of this narcissism. The epic hero quests for social harmony—for the recovery of Eden, for heaven on earth—and nothing less will fulfill him. Perhaps the most fatal part of so quixotic an undertaking is not the impossibility of transforming society’s appearance as the impossibility of attaining inner fulfillment in so doing. The wide travels which adorn the inauguration of a literate era quite often, in fact, produce a rather naïve optimism about the abundance of happy places on earth (or happier, at least, than home: Montaigne even detected paradise among New World cannibals as Europe’s printing presses hit their stride). What the introspective explorer of literate sensibilities will never be able to find is a faithful expression of his soul’s newly probed depths in streets full of well-fed merchants and laughing children. Eating the lotus may cause him to forget his nostalgia, but it cannot awaken him to a sense of higher accomplishment.
Such is precisely the enigma which Vergil posed himself (quite unwittingly) in attempting to write a “foundation epic”—i.e., a romantic mission into the unknown—with a sympathetic but relatively benighted pawn of destiny leading the quest in the person of Aeneas. The Aeneid, of course, is both Iliad and Odyssey, in reverse order. First the hero sails uncharted seas, then he fights pitched battles with a doughty enemy. Yet in neither venture is Aeneas simply circling back to the status quo, as were Homer’s heroes. True to the romance, he is blazing new trails. He leaves home forever when he launches his ships from the Troad, having no very clear idea at all of where he is to end his journey; while the war in Latium, far from vindicating traditional values and silencing a perennial adversary, is fought on alien turf in response to a visionary injunction. Aeneas and his tribe could scarcely be more unsure of their future if they were so many revelers-turned-donkey—yet they are not permitted the luxury of holding onto their seats and trusting that good luck will blow them to a fair shore. The epic figure’s heroism would be nullified if it could not find active, assertive expression (the reason, presumably, why Other World adventures, wherein the traveler assumes the passivity of the dead, are never the sole content of great epics). So Aeneas rouses himself and struggles to fight the good fight in the depths of an opaque incomprehension, which is reckoned to him as piety.
In the end, he succeeds… but he fails, as well. As an individual human being, his integrity lies hopelessly sundered on the shores of Libya, where the forsaken Dido is buried. To affirm his superior commitment to the gods, as my quondam professor Karl Galinsky has done often and with distinction, really has no moral validity. It is the view, to be sure, which contemporary Romans would have taken of Aeneas’s dilemma: duty first—and the highest duty is to the state.11 The intimacy with which the romance represents the protagonist’s inner struggles, however, forces the problem into terms where duty’s balance shifts. Dido grows so dependent upon Aeneas that she cannot face life without him. The dependency incurs an obligation, whatever one may think of the “marriage” engineered by Juno and Venus (and Vergil is outspokenly clear about its nullity: cf. Aen. 4.172). To cast the equation, then, as pleasure versus holy obligation is to be duplicitous: the formula might work in a fully Homeric epic, but here we know too well that the hero recognizes the expectations he has created in his vulnerable lover. Thanks to the romance’s sentimental magnification, we see that the balance’s two sides contain an existing and publicly assumed (if only implicit) promise to a worthy, honorable individual versus, in the other plate, a powerfully sensed obligation to found a future political state with a different queen on the throne. The alternative, be it extolled by ever so many nocturnal visits from Mercury, is unsuited to a morally based imperative. It is a call to worldly power, and the material majesty predicted of this power highlights rather than conceals the selfish ends it serves (for to serve the ambitions of many along with one’s own scarcely constitutes self-sacrifice, especially when defenseless bystanders must pay along the way). On one side, the looming prospect of fame, empire, wealth, and a long line of grateful heirs: on the other, a standing agreement, though entered unintentionally, to keep faith with a particular human being. Morally, the call is not even close.12
Romance sabotaged Aeneas’s heroism—and sabotaged Vergil’s epic. Though Galinsky is surely right that the Aeneid succeeded as a piece of propaganda, it remains a literary contradiction. That is, for those sufficiently distant in time from the Aeneid’s origins to evaluate the human sentiments put into play rather than merely the epic’s much-published expectations, Aeneas is uncomfortably near to the traitor which the Middle Ages would make of him.13 Vergil’s Romans saw sacrifice to the fatherland because that is what they had anticipated, what was in the water they drank: they read the epic envelope, not the romantic lines. If only Dido had more resembled Homer’s Circe or Calypso than Apollonius’s Medea… if only she had plotted to destroy Aeneas before he had neutralized her plans with sex rather than after he had betrayed their bed! But then the work would have been infinitely less engaging: it would have been one of those roller-coaster rides of popular romance, where the lucky traveler dodges one chasm or claw after another, rather than an inward exploration of the hero. The “comedy” of triumph would have been low, cartoonish. The cost of this epic triumph, in contrast, is and must be the hero’s personal tragedy—his moral collapse. Aeneas bears his people upon his shoulders to unprecedented heights—and pays for it with his soul: a new kind of epic heroism, indeed! The only solace Vergil can offer is an Elysium where, eventually, the soul forgets everything and is reborn with a completely new identity.
The philosophers had it right: beatitude lies in controlling your outlook, in limiting your will to what falls immediately under its sway and in resigning yourself to all else. Such spiritual concentration is even better than a lucky star (which may burn out as inexplicably as it flared up). It is certainly better than the epic scenario of making one’s inner peace dependent upon obliterating a hostile race or resettling the tribe. But then, the pre-literate originators of epic knew no inner peace as such: peace consisted of a secure standing in the community. The romance, even in its “lower”, more popular forms, had permanently cut the protagonist adrift from this complete identification with the tribe. Though he might frivolously be seeking a girl or a pot of gold instead of, more philosophically, his soul’s good, the traveler now sought the girl or the gold for himself, not for his ethnos. The success and glory of the tribe, assuming it could somehow hold together in an increasingly fragmented world, now had nothing very specific to say about the happiness of its members.
The one sort of narrative which proved able—sometimes—to bridge the gap between communal triumph and personal fulfillment was, ironically, history. The irony, of course, lies in history’s reputation for simply telling facts. Yet it is a “fact” that histories, like romances, descended straight from epic, and that written histories began to appear just slightly earlier than the full-blown romance. The earliest were traveler’s tales. Herodotus collected accounts far and wide of the curious ways in which non-Hellenes did things, rather as if he were Odysseus stopping on one shore after another and noting exotic behaviors with cool reserve. Yet the climax of the collection was Iliadic, or an Iliad with the tables turned: the defense of Greek civilization, this time, from invading Eastern barbarians. The gate to a wide world had been thrown open, perhaps unhinged; but paradoxically and reassuringly, the Old World order affirmed its stability when strangers wandered in. This is the romantic formula in rather fine detail.
Most of what is missing from the formula was supplied by Xenophon. The Anabasis turns out to have a romantic protagonist: not the flamboyant young Cyrus, who dies in Book One, or his tyrannical brother Artaxerxes, who remains virtually invisible… but the author himself—Xenophon—who slowly but surely emerges into prominence as the Greek mercenaries, their mission aborted, must find their way back home through unfamiliar, hostile lands. First-person narration appears more frequently as Xenophon feels compelled to offer his advice and leadership in numerous crises. He is increasingly sought out, as well, since his talent for keeping a cool head becomes widely recognized. The Anabasis, all unwittingly and in the winning style of a genuinely humble young man, ends up telling a story of self-discovery even as it maps out how thousands of Greek lives were saved from barbarian machinations. The tribe is preserved—but the story-teller steals the show as he backs into center-stage. For good measure, one might argue, a savage but comparatively treachery-free countryside is played off against the murderous duplicity of “truces” and “favors” in the vicinity of Babylon. As Xenophon leads his Greeks farther into the wilderness, he personally comes of age.14
We know that Alexander was encouraged in his imperial designs by reading of how easily Xenophon’s Greeks routed far greater numbers of barbaroi. We also know that Julius Caesar emulated the Anabasis in composing accounts of his own military exploits for propagandistic purposes (and minus the first-person style, which tended to erode the hero’s godly mystique). To what extent were these greatest names of antiquity seduced by the sheer charm of Xenophon’s romance—the elusive promise of filling a vast inner void with the glories of external conquest? If they were indeed so stirred, then they had misread the Anabasis, whose author conquers nothing but his own fears. The account which Arrian has left us of Alexander’s thunderbolt anabasis (or “journey inland”) all the way to India ends in gloom—in an awe, very nearly, of glory’s bitter dregs. The historians of ancient Rome who chronicled Caesar’s life and many another—Sallust, Livy, Suetonius, Tacitus—almost universally embraced the sober theme that, in the case of most mortals whose example is yet retained in memory, “the body has served pleasure while the soul has served only as a burden” (Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 2.8). Histories tend to be tragic (Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars was the archetype here): they embody a benighted humanity, led by a few charismatic figures, which has no inkling of destiny’s dark clouds gathering overhead. The difference is that, in these “literate Iliads”, destiny is no longer inscrutable to its retrospective analyst, only to its wretched victims. The historian deciphers what was once opaque mystery into moral forces ravaging the populace’s judgment just as ghastly plagues occasionally ravage its rank-and-file body. Most histories stay put. They chronicle events in a particular place at a particular time. Under such conditions, the human animal cannot escape thorough dissection, and his collective motives invariably turn out to be infected with lethal contagion.
The “romantic historian”, then, must somehow liberate himself from place even as Homer’s Odysseus escapes the man-crushing limits of the Trojan War. When the historian himself cannot embark upon an adventure, as did Xenophon (and as would Marco Polo), he may at least allow his eye to wander—beyond his state, beyond his time, perhaps beyond his planet. (For some chroniclers must become “natural historians” to escape the present’s loathsome circumstances: nature offers hope even—or especially, it may be—without human participants.) The important thing in such history-writing is to get away: the impulse is distinctly escapist, as with a Harlequin romance today. No less a pessimist than Tacitus (“The best day after a bad ruler is the first,” he once wrote [Histories 4.42.35]) found ample cause to eulogize the “barbarian” Germans in his treatise on that tribe, just as Montaigne—as I noted parenthetically above—found New World cannibals not at all unappetizing.
The utopian vein of historiography, whether it admits itself to be fiction or dangerously strays, instead, into “reporting of facts”, has remained a popular variety of romance.15 To be sure, it often lacks the central character whose turbulent vagaries the reader rides out from a comfortable couch; yet the exoticism is still there, as is the dynamic assumption that abandoning one’s own urban jungle for Arcadia’s fresh air might put one in touch with suppressed but essential parts of one’s psyche. Hope revives when historians write of otherness—ancient historians, and perhaps certain modern ones. Hope is the spice of life to a society whose fragmentation has destroyed the savor of its own past. Hope is spice, and spices come from far-off places. “Everything unknown,” wrote the wry Tacitus elsewhere, “acquires a grand aura”—perhaps his most celebrated bon mot (Agricola 30). We forget that he placed these words in the mouth of a “barbarian” decrying Rome’s imperial ambitions. The barbarian and his followers would lose the ensuing battle.
V. The Emergence of Modern Forms
I reiterate that I do not intend in this small space an adequate historical overview of the romance in all its transformations. The range of classical precedents is already impressive—but certainly not inclusive. One romantic variety which I wish to recognize before lurching forward to our own time is the medieval roman, a plant of truly extraordinary blossoms. The West has witnessed no other situation quite like the one prevailing in larger medieval communities (nor, I advance with slightly less confidence, has the East). Literacy survived—and a very high grade of literacy, fed by the most sophisticated authors of ancient Rome (Cicero, Vergil [now Virgil], Pliny, Ovid) and by Christianity’s ethic of personal responsibility. Yet the cultural underpinnings of literacy had almost entirely receded from the scene. Commercial trade and travel slowed to a trickle as roads and waterways became the range of sanguinary predators. People worked the land again as their distant ancestors had done, protected—once again—by clannish groups of professional warriors. Cultivators and warriors, neither party literate or in need of literacy… anthropologist Georges Dumézil insists that the third plank of all pre-modern societies is the priests. In medieval Europe, of course, literacy had been entrusted to the clergy: Latin literacy, to be exact. The distinction is crucial, for if a vernacular literacy which could no longer prove its worth had competed with the spoken language early on, it would likely have perished before the second millennium. That the literate language was not the spoken language (except within monasteries, and there mostly for liturgy) effectively insulated literate habits of grammar and logic from the corrosive forces of oral parataxis.16 Even as most members of the community were hoeing cold clods or strengthening walls against Vandals and Vikings, a significant minority was preserving the rich documentation once generated by concerns about the individual soul.
In other words, the cultural environment of the early Middle Ages had reverted largely to oral-traditional levels, especially in extreme northwestern Europe. At other points untouched by Rome, the word “reversion” would hardly be appropriate. No Roman soldier ever set foot on Irish soil; and ogham, a code of vertically ordered slashes through which hunters or scouts could leave messages on stones or trees, proved adequate to immediate native needs. It was the emissaries of the Church who introduced a literate habit to the fringes of Irish culture, just as the Church had kept the embers of literacy from entirely dying in Roman Gaul and Britain. In these places, the literate presence was quite artificial, quite engineered; yet it was tolerated, and even embraced. I know of no one, frankly, who has ever proposed this defense of Christianity as a “belief system” independent of cultural conditioning: I mean, that the emphasis on the individual’s internal life remained attractive, if only the notion could be presented, even among clannish medieval yeomen whose outlook was essentially Homeric.17
If such literacy was somewhat artificial, its collaboration with local narratives to create romance was even more so. Monastic scribes were apparently content to record their favorite tales in the vernacular in more or less artless style early on. Many of the stories about the ancient Irish hero Cú Chulainn, for instance, seem almost telegraphic except for snatches of recollected verse (and Old Irish verse is itself notoriously hermetic). The scribe’s manner may well stand in the same relationship to a professional bard’s as shorthand does to fluid prose. When medieval transcribers do begin to import something to the local narratives they commemorate, it is likely to be rather meaningless—even otiose and vexing—detail. The Welsh recorder of Rhonabwy’s Dream actually taunts his oral competition at the end of a short but florid (and wholly unexciting) account by advertising his triumph at squeezing in descriptive minutiae.
On the other hand, the ethic which literate Christian clerics imported into local culture would eventually revolutionize the romance. As centuries passed, court poets learned enough writing (some of them in monasteries) to lighten the onerous load of having to memorize an enormous volume of matter. That they in fact read from manuscripts to their audiences does not gibe with most portrayals we have of their performances; but a read-over of the material beforehand would certainly improve the performance, while a text (begged, borrowed, or stolen) of another’s best tale would provide them the luxury of supplementing their repertoire entirely at their convenience. The critical ingredient in this ever more complex literary stew is the following. In the rather tedious act of transcribing, poets had leisure to reflect upon the plot evolving before them; and profiting from such invitations to second thought, the best of them apparently discovered ways of inserting significant detail. They began to allegorize. The hero’s journey to a strange land was now, in addition to (or even more than) a physical adventure, a profound examination of personal motives and duties. The Lady who tempts Sir Gawain is not only a sultry Other World Queen, but also the embodiment of Concupiscence (with a capital “c”)—and even (as that transformed figure of pagan regeneration, the Green Knight, reveals) a window upon Gawain’s own mortal fears. (Note that the Queen’s mythic role has been halved with the sorceress Morgan to relieve her enticements of dark overtones.) Similarly, the Middle Irish Eachtra Mhelóra borrows virtually nothing from Ariosto except the notion of a female warrior (itself perhaps of Celtic origin); yet the tale is immensely more subtle than that earlier heroic chronicle of Other World travel and narcosis, the Serglige Con Culainn. Melóra is able to redeem her betrothed from the dead through exemplary devotion and endurance, not through mere brute strength or the patronage of lucky spirits. Magical talismans there are aplenty. Yet these now function more as objective rewards for rare virtue than as arbitrarily hidden pass-keys conferring mystical powers upon the first-comer.
I cannot imagine a better strategy for satisfying the most valid moral objections to the romance. The genre appears to be shamelessly escapist, to nourish a passive hope in life-altering dei ex machina, to make listeners or readers impatient with their own time and place, to disengage the audience from social travail requiring conscientious participation. Thanks to the Christian influence, tiresome or trivial realities suddenly came into their own. They were no longer sidestepped in the tradition of excursive story-telling so much as stripped of their blandness. The stake of keeping a tedious promise was now as weighty as heaven or hell: the very tedium of an oft-repeated duty might now be the dread potion of an evil sorcerer. By extending reality infinitely far beyond perceptible reality, medieval Christianity caused quotidian actions to throw dramatic shadows. An extraordinary depth was admitted into the life of Everyman.
At its best, the medieval romance becomes a kind of parable, seeming to treat of faraway lands and incredible occurrences but in fact—those who have ears, let them hear!—detailing the pitfalls of life’s daily grind. The correlation of fantastical things to things mundane was not made complete, naturally: the Arthurian verse narratives of Chrétien de Troyes, say, or their analogues in Welsh prose are not mere parables, but complex social commentaries and (for their day) tautly suspenseful yarns. One could delight in such stories without so much as suspecting that they had any moral relevance to one’s own circumstances. A more “profitable” dimension, however, was fully accessible to the thoughtful as it had never been in Daphnis and Chloe or The Golden Ass, where any special “wisdom” was of the Gnostic sort involved in passwords and secret signs—not the wisdom of true self-discovery. The Erec/Gereint protagonist of the Chrétien/Mabinogion tale could truly be any dynamic young man assessing life’s labyrinth. This particular hero wins his lady-love early on—is not awarded her by fate, but wins her by force of arms and strength of character. He then has to decide between a full-time devotion to the charms of married life and a reconciling of these duties with others to superiors and dependents. His choice turns out to lurch from one extreme to the other, so that—in a young man’s excessive punctiliousness—he overshoots the balanced option after mildly discrediting himself with the uxorious one. Most of us can understand such miscalculation: most of us have indeed been guilty of it, in terms appropriate to a life without gold and damask. It is nothing less than the struggle of a right-minded youth to show discretion without forgetting solemn obligation.
I believe that the novel at its zenith (and the reader will recognize what a leap in time I now take) continues in what I would loosely call a “spiritual” tradition. What appears to be outward turning, perhaps even escapism, is in fact a search of the soul. The journey up the Congo River in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is little more than the backdrop of a grim revelation concerning the human being’s taste for power and capacity for self-delusion. The backdrop is crucial, of course: the absence of Europe’s insulating hypocrisy makes the drawing of thick veils possible. Yet the exoticism in many of Conrad’s masterpieces (e.g., Lord Jim and Victory) has this same deceptive quality. It promises the adventure of a dime-novel—the thrill so familiar from the pens of John Buchan, Ryder Haggard, and Jack London—only to confront us with the same hard facts about human nature which drive men (especially men) to the far shores of the earth. Most “psychological” works of fiction, to be sure, offer a less sensational surface. I mentioned Roger Martin du Gard earlier. An eventual Nobel laureate, this French novelist labored for decades to chronicle the rising and falling fortunes of the Thibault family, and mostly of two brothers. Why such dedication? Because—precisely because—in this nuclear group was represented all the forces gnawing away at European civilization: an atavistic religious faith at least as preoccupied with social privilege as with salvation, a positivist confidence in scientific progress and the sufficiency of material comfort, a commitment to social upheaval in the naïve hope that only tradition stood in the way of earthly paradise… father, older son, and younger son. Martin du Gard could scarcely have represented the toxicity of this mix (let alone have attracted so many readers) simply by describing it in the kind of prophecy historians sometimes allow themselves. His characters, on the other hand, are not only people whom we do not know, but people whom we may deem to bear little resemblance to us. We are free to read them as actors in a tightly circumscribed social history if we wish: if our ears are stopped, we are free not to listen. For the novelist—the serious novelist—is perhaps best described as a prophet who never utters a generality, unlike the historian: to the reader falls the thrilling chore of discerning how deeply each particular word echoes over the wide world.
As I write about Conrad and his generation, it seems to me that I am eulogizing the distant dead—that the authors of the earlier twentieth century are indeed closer to Chrétien and the Gawain poet in some important way than to James Bond and Star Wars. This sentiment is not entirely fair. The romantic “low road” of Victoria’s reign may have enjoyed more altitude than its counterpart in our time—but James Bond, to be sure, is little more than an oversexed Richard Hannay. Nevertheless, the trend in all forms of romance along the twentieth century’s downward slope has been toward less and less psychological depth, character development, and meaningful introspection. (For that matter, the promotion of sexual pleasure is itself an index of shallower internal life.) Now that two global wars have depleted Europe’s cultural resources and exhausted her will to survive, a people better and more widely educated than any in the world’s history remains trembling collectively like a shell-shock victim who chain-smokes and counts flies on the window sill. The New World, whose cultural grounding never went very deep, has filled the gap of leisure (which perhaps gauges a civilization better than any other single measurement) with marvelous mechanized toys… and here we sit. So the post-Conradian watershed, I think, is real, and extremity of our present position beyond dispute.
(continued in next issue)
1 From Ancient Fiction: The Novel in the Greco-Roman World (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1984), 3. The brief citation later in this paragraph immediately follows.
2 My translation from p. 208 in Anthropologie in Pragmatischer Hinsicht, vol. 7 of Kants Werke (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 117-333.
3 See especially Denys Page, The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1955).
4 There was, in fact, a medieval “translation” of the Odyssey into Irish: the Merugud Uilix (Homecoming of Ulysses). The scribe’s knowledge of Homer seems both second-hand and very partial, and the exotic adventures of Od. 9-12 have indeed all but vanished.
5 German scholars have been especially occupied with studying the type-scene (the feast, arming for battle, etc.) Bernard Fenik is perhaps the best known of this group.
6 This is more or less the criticism which the Argonautica drew from ancient scholiasts: i.e., that it grossly violates that brevity urged by the neoteric poet Callimachus. From the other direction (yet tending toward the same focal point), Longinus is highly critical of the work in comparison to Homer’s much longer epics for lacking solemnity: see Peri Hypsous 199v.
7 Some indication of the tale’s expected audience is given by the fantastical shift of both lovers’ having been foundlings, put out to nurse under docile goats, and of their being sumptuously acknowledged by noble progenitors at the end; also of their being “taught letters and as many other things as were fitting for a rustic life” (1.8). Shepherds, of course, must know how to carve their beloved’s initials into tree trunks!
8 As Walter Burkert observes, “That sexual elements play a role in mystery initiations is virtually certain, but there is hardly any clear evidence” (Greek Religion [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985], 108). Passage to another state—that is, the mythic sequence in question here—plainly provides the skeleton of most such initiations; so, unfortunately, the volunteering of explanatory detail in such matters by the ancients would be strictly taboo. Reinhold Merkelbach (in his book of 1962, Roman und Mysterium in der Antike) and others have even ventured to assert—with overweening confidence—that Hellenistic romance was uniformly encrypted to serve the cult of Isis .
9 The names are all probably meant to be suggestive. A Roman would have associated Lucius with lux, “light”, and Fotis with the “street” word for copulation. Pamphile literally means “all-loving” in Greek—with likely ironic undertones, of course.
10 Walter Ong has aptly labeled the content of oral narratives “agonistic” and “situational”, stressing the non-literate mind’s tendency to project internal struggles onto the outside world and to conceptualize ideas in concrete rather than abstract form. See Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 43-57.
11 E.g., Cicero writes in De Re Publica 6.9.13 of Scipio’s having been assured in his famous dream that “nothing is more important to that supreme god who rules the universe” than service to the state—a typically Roman adjustment of Stoicism.
12 Let me be clear. I do not contend that phrasing Aeneas’s dilemma in these Kantian terms, wherein the least self-interested course is the best, replicates what very many ancient Romans would have thought about the situation. I maintain that this is the true way to view the problem, which Vergil has posed in such exquisitely literate terms (i.e., detailed and alert to motive) that the likely crudity of his typical reader in perceiving its moral nuances is irrelevant. Vergil’s gods—the most visible point of collision between oral-traditional and literate thinking—stand at the crux of the epic’s incoherence. They may well be mere allegories, at least in some scenes, for the workings of the human psyche (cf. Gordon Williams, Technique and Ideas in the Aeneid [New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1983]); yet that leaves us with two equally unacceptable alternatives. If Jupiter is a trope for Aeneas’s drive to enrich his people and Juno and Venus an allegorizing of Dido’s shame warring with her desire, then enrichment of the clan does not trump sparing a lonely heart’s ruin (and Dido does, of course, promise the whole clan a comfortable living). If, on the other hand, Jupiter objectifies some metaphysical power seeking to shape earthly history by fashioning human participation (as seems more likely), then Vergil’s supreme god is a man-eater, an inscrutable taskmaster straight out of oral tradition who dictates duties as a spoiled child cries out demands. Vergil plainly represents Jupiter, on the contrary, as the source of serenity and inner peace. (The Stoic Balbus, in Cicero ’s De Natura Deorum 2.25.64, explains the epithet in Jupiter’s attribute, iuvans pater, by arguing that “to assist everyone is grander and clearly more welcome than to possess vast powers”.) Hence, I repeat, the given quantities in this epic-romantic equation cannot be morally balanced.
I might add that the Aeneid may well be the preeminent example of scholarly ineptitude in literary questions. Scholars can tell us quite accurately how the work was read by its own age; they cannot tell us how it should be read according to the intrinsic criteria of its created universe—a strictly aesthetic judgment. That the author was at odds with his contemporaries on this very subject is surely indicated by his having left instructions for the Aeneid to be burned upon his death!
13 The medieval French adaptation of the Aeneid, the Roman d’Eneas, is characteristically hard on the hero for his desertion of Dido. For instance, the redactor does not choose to reproduce Mercury’s second embassy to Aeneas (thus depriving the hero’s sudden departure of a major justification) or Dido’s attempt to capture and burn the Trojan fleet (thus removing from the queen a tinge of destructive lunacy).
14 By the way, the Thracian king Seuthes offers Xenophon his daughter in marriage, but nothing seems to come of this: high adventure, indeed, when you forget to claim your princess-prize!
15 Marxist historiography is a fascinating hybrid of “Iliadic” and “Odyssean” histories. Like Livy or Tacitus, the Marxist historian broods over the decadence of human events—yet the “subtext” is always the certainty that Troy will eventually burn and Odysseus set out on his wide-ranging tour of Arcadia . Reports that cannibals are likely to be living in rural caves never come under inspection, for the journey is ever being postponed as one more stone is loosed from Troy ’s walls.
16 That is, oral thought proceeds laterally by heaping together “similar” ideas the precise nature of whose association remains unexamined. See Ong (op. cit.),37-38, on orality’s “additive rather than subordinative” style.
17 It is a commonplace in Catholic criticism of the modern world to pillory “individualism”, so I assume that such critics would wince to see the fundamental Christian contribution to medieval cultural life summarized as sustaining the worth of the individual. Yet so it was. Only in its darkest moments of interbreeding with local heathen customs has any arm of the Church ever valued tribal practice over the salvation of individual souls. I would wish that many contemporary critics might re-think their wording. The narcissism of the current scene stands in the same relation to individualism as a fever does to a healthy sweat.