Monday, February 23, 2009

A Short, Incomplete Dissertation On The Eclectic In Culture


Way back at the beginning of Western Literature, everything was One. In Aristotle's Poetics, he described most of literature (which at the time meant largely poetry and drama) as falling into certain large, well-defined groups. A Tragedy dealt with persons of high degree having a fall or coming to a bad end. A Comedy dealt with lower people and ended on an upbeat note. In his description, and for hundreds of years, never this twain did meet. In Greece and Rome if you had a play in high style, it could be followed with a low, knockabout, scurrilous parody of the same story, often involving satyrs as the main characters (from which we get the term satire), but never in the same play. The Unities, as they came to be known, of time, place, character, and tone had to be preserved.

With the disintegration of the Roman civilization and the influx of barbarian invasion (and furthered by the Islamic incursions from the 7th Century on), Western Literature went to the wall. It was driven to the edges of Europe, where it mainly survived in monasteries, preserved by those who revered the precious heritage from the past. Thus it is to Christian monks that we owe the preservation of much that is left us of the old world of Greece and Rome; it is true that Islamic Arabs preserved many of their technical and scientific works, but stories and poetry were not.

At the ends of the earth western culture licked its wounds and tried to rebuild itself out of the shattered fragments that were left. And it was now that a very different voice began to emerge; a voice that was three voices, seeking to harmonize together. There was the High, from the Classical culture; there was the Holy, from Christianity; and there was the Homely, from the life of the people on the land, including their folk beliefs about ghosts, goblins, and magic. The voice of Middle Ages Europe was all three seeking to reconcile what it knew into one grand system. Perhaps the greatest offering of this impulse was Dante's The Divine Comedy, which has angels and Titans, griffins and saints, ghosts, demons, and the main real life characters from Greek and Roman history all cheek by jowl, as it were, in a grand tour from Hell to Heaven. It was the same sort of impulse that impelled the cathedrals, with their angels, saints and gargoyles.

Then along came the Renaissance and shook things up. Old books that had been buried in monasteries or Arabic translations were rediscovered; what began as a craze for old knowledge recovered turned into a culture for the present. Aristotle's observations on the workings of literature were now laid down as iron-bound laws of culture: where the Renaissance prevailed (as in Italy, and France) it was seen as barbarous and low to mix comedy and tragedy. Only at the very ends of the West, in England, where long habits of isolation and conservatism had made independence native did the syncretic tradition remain part of the cultural fare. While old stick-in-the-muds like Ben Jonson might insist on the Unities in his plays, writers like Shakespeare mixed kings and clowns, fairies and ancient Greece, laughter and tears in a heady brew. A defining example of this type of work might be Edmund Spenser's The Fairy Queen, with it's Arthurian nights, fauns, elves, dragons, and saints.

This syncretic, eclectic impulse remains a trope in our culture to this very day. From C. S. Lewis' Narnia books with their talking animals, centaurs, fauns, and dwarfs, to Neil Gaiman's Sandman with it's gods of many mythologies, superheroes, and imaginary friends, we love the mix, the crossover, the what if? What if Star Trek met Planet of the Apes? What if Gandalf met Dumbledore? Who would win, Superman or the Hulk? Purists may cluck their tongues and stroke their beards, but it is a pure, childlike desire, to see our friends from many genres mixed and mingling, in a glorious crossover pageant. It is a reconciliation or dialectic of our loves; and it is an accurate expression of our lives (at least our inner lives) and the way we experience them.

1 comment:

john said...

The blending of comedy and drama makes so much sense, too, to allow the audience some "beathing" room between highs and lows. An interesting bit of history; it is hard to imagine things being so different.