The Pulse (B.C): In the Dark Water 5
Back to Black
When I get to the exam — in precisely two hours and fifty-eight minutes — I have to remember everything. Otherwise the Inquisitor, a master of the Ancient Texts, will know that I’m only a tourist. He’ll know that I haven’t gone into the Well of Omniscient Oblivion, where the Fates hover and Odin keeps his solitary court. He’ll suspect that I haven't interviewed a single mermaid, let alone talked to a rheinmaiden.
I must also remember to be diplomatic, to suggest ever so gently to Old Rex of the Brittle Dinosaur Bones that his Greek-centred view of the universe needs a revision. I’m not thinking of Prufrock’s “hundred visions and revisions, / Before the taking of a toast and tea.” All I want is to give the windmills a break from Don Quixote. All I want is to get The Epic off its high horse.
Old Rex thinks that The Epic (always with a capital T and a capital E) starts in Greece and represents everything civilization has to offer. To him, The Epic was born in the Mycenaean Dawn of Time. It sailed, like Odysseus with a strong wind behind him, into the fair cities of Europe. It sailed up the Tiber and o’er the Alps; up the Danube and across the English Channel; up the Thames and into the bosom of Queen Elizabeth the First. Sir Walter Raleigh was by her side, Shakespeare was sighing o’er the grave of Chaucer, and Milton was hovering in the wings.
The problem is that angels don’t seem to hover much these days. Poets even less.
Around 1600, Don Quixote espied a fair castle, with four turrets and pinnacles of shining silver, a drawbridge and gleaming moat. Don Quixote cantered toward it on his majestic steed Rocinante. He had come on his epic journey to defend Christendom, the honour of virginity, and the confraternity of knights. He saw two gentle damsels, and addressed them with valiant words of chivalry: “Your ladyships need not fly or fear any rudeness, for that it belongs not to the order of knighthood which I profess to offer to anyone, much less to highborn maidens as your appearance proclaims you to be.”
But the gentle damsels were ladies of easy virtue. To put it mildly, they didn’t need his help. The innkeeper eyed his mark, good-humouredly. The castle was in fact an inn.
Later in the story, Don Quixote attacks a puppet theatre, still unable to tell fable from fact.
For the last seven months Old Rex has been telling us that The Epic presents us with Civilization on a golden platter, complete with Nike wings and winking cherubs. It gives us Meaning, with a capital M — a perfect fusion of Classical and Christian worlds.
I remember him looking out the window and sighing, while Cynthia sat in her torn jeans on the other side of the room, smirking. He filled his chest with air (just as Dante filled his sails with the fair winds of Grace) and said to the birds darting beyond the sill: “The Epic is what breathed life into Tennyson’s Ulysses. It’s what carried the Truths of Greece from the Old World into the Modern World, filled the sails, ran the horses, pumped the steam. It’s what Prufrock saw, but didn’t have the courage to grasp. The Train was waiting at the station, but Prufrock couldn’t mind the gap. But you, my young acolytes, are braver than he. Breathe in The Epic’s pure serene! Don’t be afraid of the abyss beneath your feet! Just jump on board! Attention au départ!”
Old Rex was on a roll. Or on the rails, rolling full steam, whatever metaphor you prefer. “Other professors will tell you that Nietzsche and Sartre are right to protest against the Epic’s Overwhelming Meaning. These godless professors of the Dark Arts — professors of German and French philosophy, with names like Von Trapp and le Conte d’Abîme — will tell you that you’re right not to get on board, because the old Epic train no longer runs. Or the train leads nowhere, having lost its way, among the finches and canaries of the Somerset coalfields. Of course the train leads nowhere if you strip it of all its glory — if you decouple the finest carriages, once brimming with Tuscan wine and beakers winking at the brim. O for a beaker full of the warm South, / Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, / With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stainéd mouth; / That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim.”
“I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott,” by John Waterhouse, 1915.
Old Rex was in another country. The damsels were waving at him from the castle gate. He straightened his back, and continued: “No one appreciates history anymore. No one remembers the train carriages coming north, lavish with the beauties culled from Athens to Dunhuang. Of course it seems like an empty train if you swap its glory for the latest Silk Route cargo of Chinese junk.”
Old Rex looked uneasily at the seven or eight Chinese faces in the classroom. He realized that he had no idea where they came from. Shanghai? Hong Kong? Saskatoon? But that was not what he meant. That was not it, at all. Filling his lungs once again, he concluded with the peerless wording of the Bard: “Without The Epic’s Grand Fusion, humanity is nothing but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
From the footlights an echo drifted across the room: “Nothing but a poor player, indeed. A tale told by an idiot, signifying … whatever.”
Cynthia stood up and addressed the class: “Didn’t all that Grand Fusion stuff go out with Robert Plant and the Fruit Grinders? With all those references to Lord of the Rings and Mordor, and all that rock and roll junk? Your obsession with Meaning is, frankly, meaningless.”
Cynthia stepped toward the middle of the room, and made several turns to size up her audience. A light perfume swept through the still air as her skirt trailed along the floor. What was that scent, peach? With her cinnamon hair and ruby mouth, she looked like Sigrdrífa rising from the fields.
It was as if she cast light from a magic lantern, exposing the old, worn-out doctrines, projecting the nerves of dinosaur brains in variegated patterns on the classroom walls. She continued: “There is no land of Mordor. There is no Sauron. No Gandalf.” Eyeing the wispy crop of male English majors in the room, she added, “And, I’m sorry to say, no Strider in a ten-gallon hat either.”
She looked down at her Norton Anthology, then looked up and asked, “What do you read, my lord?” Looking down again at the textbook, she responded to her own question, “Words, words, words … for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards…” She looked directly at the smooth young faces around her, which were stunned by her impish bravery. “We’ve all paid our tuition fees. 7,000 dollars a year. 38,000 dollars a year if you have the indecency to come from somewhere else.”
(Old Rex looked at the Chinese faces. Where were they from?)
“Do you know what they paid 40 years ago, all those hippies who became yuppies, back in the age of the dinosaurs? 800 dollars. 800 dollars for five full-year courses. That’s 80 bucks for a four-month course. And what do we pay? 620 dollars for the same course. I can imagine a Golden Age, but I don’t see any Stairway to Heaven. Do you? And they’ve raped the planet to boot.”
To emphasize her point, Cynthia kicked over an empty chair with one of her army boots, which she wore without socks, the ivory pinkness of her leg a shocking contrast to the black leather and big silver eyes. Her violent movement startled Old Rex, who had slowly been edging himself into a corner and behind a curtain, as if he were an attendant lord, whose only job was to start a scene or two.
The chair was lying on its side, so Cynthia kicked it onto its back, unfurled her Latin Quarter scarf, and settled it over the deceased corpse. “No more looming ladies behind the veils! Let the Lady of Shallott drift down the river! Let her join Rapunzel and Ophelia, locked in male fantasies of yesteryear!”
“Penelope, she should have tossed her loom away — and gone out looking for Sappho.”
In addition to being a militant lesbian eco-feminist, Cynthia was also an actress, and had starred in productions of Ionesco and Sartre. Looking down at the wooden corpse of the chair, she intoned in a mock-priestly voice, “Deus est, quod valde dolendum, mortuus. I’m afraid the Epic is dead. I don’t see any Grand Fusion here. Just Old White Men’s bones. Skulls and crossbones, and not a pirate in sight.”
Looking up at the birds darting for cover in the trees, she concocted an impromptu mix of Camus and Amy Winehouse: “It used to be that meaning was like water flowing between our fingers, but we kept rolling the boulder up the hill anyway. But now it’s all going back to black. Life is like a pipe and we’re all tiny pennies rolling up the walls inside.” Her words lit a fire in the eyes of her classmates, especially the budding poets, Apollonian and Sapphic. She shrugged, slouched back to her chair, and sat down.
From behind the curtain, Old Rex saw King Sisyphus complaining to Persephone on the banks of the Styx. Then he saw the winged god Morpheus committing suicide in his own river of dreams. Old Rex cowered behind the arras, fearing that what Cynthia said about Camus might apply to Prufrock — and to the Epic Express as it sailed through the station.
Old Rex didn’t know what it meant to be a tiny penny rolling up the walls of a pipe, but it didn’t sound good. His uncertainty made him feel all the more out of touch. It was as if his star student — whose first paper conflated Lysistrata and eco-feminism — was shining a spotlight on his balding head and was daring him to walk back onto the centre stage.
Cynthia can afford to be right — and to be dramatic and sarcastic. She isn’t an English major and she doesn’t need a reference letter to get into grad school. If Old Rex fails her because he doesn’t like her politics or her demeanour, she can slough it off or tear him down. Either way, she wins. I, on the other hand, want to get a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and can’t afford to paint Old Rex into a corner. I spent ten years preparing for university — making money, seeing the world, and reading everything I could get my hands on. I worked for three years on an oil derrick, travelled and worked for six years, and then worked another year planting trees in the waste land of northern Alberta. I remain determined not only to make my way in the dark forests of Academia, but to plant my own little trees along the way.
In brief, I can’t afford to put Old T-Rex into a rage. The meteors will come in their time. I just have to stand and wait. Or, as my grandmother used to say, bide-a-wee.
Cynthia can also afford to be sarcastic because she doesn’t relate to the things Old Rex says. She isn’t interested in the past, except to point out all the damage it’s done to women and the environment. Of course, she’s absolutely right. Yet on the other hand, the past has more than those two things. Like Theodore Roethke’s woman, the past is a bright container and men can only marvel at the shapes it might contain. Most writers in the past didn’t worry about the status of women or the state of the environment, except in regard to what they could build or pillage, make love to or seduce. No wonder Cynthia’s interests are different from mine. No wonder That’s not what she meant. That’s not it, at all.
Cynthia can also afford to scoff at Old Rex’ capitalized Meaning. I, on the other hand, cower in the long shadows of the Ideal. If only such a Meaning existed! If only Nietzsche and Camus weren’t right! What a relief it would be if God — or even aliens — came down to Earth and showed us that oblivion wasn’t where we’re headed. To die, perforce to dream! To cross the border into that country beyond whose bourn no traveller returns — ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
If only there was no Voltaire and no Age of Reason, no geology and no genetics. If only there were no monkeys haunting us from within.
If only there was no Byron, joyfully taking apart the old world, in which reason could still accommodate a Great Chain of Being, and where God could still say, “Let Newton Be! and all was Light.” If only there was no Don Juan, with its opening promise of an Epic Plan — and its echoing laughter at any reader who saw Its silver outline along the edges of a cloud.
My poem's epic, and is meant to be
Divided in twelve books; each book containing,
With love, and war, a heavy gale at sea,
A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,
New characters; the episodes are three:
A panoramic view of Hell's in training,
After the style of Virgil and of Homer,
So that my name of Epic's no misnomer.
All these things will be specified in time,
With strict regard to Aristotle's rules,
The Vade Mecum of the true sublime,
Which makes so many poets, and some fools:
Prose poets like blank-verse, I'm fond of rhyme,
Good workmen never quarrel with their tools;
I've got new mythological machinery,
And very handsome supernatural scenery.
Of course, Byron had no intention of writing twelve books, like Homer and Virgil, or three episodes, like Dante. Indeed, he died while writing the 17th canto. His mock-advertisement for “supernatural scenery” makes fun of a holy host of poets, from Homer and Dante to Coleridge and Wordsworth, with their natural supernaturalism and their mystical spots in time. Layering absurd advertisement on absurd advertisement, he then suggests that his epic hero, Don Juan, is an actual person, verified by tradition and art:
There's only one slight difference between
Me and my epic brethren gone before,
And here the advantage is my own, I ween,
(Not that I have not several merits more,
But this will more peculiarly be seen);
They so embellish, that 'tis quite a bore
Their labyrinth of fables to thread through,
Whereas this story's actually true.
If any person doubt it, I appeal
To history, tradition, and to facts,
To newspapers, whose truth all know and feel,
To plays in five, and operas in three acts;
All these confirm my statement a good deal,
But that which more completely faith exacts
Is, that myself, and several now in Seville,
Saw Juan's last elopement with the Devil.
If only there was no imposter Manchegan, talking to the young ladies after the play, assuring them over a very dry sherry, “Yes, I saw him in the theatre, he was as real as you or I. I tell you, Don Juan is alive and well and living in Seville!”
If only there was no seductive Byronic humour in the face of the splintering scaffolds, the burning timbers of the French Revolution, and the smouldering ecclesiastical ruins of Varg Vikernes. If only there was no Manfred arguing with the echoes of the Old World on the peak of the Jungfrau.
If only Byron had kept his mouth shut.
But then again, If Onlies are for dreamers. Or, as Keats put it, fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.