Response to Christian Thorne's "The Grassy-Green Sea"

Christopher Kendrick

    1. That Christian Thorne's argument is not so easy to summarize certainly doesn't owe to lack of clarity, whether at the level of general or particular arguments, but rather to how much argument is packed into its 40-some pages. Talk about your range and sweep! But follows an attempt, which is bound to miss several things. Thorne's main claim is that the epic genre (presumably the study or updated practice thereof) might be of service in the ongoing attempt to narrate a contemporary social reality characterized by increasing complexity and globality. The tradition of epic could prove of such service, could rather significantly supplement or replace the novelistic tradition, which one naturally associates with the enterprise of realistic representation, because where novelistic narrative typically focuses on the private lives of a set of characters in a given national context, epic narrative has been political-military in its focus and imperial in scope. More than this: on inspection, older or "pre-modern" epics turn out, not just to be about finished empires, but to narrate a transition, largely negotiated but still under way, from a romance world-order, mythic and mythicizing, of dispersed pre-agrarian peoples, to the properly epic order of rational empire. So even the older, or what Thorne calls the Mediterranean, epic form offers narrative paradigms that ought to be adaptable, or at least suggestive, to the task of representing the ongoing encounter between "developed" and "underdeveloped" sites, the more integral and dynamic kind of imperialism, putatively referred to by the term "globalization". But then it happens that there is a modern tradition, that of Atlantic epic, a part of whose distinctive mission is to do to the Mediterranean epic, and its relatively static and settled world of tributary empire, what that had done to the order of mythic dispersal. The two Atlantic poems discussed, Milton's Paradise Lost and Joel Barlowe's Columbiad, are centrally concerned to represent and evaluate, Barlowe in boosterish tones and Milton with prophetic resignation, the move from a tributary to a less settled, more dynamic -- or in a word, capitalist -- imperialism.

     2. This is consistently stimulating, fascinating work, which covers a broad expanse of ground with apparent ease and habitual flare. Even in the places where I found myself questioning the argument, I went on admiring Thorne's style, which is always vivid, and often possessed of an enviable idiomatic precision. Though I will move forthwith to the serious business of asking questions about the essay, and registering a few disagreements, I would stress that in another context I could easily spend all my space praising its virtues. It would be negligent not to note two of these. Before encountering the section on it, I'm sure that The Columbiad was not on my long personal queue of works one really ought to read sometime. It is now high on the list. Thorne's reading of its generic articulation, particularly of the continuous role of Gothic as a kind of discrediting register, is stunning, and what is more -- from what I can tell, having read about half of the poem now -- it's right. The section brilliantly validates the category of the Atlantic epic, while serving as a suggestive model for analysis of the sub-generic articulation typical of much epic ancient and modern. The second virtue I'd note is the basic opposition between Mediterrean and Atlantic epic traditions, which doesn't figure large in critical writing on epic; but along with this, the range of categories and themes the opposition brings with it here: the correlation with distinct kinds of empire, the rewriting of epic comprehensiveness in terms of social totality, the focus on the strategies of indirection by which these two traditions attempt to represent the whole, the question of their utility to the globalizing present. Whatever you think about the answers he offers, these are the kinds of questions that scholars should be asking themselves about epic and about Milton.

     3. This said, I will comment on four topics, roughly in descending order of specificity: 1) the issue of realistic narrative representation; 2) the question of the relation of the epic to the novel; 3) the question of Paradise Lost's "Atlanticism"; and 4) the historical allegory in Paradise Lost.

     4. 1) "Realistic narrative representation" seems more difficult, both to think about and to achieve, than Thorne always allows; and I'd suggest that Lukacs isn't so dated or simple on the matter as Thorne makes him out to be. For one thing, Lukacs never saw increases in social complexity as a great obstacle to realism. Rather the problem was systems of perception, or the limits imposed by ideology on narrative production as well as social knowledge. Few have done more than Lukacs to make it clear that under capitalism, the key limits to social knowledge are owing to the entrenchment of commodity fetishism, which in its ambit of immediate ramification he termed "reification". This ambit certainly includes the division of private from public life, whereby one's private life comes to be understood in terms of her experiences with family, friends, and alone, especially when not working (in what is now "leisure time"); it perhaps comes to include, with capitalism's progress, a national identification (one's spontaneous understanding of oneself, for example, as an American). Lukacs would not disagree with Thorne's observation that the novel emerged with individualized private life and took it as its privileged object of representation. But he would not have allowed that the novel's primary mission was to reinforce the separation of private or everyday from public or political realms or experiences. Rather its aim was to reveal the role of private experience in, and institution by, social struggle, thus to show up the persisting (feudal) fetishism of personal relationship, as well as capitalist abstraction. The early pages of The Historical Novel make an impressive case that the political event of the French Revolution imposed and conduced to the cultural conditions -- popular nationalism, and along with it a more full-blooded historicism than the Enlightenment had known -- that made such novelistic demystification, the rendering of the social present as the result of ongoing class struggle, most fully achievable. Now it is well known that Lukacs did not in practice always accept the lessons he taught, that for example in The Historical Novel he goes on to blame later individual writers for the dissolution of the conditions that made relatively transparent, class-conscious, narrative possible. Still, one comes away from his best work with a strong sense of the precariousness of the realist novel as he understood it -- of the obstacles to totalizing narration that temporarily served to enable it, and that could for a time be used against themselves and one another (I doubt that Lukacs finally conceived of nationalism, even a genuinely popular one, as a more valid social-epistemological set on the world than does Thorne). And largely because of this, you never have doubts as to what novelistic realism is, for him, or why he should value it as he does (though admittedly an explicit disquisition would have been welcome on this latter topic, which his Soviet environment evidently let him take for granted).

     5. One misses in Thorne's essay a comparable sense of the difficulty, the precariousness, of the totalizing neo-epic realism he envisions, a comparably determinate description of the nature of the obstacles to be overcome if it's to be achieved, and an equivalent description of the conditions which might make such overcoming possible. Lukacs' analyses have the advantage of hindsight, of course; to ask for equivalently informed judgments on the darkness of the present is to ask too much. Still, the idea that "globalization" means the world is more complex is surely doubtful, and ought at the least not to be taken for granted. Given the ongoing conquest of distance in advanced capitalist society, why should the horizon of the "globe" pose to people in individual countries more difficult problems of understanding and cognition than the horizon of the nation once posed to provinces or "countries"? And why should globalization not be thought of as a dramatic simplification of existing societies and social relations, rather than as making for more complexity? I don't doubt that Thorne could provide strong answers to these questions. But that he tends to take them for granted, that he doesn't consider closely what kind of obstacles globalization poses to realistic representation, is part of the reason for one's becoming uncertain what he means by realism in the essay's latter sections. Certainly Barlowe's epic sketches a vision of history, and so is a totalizing representation; but though I greatly admire Thorne's analysis of the ideological work done by its subgeneric plot, I'm not sure how it is more realistic than the Enlightenment histories, the mode of distribution "epics", to which, as Thorne notes, it owes much. And though I like the discussion of God and Satan's historical reference in Paradise Lost, I am not sure that Thorne winds up depicting the poem as a totalizing representation of social reality. Trenchant allegorical indication he shows, to be sure (though that to do with the Father is of a peculiarly nonplussing variety), but not enough to amount to "cognitive mapping" (a term for realism-for-hard-times which I think Thorne probably has in mind), and certainly not an analysis of the texture of everyday life. The message attached to Satan (that Atlantic imperialism is more of the same) seems more of a moral or an attitude than a realistic analysis or revelation.

     6. 2) Thorne's early paragraphs on epic definitions, and on regionalist versus Mediterranean epic, are stimulating. Still, on the one hand he seems to cast the Mediterranean epic as more of a piece than it was. Was the epic always about "nation-building"? Battles between peoples, and the rule of a people over others, are generally celebrated, true. But the Aeneid tells the legendary story of the founding of a city-state empire. Whoever composed the Odyssey may have had Greek peoples in general in mind when he wrote of Ithaca, but it is a stretch to say that Odysseus' return is about founding a nation. It looks as if Thorne is himself writing the nation back into the Mediterranean epics, and then turns around to imply that regional epics are only epic by back-formation, as a result of later nationalist re-construction. It seems to me thus that on the other hand he underestimates the basic narrative similarity obtaining among at least many of his regional and Mediterranean epics, and so the extent to which "epic" as customarily used is a valid generic category. The similarity would seem to have to do above all with the texture of the narratives, the quality of the actions portrayed, the plot's organization at the micro-level as a series of stock actions or gestures. This is not mainly a matter of authorial contrivance or intention but of what could be called the form of the works' content, and apparently stems from what most pre-capitalist economies have in common, a comparatively stable division of labor in which the various crafts are ranged as so many distinct and specialized mysteries around the set of basic agrarian laboring-activities with which everyone was more or less familiar. What epics also have in common, what Beowulf shares with the Aeneid, is a strategy of presentation, a rhetorical format, in which the compositional skill of the poet, whether oral-formulaic in primary epic or literary-poetic in the secondary epic, sets itself amongst and against the stock actions and laboring-activities on display in the narrative, offering itself as the distinctive craft which, like agriculture, holds everything together. The immanence or momentaryness of epic narrative, the effect given of the action's completeness to itself in each segment (memorably described in Auerbach's discussion of the Euracleia episode in The Odyssey at the beginning of Mimesis), is at least as distinguishing as the grand plots and the preoccupation with war and ruling class politics generally, and indeed might be seen as the foundation and complement of the latter. For it is not as if the gestural texture is felt as a neutral reflection of (what to us appears) a world of use, of relatively concrete activity. Rather epic stylization amounts to a kind of running claim to ruling class control and comprehension. Hence it drew parody from very early on, which -- and this ought to quiet the skepticism of modern readers inclined to dismiss this view of epic as romantic -- habitually makes a butt of stock gestures and stylization, understood as of the essence of epic, to suggest that the epic doesn't comprehend use at all.

     7. Now all this bears directly on the relation of epic to the novel and novelistic realism, of course, which latter is what you get -- so one common critical viewpoint has it -- when the pre-capitalist life-world(s) mediated by epic give way to the modern world of prose. I still find attractive and compelling the critical orientation (which I think of as Lukacsian) according to which, if the novel is a radically different creature from epic, that is because it attempts to re-create the effect of epic concreteness and comprehensiveness by using newly analytical narrative methods on its raw materials, the increasingly reified stuff of modern everyday life; and that the more successful realistic novels necessarily bring with them a political consciousness, an awareness of the political constructedness of social reality, unknown to epics. They do this because connecting everyday life with the political poses them with a problem of a different and harder sort than epic is posed with or traditionally assumes. It makes little difference whether one regards the novel as continuous with the epic or not. But whether analyzing and revealing the politics of everyday life remains a basic task of modern realism-that would seem a key issue, and it's one that I'd like to see Thorne address more directly in the book that this essay looks to be working toward. What evidently keeps him from raising the question here is the tendency to associate the novel with a nationalist take on social affairs and the epic with an imperial. There's something to this pair of equations, and it leads Thorne to interesting questions. But novels that one thinks of as exemplary in significant ways -- settled ones, not just about the sea: Ulysses and Nostromo, say -- aren't well described as novels of the capitalist nation. Neither is Waverly, though it's about how Scotland became a part of a nation-state, or failed to become a nation. I even have doubts about Emma. Yet what is more troublesome is the suggestion that the epic's imperial narrative set, which was always more true than the novel's, might now be coming into its own again because the aboriginally imperialist character of capitalism is, with globalization, unable any longer to be missed, and thus that there's a felt need for large imperial stories. There may be something to this suggestion, too; but whatever the discourse of globalization means, it seems unlikely that it mainly signals a new transparency in the relations between nations and peoples.

     8. 3) The parts of the essay's second section which argue that Milton puts his paradise in the Atlantic are refreshing and provocative: witness his concluding observation that the poem is "about the invasion of the New World, in which people living without commerce, state, or law -- naked and indigenous, 'in native honor clad' -- are discovered, tricked and driven from their land, like Indians past the Alleghenies or Scottish peasants to the sea." I certainly agree with Thorne that the poem consistently invokes analogies between Eden and the New World, and between several of its main actions and imperial adventures. But to say that it's "about" the invasion of America seems to me to overdo it, for reasons that I worry Thorne might find small or antiquarian, but which bear on the texture of the garden books. I'll mention three. First, I wonder what Thorne makes of the one literal reference to indigenous Americans, which comes after Adam and Eve, waking to find themselves ashamed, have taken fig leaves "broad as Amazonian targe" (the Asian-Indian, not the middle-eastern kind "for fruit renowned") and sewed them together as they could "to gird their waist". "O how unlike/ To that first naked glory", exclaims Milton: "Such of late/ Columbus found the American so girt/ With feathered cincture, naked else and wild/ Among the trees on isles and woody shores" (Book IX, lines 1115-18). The main point of the simile is that this one first piece of fallen culture, the very mark of the fall, somehow made its way unaccompanied to "the Americans" (and paradoxically explains their naked wildness). The simile brings the couple together with the Indian, and so potentiates the allegorical identification Thorne argues for; but it also distinguishes them sharply, and so discredits the identification, too. My second comment is on the notion that Paradise tends to be located in the New World. Thorne must refer here to figurative geography, since Milton's introductory placement of his "Assyrian garden" (l. 285), though probably rightly seen as intentionally somewhat vague, is not utterly evasive ("Eden stretched her line/ From Auran eastward to the royal towers/ Of great Seleucia, built by Grecian kings,/ Or where the sons of Eden long before/ Dwelt in Telassar" [Book IV, ll. 210-14]). Even figuratively, though, as the references in the passage previously referred to (Indian, African, American) tend to suggest, the garden impresses as more cosmopolitan than a designation as "Atlantic" allows. Or at least cosmo-botanical: Karen Edwards has shown, in Milton and the Natural World, that Milton took care to put fauna and especially flora from all the main regions in the garden, a measure that readers up on developments in botany -- and seventeenth-century England knew many such readers -- would not have missed. The reasoning behind this was that weather and climatical differences as we know them post-date the fall and the re-arrangements that ensued. This doesn't mean that the garden doesn't stand for America in some ways and places; but it suggests that it is first of all itself, or, more than one might imagine, a considered "historical" everywhere. Third, the characterization of the couple as "without commerce, state, or law" would seem to overlook a different sort of allegory, or rather the respect in which the couple is a household in the making. They are too georgic to fit well into the category of "those who don't have the plow"; they have the prohibition to work with (which, as Jason Rosenblatt has well shown in Torah and Law in Paradise Lost, means they have the -- unfallen -- Mosaic law); they know that marriage is the "sole propriety in Paradise of all things common else", and that they must propagate; it's the least one can say that something like a state and some kind of exchange are on Eden's agenda. In the garden books Milton might be said to be inventing the epic of an unfallen household economy; and this, I'd suggest, deserves attention and analysis in itself, so that one can then relate it to geographical reference or allegory.

     9. 4) Thorne's closing section on Paradise Lost is the one place in the essay where some important lines of argument don't come entirely clear. This is partly, I think, because of the separation between the discussion of what Eden stands for and the discussion here of God and Satan. At any rate, I understand the comments on allegory, and on God and Satan's allegorical significance, and find them illuminating. But the digression on allegory in general is introduced rather abruptly, and I am not sure why it comes up here, and not before. Is it that the epic of the market, of the world division of labor, must, if it deals in characters, be indicatively, or allegorically, realistic? and is Thorne implying some sort of relationship between the triangular trade and the three spheres of Milton's poem (Heaven, Hell, and Garden)? Probably so in the case of the former question, probably not with respect to the latter; but I'm not sure, and would like to be. Similarly, though I like everything Thorne has to say about God's disequivalence as king with temporal kings, and especially about the unruly political consequences of God's uniqueness, I'm uncertain about how this peculiarly anti-allegorical allegorical dimension refers to anything in the world at all as Thorne presents it, or plays a part in a totalizing representation. There seems a curious tendency in this part of the argument to insist on taking the claim that the Father is utterly different at face value, as if not to "obey" it, in view of its radical implications in its moment, is for the modern progressive critic to transgess. The claim itself isn't so restricted to the Father as Thorne makes out, but is of a piece with the running theme that Milton's story is the original unmythical fable: "thus they relate, erring" -- Mulciber was really Mammon, Athena born from the head of Zeus was really Sin from the head of Satan, and so on. The claim is tempered by the counter-insistence, characteristic of Milton and very present in the poem, on the Father's materiality and comprehensibility. And then, there is a sense in which the claim makes no difference: the Father's kingship is modelled on earthly versions of kingship, whether the poem's commentary allows it or not. Moreover, the Father's monarchy changes in the poem, and the changes allude to a story that includes and explains Satan's rebellion. The Exaltation is like the move to absolute monarchy, with the Son as the new favorite, and Satan's ability to draw off a third of heaven's host is largely explained by reference to an old-feudal magnate's chain of dependents, and territorial power. Father and Satan do not inhabit such different kinds of allegorical reference as Thorne maintains, but to a notable extent act in the same allegorical terrain. That this broad reference to the ongoing shift to absolutism should be mixed with reference to Atlantic exploration in Satan's travels -- Thorne is surely right about this -- would seem of considerable interest in the context he's set up (it involves a simpler kind of social reference, in fact, than what he finds). Meanwhile, as for Satan, though the historical or topical references associated with him are particularly mobile and slippery, as Thorne suggests, I'm disinclined, for the reasons just mentioned (the Godhead and Garden are historical too), to allow that Satan alone lets history into the poem. And the history he does let in doesn't seem, all of it, to denote repetition and decline: think of the references to Galileo (I.287-91; III.589-90; V. 261-63) -- the only modern name other than Columbus' to appear in the epic -- whose telescope, though associated twice with Satan's shiftiness (and a third time with Raphael), is by no means simply a bad novelty. In sum, then: Thorne is surely right to find an allegorical program, and to cast it as of major interest. But I'm not sure that the program works as he represents it.

     10. If some of these last comments are not felt to cross the line separating high theoretical dispute from specialist caviling, that is only, I 'd hasten to concede, because Thorne's larger theory about the referential capacities of Atlantic epic has so incisively raised the stakes of local exposition. It would be remiss to conclude without recurring to the essay's refreshing boldness of conception and wonderful suggestiveness in every phase of its argument, and without underscoring again the essential fact, that Thorne delivers in spades on his main aim of making the epic contemporary: he has successfully established a compelling modern context in which to undertake anew the construction and analysis of the epic genre and form.

 

 

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