Chaucer and the inner world of man

The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.

In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.

The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.

The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.

Beowulf and the Trinitarian nature of man

Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes

prayed aloud, promising sometimes

on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices

if the Slayer of souls would send relief

to the suffering people

Such was their practice,

a heathen hope; Hell possessed

their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,

the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,

they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,

the Wielder of Glory.

Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.

The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:

It was with pain that the powerful spirit

dwelling in darkness endured that time,

hearing daily the hall filled

with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,

the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling

of the remote first making of man’s race.

He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth

a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,

exulting established the sun and the moon

as lights to illumine the land-dwellers

and furnished forth the face of Earth

with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted

to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.

While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.

The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.

Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:

Wearily he sat,

a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,

trying to wake him with water; but without success.

For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold

his battle-leader’s life in this world

or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;

for every man’s action was under the sway

of God’s judgement, just as it is now.

The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.

The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.

Faulkner and Hemingway

As ancient literature is generally characterized by its Father-heaviness and much medieval literature by its Spirit-heaviness, the great bulk of modern literature is characterized by a Son-heaviness. That is, it is driven not by an overarching idea or an inevitable fate, as is ancient literature, nor by the action of the story itself, as in much medieval literature, but, instead, it is driven by its characters. Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of the human condition is a useful descriptive of the state of the characters of modern literature: “We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.” These characters are not driven by and often have no reference to an overarching idea nor, often, as in Sartre’s own play No Exit, is there is any action, in the usual sense of the word, to speak of. Instead, what confronts the reader is a character or cast of characters thrust into a world they do not understand, acting (or not acting) according to their own whims, impulses, and quirks, which also they do not understand, and, finally, responsible (to whom?) for their own failings (by what standard?).

While the examples of this Son-heaviness in modern literature are multitudinous, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one of the finest examples. Nearly the entirety of the short novelette is consumed by the story of the elderly fisherman, Santiago, being pulled along in his boat by a large marlin in an attempt to capture the fish. He subjects himself to the suffering which ensues, including a terrible cut on his own hand, exhaustion, and dehydration, because he “was born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish.” He must follow the law of his own nature, though he does not understand it or how it came to be, nor is there anything finally redemptive within it.

Notably, Santiago is alone for the whole of his struggle with the fish, interacting only with himself and his personified marlin of his imagination. There is, so to speak, no one to witness his crucifixion and record his story. In the end, a group of tourists sees the remains of the marlin, after most of its body had been stolen away by sharks, lying on the beach and asks a waiter what it is. The waiter, unsure himself, responds by telling them, falsely, that it is “Eshark.”

Meanwhile, Santiago and his young boy assistant, Manolin, have returned to their usual course of living on scraps and trying in, often in vain, to catch the fish they feel compelled to chase after. Because there is only the drive of the characters, there is no final idea, logos, or Father-figure, which can make sense of all of this in the end and no Spirit, ethos, or activity, to enlighten the world about its meaning and its importance. There is a crucifixion with no redemption and no gospel. There is only a return to the norm, to a prolonged and enduring suffering.

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a remarkable example of modern literature because it simultaneously keeps its feet firmly planted within this paradigm while stepping outside of it and returning to an earlier order in which the three elements were brought together in more equal measures. The novel is divided into four parts, each of the first three under the direction of one of the elements and the final bringing them together into a near-perfect mixture.

The first part of the novel is told by Benjy, an intellectually disabled man whose narrative of events is often confusing in its nonlinear and ungrammatical structure. It is entirely pathos, or Spirit, driven. Benjy is something of a prophetic figure in that he possesses insights into future events which others lack. His narrative is filled with foreshadowing of the fates of the various members of his family. He vividly remembers seeing his sister, Caddy, who will eventually become a promiscuous young lady pregnant at her own wedding with the child of another man, with “muddy … drawers” while climbing a tree. So much does this event inform his perception of his sister that he continually identifies her with the smell of trees. Similarly, in Benjy’s olfactory-linked premonitions, his brother Quentin, who will later commit suicide by drowning himself, “smelled like rain.”

The tragedy of Benjy, however, is that he his mental handicap is so severe that he is nonverbal. Due to his inability to communicate, Benjy is unable to convey the content of his premonitions through any means but crying, which the others around him regard as a nuisance with no discernable meaning. The Spirit-driven nature of Benjy’s narrative allows him to possess special insights through apparent prophecy and discernment, but renders him incapable of communicating or even understanding his own gifts. With only pathos freed entirely of ethos and logos, there is no means of conveying the message and no grand narrative to place it into and give it meaning.

The second section of The Sound and the Fury is told from the perspective of Quentin, one of Benjy’s two brothers. Quentin’s narrative is ethos, or Son, driven, as Benjy’s is Spirit-driven. Early in his narrative, Quentin conveys much the same idea as Sartre concerning the aloneness of the individual in a world beyond his comprehension and control, saying, “it’s not when you realise that nothing can help you – religion, pride, anything – it’s when you realise that you dont need any aid.” Quentin’s narrative adheres the closest of the four narratives to the framework of modern literature in its Son-driven nature, including the obsessions with freedom and guilt, which manifest in Quentin as obsessions with perception and time.

Both themes are introduced early in Quentin’s narrative. The theme of time is the first introduced, only a few sentences into Quentin’s narrative, as he remembers his father’s admonition to “forget [time] now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” Shortly after, there is a veiled reference to Quentin as a Christ-figure in the modern sense of the term, as he remembers another statement of his father “that Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” Quentin, like Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea, will not be subject to a horrifying but brief and glorious crucifixion; instead, he will, like Santiago, be worn away by the inevitability of time, by his own listless and unsatisfactory freedom.

The theme of perception is most insightfully introduced through Quentin’s meditation on his observations of blacks in the North and how they differed from those whom he had grown up around in the South. He realizes that the blacks he encountered during his upbringing in the South had learned to behave in certain stereotyped ways in order to act in accordance with the preconceptions of the Southern whites with whom they interacted. “That was when I realised that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior;” he says, “a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.” His conclusion is that perception is reality. And what he desires to be in reality is a terrible sinner; therefore others must perceive him as such. To this end, Quentin continually attempts to convince others that he is far more sinful than he is in actuality. He confesses to his priest that he has engaged in incest, a crime of which he is not guilty, he lies to his sister about his sexual exploits, and finds joy in being falsely arrested for attempting to kidnap a young girl.

These two themes, time and perception, coalesce into Quentin’s obsessive desire to protect the virtue of his sister. Faulkner’s own commentary on Quentin in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury are particularly illuminating. Faulkner points out there that Quentin clung to “some concept of Compson honor precariously and (he knew well) only temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead as a miniature replica of all the whole vast globy earth may be poised on the nose of a trained seal.” Driven by this antiquated notion of honor, Quentin desired to become a great sinner that “he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires.” Quentin, then, is a man out of his own time. He clings to ideals of martyrdom and chivalry whose day had long sense passed. As a result, he clings to them in a way that dislocates them chronologically and reorients them focally. Whereas martyrdom and chivalry had had God and the Christian ideal at their center within their respective historical contexts, Quentin’s martyrdom and chivalrousness instead have only an unidentifiable and unconquerable drive which results in the will to self-destruction. Because the Father/logos and Spirit/pathos have been stripped from his perspective, Quentin is left with only the Son/ethos, he has the desire to do what is right, but without the guidance, meaning, or means only imbued by the Father and the Spirit.

The third narrative in The Sound and the Fury is that of Jason, the final of the three Compson brothers. Jason’s narrative exemplifies the third element, the Father, or logos, in literature. Jason’s Father-driven nature presents itself in his obsession with fulfilling his duties and his constant insistence that others fulfill theirs. Jason’s narrative hearkens back to the literature of the ancient world in its preoccupation with fate and destiny. As Aeneas, driven by his fate and his need to fulfill his duty, leaves the sorrowful and suicidal Dido in his wake in Virgil’s Aeneid, Jason’s drive to fulfill his duty leads to the further destruction of his family, as his young niece, Quentin, is driven from the family home and his brother, Benjy, is sent away to an insane asylum. Without the Son or the Spirit, the Father becomes a tyrant in Jason’s narrative as in ancient literature.

After presenting each of these three characters, each driven along by a single element of the three, Faulkner completes his quartet of narratives, apparently presented as a foursome in imitation of the four biblical evangelists, with a final section in which the narrative proceeds from the objective perspective of a disinterested observer who brings the three elements into harmony. This imitation of Shakespeare, however, is too late to prevent the destruction of the Compson family. Instead, the separation of the three elements that has predominated the narrative has resulted in a family that has self-destructed due to its imbalance.

The one source of hope presented throughout the novel is the black house servant Dilsey, referred to in the final sentence of the Appendix with the mysterious phrase “they endured.” Throughout the entire course of the decline and fall of the Compson family, it is only Dilsey who consistently bears suffering patiently and greets every situation, no matter how terrible, with a calm and self-sacrificing love. It is this Christ-like love which shines as the only point of potential redemption in the narratives which make up The Sound and the Fury. Though she remains on the margins throughout the novel, ignored by the members of the Compson family except insofar as she can be of use to their varied ends, it is Dilsey may be the greatest character in the novel. In her are combined in perfect harmony the Trinitarian admixture of Father/logos, Son/ethos, and Spirit/pathos, with a fourth element which binds the three together: self-sacrificing love.

Fatalism in Gilgamesh and Sophocles

Literature of the ancient world is saturated with what can be succinctly described as fatalism. Throughout, there is a definite sense that man is being perpetually driven toward a fate over which he has very little, indeed perhaps altogether no, control. This fate, of course, is death. In death, for the ancient mind, there is nothing of a redeeming or edifying character. Rather, death is a final and inevitable end of all human beings. In David R. Slavitt’s translation of Antigone, Creon, having sent the maiden Antigone away to die, wonders aloud, “Wailing? Complaining? It won’t make any difference or postpone death for even a moment. Why do people bother?” This sentiment, indicative of the character of Creon, is indicative of the nature of ancient literature generally. In the terminology of Dorothy L. Sayers, this obsession with death and destiny, and the inescapability of both, is to be identified with a fixation on the Idea, the Father of the Christian Trinity, whose presence, if not mediated through Energy and Power, Son and Spirit, becomes overbearing and oppressive. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex will serve as examples.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh first attempts to prevent the death of his friend Enkidu and finally tries to prevent his own death; both attempts, though heroic, are in vain. After a warning in a dream, Gilgamesh ventures into the forest to battle the terrifying monster Humbaba, who is slain as Enkidu repeatedly urges Gilgamesh to “finish him off, slay him, grind him up, that I may survive.” Enkidu, however, does not survive. Instead, he quickly begins to lament the arrogance of his actions in killing Humbaba, an act that challenged the authority of the gods and claimed for humans an undue equality with them. Soon after this, his hubris is punished by the gods with a fatal illness.

Gilgamesh reacts by desperately seeking to avoid his own death. “Shall I die too? Am I not like Enkidu?” he laments, “grief has entered my innermost being, I am afraid of Death.” He runs to Ut-napishtim, the only human who has been granted immortality by the gods, and begs Ut-naphishtim to help him avoid death to which one goes, according to Gilgamesh, “never to rise, ever again.” Ut-napishtim’s response to Gilgamesh, however, is to inform him that “Death is inevitable” for everyone. “Nobody sees Death,” says Ut-napishtim

“Nobody sees the face of Death,

Nobody hears the voice of Death.

Savage Death just cuts mankind down.

Sometimes we build a house, sometimes we make a nest,

But then brothers divide it upon inheritance.

Sometimes there is hostility in the land,

But then the river rises and brings flood-water.

Dragonflies drift on the river,

Their faces look upon the face of the Sun,

But then suddenly there is nothing

The sleeping and the dead are just like each other,

Death’s picture cannot be drawn.

The primitive man is as any young man.

When they blessed me,

The Anunnaki, the great gods, assembled;

Mammitum who creates fate decreed destinies with them.

They appointed death and life.

They did not mark out days for death,

But they did so for life.”

Even after this testimony to the inevitability of death, Ut-napishtim, at the relentless urging of Gilgamesh, offers Gilgamesh two tasks by which he may secure eternal life for himself. Both tasks, however, prove fruitless for Gilgamesh.

Before the conclusion of the Epic, Gilgamesh is given one last lecture on the unavoidability of death by the ghost of Enkidu. Enkidu’s words to Gilgamesh present a series of admonitions to avoid such activities as putting on clean clothing, putting on shoes, making noise while walking, and kissing a wife or a child. In the end, Enkidu’s advice to Gilgamesh is: the only way to avoid death is to not be human. Gilgamesh is drawn along toward death by a fate that is entirely out of his control and against his will, and there is nothing that even this greatest of men can do about it. To apply the terminology of Sayers and describe Gilgamesh in Christological categories, as the presence of the Son/Energy of this Epic, Gilgamesh is the Son who refuses to submit to the will of the Father. In spite of his struggle against death, Gilgamesh finds that, in the words of Slavitt’s translation of Antigone, “the power of Fate is strange and very strong. Neither wealth nor martial valor can stand against it.”

The same theme of the Son refusing to submit to the will of the Father is discernable in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. Upon learning that his fate was to “lie with my mother and bring forth children the world would hate to look at, and that I would be the murderer of the father who sired me,” Oedipus “left Corinth at once, … getting as far away as I could to prevent such terrible predictions from coming true.” It was through this self-imposed exile, however, that Oedipus stumbled into doing precisely what he had tried to avoid. Not realizing that either was his parent, he killed his father and married his mother. In running from his fate rather than confronting it, Oedipus had unwittingly run directly into it.

A different variation of the same theme is shown in Sophocles’ Antigone. Here, Sophocles presents a willing Son, “Antigone,” with a domineering and oppressive Father. Throughout the play, Creon, the Father-figure of the play, remains unwilling to waver in his stern decree that Antigone should be put to death for performing funerary rites for her brother, contrary to Creon’s desires. In his hubris, Creon even usurps the power of the gods in his claim that his decrees “apply both to the living and the dead.” Creon’s son, Haemon, attempts to reason with him, but Creon refuses to accede to Haemon and instead only hardens his determination to punish Antigone. The end result is the suicide of Antigone, Haemon, and Creon’s wife. Through his own despotism, Creon brings his entire family to ruin.

The eponymous character Antigone is the “Son” of the play, whose attitudes and activities contrast sharply with those of Creon as well as with Gilgamesh and Oedipus. Antigone chooses to do what is morally right by rendering the proper honors to her deceased brother and willingly faces the consequences of her actions. She knows full well before she disobeys Creon what the penalty will be and accepts it; speaking to her sister Ismene, who refuses to take part in Antigone’s plot, she acknowledges her responsibility and voices her willingness to submit to the consequences which will inevitably follow:

I am not trying to persuade you. No,

even if you were willing, I would not let you

join me in this now. Be what you are.

You have made your choice, as I have made mine. I will

bury my brother, and if I die, it shall be

with honor. He is my own; I will lie with my own,

not guilty of any crime, but pious, holy.

We are dead for a long time, and to death’s demands

there is no ending ever.

This willingness to submit to death and the inevitability of fate contrasts sharply with the fitful acquiescence of Gilgamesh and the nearly frantic attempts at escape by Oedipus. Antigone’s willing submission to the will of the Father lends an air of dignity in death and even works to, in a sense, redeem death.

There is a paradox in Antigone’s death in that while it remains dreadful and an object of antipathy, it nonetheless loses some of its ugliness and becomes a source of hope. Whereas the deaths of Gilgamesh and Oedipus invoke little else but terror, Antigone’s death invokes awe, a feeling which combines terror with wonder and even veneration. Both feelings are expressed, only a few lines apart, by the Second Chorister present for the condemnation of Antigone. Noting the sublime nature of Antigone’s death, the Second Chorister describes her to herself:

You go in honor and strength and your full beauty,

admired by all. No diminution by sickness

or disfiguring wounds of battle will have touched you.

Of your own free will you make your stately descent.

Only a few lines later, the same chorister verbalizes the dread and sorrow of death as well as the sense of helplessness in the face of its inevitability in another statement directed to Antigone:

You have braved all human limits and now confront

the lofty altar of Justice. Poor suffering girl!

You are punished perhaps for the crimes of your famous father.

Even this statement lamenting the demands of a fate beyond Antigone’s control, however, reveals the redemptive nature of her death. Antigone has “braved all human limits and now confront[s]” the final and mysterious end of all human life. She has, in the words of William F. Lynch, completed her “passage through the totally human.” In so doing, rather than allowing death to rob her of meaning, as did Gilgamesh and Oedipus before her, she instead imbues death with new meaning and becomes a source of meaning even in death. It is only because she is “punished perhaps for the crimes of [her] famous father” that this is redemption is possible. She is an innocent who willingly suffers for the sins of others. What St. Paul once asked might also be asserted of the death of Antigone: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.” Antigone chose to fulfill the law and to willingly face the punishment brought on by the transgressions of the law committed by her forebears. In so doing, she transformed and redeemed death. In Antigone Sophocles has transcended his Father-ridden world and offered a glimpse, however slight and incomplete, of the time when “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Plato and Aristotle on Drama and Poetry

Plato and Aristotle differ from each other in some important ways in their views of poetry and drama. The primary difference between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle on the subject is in what each considers the function of these arts. It is from this point of departure that the rest of their disagreements on the subject arise.

Plato sees the primary function of poetry as the presentation of examples which the viewer is intended to, or inevitably does, imitate. Plato believes that the viewer is seduced into entering into a state of empathy and even identification with the characters witnessed on the stage or told about in the story. As a result, the viewer comes to sympathize with subjects for which he should rather feel “disgust” than “enjoyment and admiration.”1  This delight in entering into the fiction being portrayed, says Plato, leads us to imitate such behavior because “what we feel for other people must infect what we feel for ourselves.”2  According to Plato, then, “bad taste in the theatre may insensibly lead you into becoming a buffoon at home.”3  In other words, one comes through the fictions of poetry and drama to identify with the bad behavior of bad characters and so to behave badly and to become bad oneself.

As a remedy to this potentially insidious influence of poetry, Plato recommends banning many of the great classics of Greek theater from his ideal state, including even those written by Homer. He orders instead that “the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men.”4  In other words, Plato believes that, because the hearers of poetry naturally imitate what they hear, they should only be allowed to hear poems which incite them to piety and to the imitation of the great deeds of good men.

Aristotle views the function of poetry and drama quite differently. According to Aristotle, the primary function of these arts is katharsis. Through viewing a tragedy, says Aristotle, the viewer is “accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing [katharsis] of these [negative] states and feelings.”5  For Aristotle as for Plato, drama is imitation, but Aristotle’s ideas concerning who is doing the imitating and who is being imitated are very different from those of Plato. Whereas Plato believed that viewers imitate the characters they see on the stage, Aristotle instead sees the actors as the imitators of plausible but ultimately fictional events. The viewers share in this imitation and, as a result, are cleansed through the “pity and fear” they feel for and with the characters. The viewers, then, vicariously participate in the tragedy and are, in fact, motivated to the opposite course of action from imitating what they have seen. This view led Aristotle to declare that “poetry is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history.”6  Rather than merely recounting the facts of a matter, says Aristotle, poetry purifies the viewer and prepares him to choose the right course of action.

For this reason, Aristotle believed that the persons portrayed in drama should be neither of an especially good character nor of an especially bad character, but somewhere in between these two extremes. The individual portrayed should be, according to Aristotle, “the sort of person who is not surpassing in virtue and justice, but does not change into misfortune through bad character and vice.”7  In other words, he should be normal, relatable, and sympathetic. He should be someone with whom the average viewer of the drama can easily identify. And his “misfortune” should result from “some missing of the mark,” a single error, rather than from some connatural or ineradicable defect of character. For similar reasons, he also expressed an apparent disdain for biography, recommending that poets tell the story of a single part of a person’s life rather than the whole of it at once.

All of this stands in stark contrast to Plato’s view. Whereas Plato preferred the biographies of great men of history in order to inspire others to imitate their great deeds, Aristotle recommends instead the recounting of particular incidents involving errors committed by fairly average men in order to allow the viewer to participate vicariously in these errors and so avoid them in the future. Where Plato and Aristotle do agree, however, is in one basic but rather important assumption; they agree that the arts of poetry and drama have a significant effect on those who view them and on the societies of which they are a part. Although they disagree on what this effect is and how this effect is accomplished, the starting point for both is essentially identical. As such, each sees the issue of poetry as of great importance. In spite of this common beginning, however, their respective views diverge significantly from each other.

1 Plato, “Poets Banned from the Ideal State,” from The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, 203.

2 Ibid., 203-204.

3 Ibid., 204.

4 Ibid., 204.

5 Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 6, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2006), 26.

6 Ibid., ch. 9, 32.

7 Ibid., ch. 13, 37.

Defining the sublime

Merely defining and identifying sublimity is an “enterprise” Longinus himself identifies as “arduous.” In writing On the Sublime, however, Longinus took upon himself the herculean tasks of defining what the sublime is and providing those who would evoke it in their own artistic or literary productions with the knowledge of how this can be accomplished. That he applied considerable ability and erudition to his treatment of the sublime is beyond doubt. Whether he was able to fully accomplish either task, however, is debatable.

Longinus comes very close to offering a precise definition of the sublime in part VII of his work. There, he says that “the effect” of the sublime is “to dispose the soul to high thoughts” and “leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey.” Even with these guides in mind, however, Longinus is forced to resort to the perception and state of the audience as the ultimate judge of what is or is not sublime. He says, for example, that “our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.” In an effort to overcome the idea that the sublime is entirely subjective, which idea might arise from this recourse to individual feeling, Longinus goes on to add that “those examples of sublimity” are “fine and genuine which please all and everybody.” Sublimity, then, must be defined as a feeling, something that each individual must ultimately experience for himself or herself, but which each individual who partakes of a certain piece of art experiences. The sublime, then, is simultaneously individual and universal, and therefore nearly impossible to define precisely.

From this, Longinus continues to identify five components of a sublime work. According to Longinus, the first two of these five components are “the power of forming great conceptions” and “vehement and inspired passion.” These two components he identifies as “innate,” in contrast to the other three which he identifies as “partly the product of art.” These remaining three Longinus lists as “the due formation of figures,” “noble diction,” and “dignified and elevated composition.” It is tempting to see this list of components as a kind of recipe. These are the ingredients and they need only be added together in the right proportions to produce a work which might evoke the feeling of the sublime as Longinus describes it. Longinus, however, preempts such a view of his list by identifying the “common foundation” of all of these components as “the gift of discourse, which is indispensable.” The ability to write in such a style, to properly mix these components and produce a suitably sublime concoction, then, is a matter of chance, fate, or providence. Whichever of these three one prefers to designate as the giver, what is certain is that the ability is a gift rather than the product of intention and volition.

On both counts, defining what the sublime is and identifying the means by which it is evoked, Longinus gives some alluring detail but finally snatches away the prize. In the end, even a mind like that of Longinus seems unable to offer any definitive definition of the sublime and how it can be evoked. In fact, the closest he comes to offering such finality is in defining what is low and allowing the sublime to stand in contrast to that.

In part XLI, Longinus offers a clear description of a work of music that is low and outside “the sphere of the sublime.” There, he criticizes music in which the rhythm is so predictable as to allow the listeners to “stamp their feet in time with the speaker.” “In like manner,” he says, “those words are destitute of sublimity which” are too simple, too short, or do not fit together well enough. In this short paragraph, Longinus describes, from his perch nearly two millennia ago, nearly all modern popular music. In fact, his description of low music can be applied equally as well to most modern books, television, and movies, in which simple words, uncomplicated sentences, and themes lacking entirely in complexity and ambiguity combine to produce a plethora of entirely predictable, flaccid, and often identical endings.

It is remarkably difficult to explain the difference between high and low culture to an audience, which includes most modern Americans, which has known almost only the low and cannot understand or appreciate the distinction between high and low, much less why one should be deemed superior to the other. Longinus struggled to explain this to a very different audience 2000 years ago, and it seems it can only be more difficult to do so today. Like Longinus, anyone today who wishes to make such a case must ultimately prove it through reference to experience. There is a distinct difference between reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and reading any given book at all from the “Romance” section of a bookstore. The latter might temporarily incite the reader’s lusts but will quickly be laid aside and forgotten about. The former will be a source of reflection, joy, terror, doubt, assurance, and interest for the attentive reader for perhaps an entire lifetime. Similarly, there is a distinct difference between listening to Handel’s Messiah and nearly anything at all that is played on most radio stations in the United States. There are many popular songs that are recalled as the song that defined a summer or a particular holiday. Most will be forgotten almost entirely after just a few months or years. Works like Messiah, however, are fittingly remembered as among the best pieces of music that mankind has ever produced in all of its history. The difference between works that are sublime and that are not, as well as what the sublime itself is, may be difficult to define precisely, yet the experience of any of these is more than sufficient evidence that there is an important distinction that must be made.

1 Longinus, On the Sublime, VI, p. 4.
2 VII.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 VIII.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 XLI.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.

Modern Literature and the Human Condition

Liberal Catholic theologian Hans Küng once described the modern history of thought as “man’s great disillusionment through a series of humiliations” (On Being a Christian 37). Küng’s list of such humiliations includes Copernicus’s discovery which displaced man from the center of the cosmos, Marx’s discovery that human societies are often shaped by forces outside of the direct perception and control of human beings, Darwin’s discovery that man did not stand apart from the lower animals as something altogether different and superior but was in fact contiguous with them in his biological development and identical in his origins, and, finally, Freud’s discovery that man’s conscious thoughts and desires were often the product of parts of his mind of which even he was often unaware and over which he had very little control. In short, according to Küng, man’s modern humiliation was the product of his displacement from the center and zenith of creation accompanied by the realization that he in fact did not have as much control over his world or himself as he had previously assumed. The coup de grâce, according to Küng, came in the form “of fascism and Nazism … which cost mankind an unparalleled destruction of human values and millions of human lives” and demonstrated both man’s fragility in the hands of impersonal forces under whose control he acted and impersonal institutions which he created as well as his own capacity for inhumanity and destructiveness (ibid.). This disillusionment and humiliation of man by his own discoveries and atrocities generated the distinctive marks and emphasis of modern literature, which might most accurately be called existentialist, in its focus on the subjective thoughts and feelings of individuals, its suspicious attitude toward any collectivity or institution, and in its frequent representations of the isolation and disorientation of the individual within an indifferent world.

Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s 1963 short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits all of these qualities and themes which predominate in modern literature. In “Zaabalawi,” Mahfouz brings together the existentialist concern with man’s subjectivity and isolation, suspiciousness of traditional and established structures, and the dreamlike quality of descriptions of experience with the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and applicability and yet uniquely Islamic in its context and content. The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. The identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction from the existentialist themes upon which the author wishes to focus. Preventing certain characters from developing independent existence and personality is a common practice in existentialist literature which acts both to exhibit man’s state as subject to forces outside of his own control as well as to allow the reader to identify as closely as possible with the main character . Meursault, the main character in Albert Camus’s 1942 novel The Plague, for instance, through whose first-person narrative the story is told, is rarely given the opportunity to record individual impressions, thoughts, and ideas, but instead has almost the entirety of his internal content explained and exhibited through the external actions in which he participates and which occur around him. In his essay “The Humanism of Existentialism,” Jean-Paul Sartre, the twentieth century philosopher whose ideas are most readily identified with the existentialist movement, made this point in existentialist thought especially clear, writing “man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life” (Essays in Existentialism 47).

Although it is not a piece of existentialist literature in the strict sense of the term, Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” also demonstrates a similar approach to its main character while also adopting a unique element that makes it stand apart from similar literature. Melville’s story is in similar in its approach in that Bartleby, the title character, is experienced only through his words and actions. Only at the end of the story, and even then through a secondhand report which may be little more than rumor, does the reader gain any measure of insight into Bartleby’s inner motivations, thoughts, and feelings. The story is told entirely but another person who is observing Bartleby rather than in the first-person or by the disembodied voice of an omniscient narrator. What makes the story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” unique, however, is that Bartleby says and does remarkably little in the story. This scarcity of deed and word, of course, is what makes Bartleby important. He stands out precisely because of his destitution of action and language. What makes him noteworthy is that he refuses to interact with others in the usual way, to follow the customs and conventions dictated by mainstream society with its social demands and cultural norms and mores.

In the case of Mahfouz’s “Zaabalawi,” the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy” (Mahfouz 885). Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Soren Kierkegaard, the founding figure of existentialist philosophy, as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life. In other words, it is the existential condition of modern man whose origins and influence Küng traced.

Mahfouz’s story also demonstrates the suspicion of established institutions and collectivities in its treatment of certain figures. The search for Zaabalawi, a symbol for God, which the story describes consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind (Mahfouz 885). Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again (“Religion”). Aquinas’s statement and Mahfouz’s story alike indicate a lack of trust in and a turning away from institutional edifices in favor of a personal, more intimate, and more experiential approach to religion and to human life in general.

Finally, Mahfouz’s story exhibits the dreamlike quality which preponderates in existentialist literature. The story has a dreamlike quality throughout as the main character makes his way through the complicated corridors of an Arab urban center, visiting various people and questioning them on the whereabouts of Zaabalawi. When the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God, in line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the universe (Mahfouz 890). The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis. The dreaminess and disorientation in existentialist literature are perhaps most evident in the works of the early twentieth century writer Franz Kafka. His various novels and stories include themes such as humans turning into ugly giant creatures and people being tried, convicted, and punished on charges which no one will tell them about or allow them to defend themselves against. Mahfouz’s short story also bears another striking similarity with many of Kafka’s works in that it has no finality in the ending. Rather than attaining his goal, the story of the main character in “Zaabalawi” instead “ends” with his continuing pursuit of the distant and elusive but nonetheless necessary goal which he craves to attain.

These examples of the focus on subjectivity and individuality, suspicion for institutions, and disorientation in modern literature represent only a small sample of the attention these themes have been given in the nineteenth and, especially, the twentieth centuries. Even in stories that are not explicitly and obviously part of the existentialist movement reflect these themes. The effects of the so-called Copernican Revolution, which was followed swiftly by the equally upsetting revolutions of Marx, Darwin, Freud, and other similar thinkers, run throughout modern thought and are reflected in the way that stories are written and told in the modern world.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Random House, 2012.

Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Norwich: SCM Press, 2012.

Mahfouz, Naguib. “Zaabalawi.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 884-892.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. Vol. E. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 296-321.

“Religion: The Case of Aquinas.” Time. 15 April 1974. Web. 7 April 2013.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Humanism of Existentialism.” Essays in Existentialism. New York: Citadel Press, 1993.