Synopsis of Class: November 30, 2000

Tying our discussion to Yeats' poem, "Second Coming," which also gives us the title of Achebe's Things Fall Apart, today's class functioned as an overview of the various periods we've examined over the course of this semester. According to Yeats' "The Second Coming," historical progression is, in fact, a cycle encompassing periods of 2000 years. As the new millenium approaches and a new cycle begins, "The center cannot hold" and "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Given that our own class has encompassed a similar 4000-year time line, we used Yeats' poem to jump-start an overview of the entire year.


The Social History of Epic Form
Ancient Greece

Oral culture; shame culture; feudal culture; society of spectacle; polytheistic society; epics emphasize the honor of battles, the acceptance of one's fate, the importance of guiles and wiles. Common epic conventions include: monsters, a nekuia, epic machinery, a massive scope, and either battles or an epic journey. There is no sense of a person's inalienable rights (Eumaios being a good example); success is based on merit and luck. The atrium architecture is oriented to the public space (no doors, no privacy).
Beginning of the movement into a guilt culture (a transitional period); a time of questioning and scientific discovery (acceptance of a Copernican vs. a Ptolemaic universe; advances in the natural sciences; questioning of the literal truth of the Bible); a time of political revolution, particularly Oliver Cromwell's Republic (ideas circulating included the extension of suffrage; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; a social contract between rulers and ruled); a movement into a monotheistic culture and, hence, the beginning of the internalization of epic values.
18th Century
As one name for this period, the Restoration, suggests, this was to a large extent a time of retrenchment. The monarchy is restored in 1660, after which the press and some literature is censored just as some religious sects are outlawed. The culture seems to subscribe more to the values of a shame culture rather than a guilt culture (external experience, social reputation, etiquette, and courtliness). There is, nonetheless, a diminution of epic conventions, as we see in Pope's Rape of the Lock (nymphs instead of gods, for example). This is the Age of Reason. Hierarchy, convention and the status quo are valued. Neoclassical Architecture tends to be ordered, balanced, symmetrical.
A new emphasis on emotions, on discovering one's internal feelings and inspiration, on nature, on the sublime. We are also presented with the formation of the Romantic hero (Promethean, sometimes Satanic, solitary, self-exiled, in search of extremes in nature and the self). This is also a time in the wake of revolutions: the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution. We are also presented with a revolution in literacy as the ability to read gets extended to the middle classes, the lower classes, and women. Wordsworth's Prelude therefore internalizes various epic conventions like the invocation to the Muse, epic machinery, the monstrous and he reduces the scope of the epic to the known universe (a "descent" into London marks the nekuia, for example). We are now firmly entrenched in guilt culture, which is reflected in the revolutionary changes in politics, ideology, and state institutions. We therefore see the rise of autobiography as a genre. (The new stress is on the private individual.) We also begin to see the rise of the novel in this period.
Victorian Period
Shelley's Frankenstein is in part a critique of Romantic ideals and helps to effect a transition into the bourgeois, domestic values of the Victorian period (1832-1900). By implicitly critiquing certain aspects of the Romantic ideology (the search for transcendence, the Romantic hero, the self-exile of the creator, the Promethean myth), Mary Shelley instead seems to value through Elizabeth and Clerval those values that would be associated with the high Victorian novel (domesticity, an emphasis on duty and responsibility, an interest in social reform, realism, narrative, and the middle class). The increasing rise in literacy rates and the final establishment of the middle class as the dominant ruling class, not to mention the formation of a mass market, help to establish the novel as that class' primary artistic form. Victorian architecture (particularly the centrality of the hearth and the separation of rooms by hallways) helps to establish spaces where private identity and domesticity can be established.
Conrad changes or perverts a number of the epic and Romantic conventions we've examined in this course, particularly epic battles, epic journeys, epic machinery, the monstrous, the epic and Romantic hero. He also reworks such Romantic concepts as the sublime, the exploration of one's unconciousness, and the recuperative powers of nature. He thus participates in the Modernist questioning of all the values held dear by the Victorian period (narrative, referentiality, religion, progress, bourgeois domesticity, capitalism, utilitarianism, decorum, empire, industry, etc.). He also tends to make darker or more perverse those values associated with Romanticism (the irrational, the primitive, the natural, the poet-genius, the search for the transcendent).
"Secondary orality" thanks to MTV culture and our culture's general reliance on the media and computers (hence, an increasing decrease in literacy rates); image culture, leading to a separation of desire from reality. (Consider the multiplication of images of Kane in Welles' film.) That is, images and the desires invoked by media advertising separate us from each other and the "real" world (as in the playboy-bunny sequence in Apocalypse Now); a resulting loss of connection to the historical past, partly evidence by a breakdown of distinctions between fiction and reality (JFK; Schindler's List, and postmodern historical novels, what Linda Hutcheon calls "historiographic metafiction"); parallels can again be seen in the architecture termed "postmodern"; the predominance of capitalist ideology, leading to the conviction that most acts of wiliness, guile, and barbarism are acceptable in the search for capitalist acquisition (are we therefore seeing a return to some of the values of an oral culture as accompaniment to our secondary orality?); a sense that, largely thanks to technological advancements, the government and police have access to even the most private aspects of our lives (hence the "conspiracy-theory" phenomenon); a competition between the values of capitalism and those of democracy.


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