09 July 2008

Ur-Story: Taking Stock

One of the problems of theme-blogging, as opposed to random postings in response to whatever is forefront in the mind, is that sometimes you reach a dead end or cul de sac. The reasons for this are many: you feel the pressure to fit the next post into the pre-set framework, or you feel you have to do more research—and it better be original, or you feel pulled to different ideas and you don't want to break up a thread, or you need some distance to gather your thoughts for the next post, or you're afraid you're getting off track, etc. ... Probably all of these (and more) have slowed down my posting over the last few days. Apologies to my readers.

Here's a quick summation of where we are on this Ur-story theme-post: We're trying to get at something essential in literature and more specifically fiction. We're asking the question: what, if anything, can we call the Ur-story at the base of all fiction? We started out looking at some Biblical stories—the Jahweh saga, the Edenic myth, and the ancient story of Job—and intuited that the story at the foundation of Western religion involved explanations of the sense of loss and grief (a lost estate, a lost relative, the loss of everything) at the base of our emotional experience. [It would not be much of a stretch to extend this out to the Avram/Abraham story: the sacrifice of the son to propitiate a distant god (anticipation of a loss which, as a fact of life, the god demands) and the birth of faith (per Kierkegaard), the Israel/Ishmael story and the loss of patrimony at the foundation of religion, etc.) We extrapolated this out to the theoretical basis of Christianity: fallen humanity owes God a great debt (our immortal souls) because of His great grief at the voluntary sacrifice of His only heir; this subsumed the problem of theodicy because, we surmised, "evil" and its cause were great religious fictions brought in to try and explain how these overwhelming existential feelings of grief and loss originated. We took a quick look at the Gilgamesh epic, often mentioned as the Ur-hero (in Joseph Campbell's terms), and found that his great quest for immortality grew out of his grief at the loss of his erstwhile rival and true friend, Enkidu. Aristotle, likewise, provided a "sentimental education" by instituting the emotions of pity and fear as the aim of tragedians in treating this dis-ease. Joyce, after bringing the epic of tragedy to the realm of the ordinary common man, introduced the comedic response to the problem (in this, we have to take him at his word—I have read the book, or at least my eyes have passed over every word of the text of Finnegans Wake, but that's not saying I understood or comprehended any of it. It was more an act of devotion than anything else. I'll say this: the commentaries help). We then revisited Hamlet and proposed that this classic incarnation of the Ur-story—and its subsequent interpretations—was ground zero for the debate over literary "Realism". Not irrelevant poetic and fictional asides (Ammons in particular) showed us that garbage, as phenomenon and symbol, might provide an appropriate "objective correlative" in the specifically American (post-modern) tradition for dealing with this Ur-story of loss and grief.

This is where we stand. More will follow.

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