Monday, March 16, 2009

Imperialism and Washington Irving: Some Types of Epic

Having in earlier posts described imperial timescales, in contrast to republican timescales, I'll shorthand the distinction now by saying that imperial time presupposes immemorial custom and, by the prescriptive nature of custom, reflexively claims ethical primacy. The politics of epic writing are such: The Julio-Claudian dynasty was willing to cede laureate status to a secondary poet (Virgil over Horace) to get themselves an Aeneid. Virgil got it and was copied for it.

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram,
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio; genus unde
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae.

In Camoes' Lusiads (epic of a burgeoning imperial Portugal) becomes:

As armas e os barões assinalados
Que, da ocidental praia lusitana,
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados,
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo reino, que tanto sublimaram.

In empire, new reign must be timeless, sublime reign, which the fates have indeed ordained. It's worth noting that unlike Homer's Odyssey, no time is set for the events which take place during the Aeneid. The Greeks had no imperial scaffold to construct. The Odyssey is nearer the tradition of 16c, itinerant Cossack bards transmitting Dumas, or military poems with religious undertones.

Ostap Veresai, one of the last Slavonic kobzar, or blind bards, from Poltava region, Ukraine.

In this rather roundabout way, I want to focus this lens of epic imperialism on Washington Irving's Diedrich Knickerbocker's 'History of New York,' which, much like Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, begins at the very beginning, when the world was yet an 'inanimate mass, floating in the vast etherial ocean of infinite space,' shaped, as it were, like an oblate orange. The history of the Empire State cannot be discussed without positioning it in a vast, preposterous cosmogony. Knickerbocker later both attributes and does not attribute the peopling of America to the issue of a globetrotting Noah, under the protection of St. Nicholas.

The preposterous tone seems to work to hedge its speaker: While inflating the absolute, unquestionable authority of empire and imperial legality, the contours or consequence of America, esp. New York, as empire are impossible to determine. Dutch patriarchs are forebears to D Knickerbocker but not with the emotional investment evident in the Persian imperialist, Xerxes, who wept when surveying his army, knowing that not one of them would be alive in one hundred years, or on the timescale of empire. This is to say that Diedrich seems to invoke an imperial sense of time invested but allow it to balloon with republican sensibility, ie. with no emotive sensitivity to its antient lineaments.

Elsewhere, Irving on the Mutability of Literature and the Sovereignty of the Present:

'For my part,' I continued, 'I consider this mutability of language a wise precaution of Providence for the benefit of the world at large, and of authors n particular. To reason from analogy, we daily behold the varied and beautiful tribes of vegetables springing up, flourishing, adorning the fields for a short time, and then fading into dust, to make way for their successors. Were not this the case, the fecundity of nature would be a grievance instead of a blessing. The earth would groan with rank and excessive vegetation, and its surface become a tangled wilderness.'

The mutability of language and literature itself becomes forensic evidence for the sovereignty and responsibility of the individual in time. The Empire State, in this lens, seems rather an empire of the democratic individual. That Irving continuously resists affixing himself to a single pseudonym or personality (Geoffrey Crayon, Gent; Diedrich Knickerbocker; etc.) further suggests an internal, psychic democracy, or mental republic of varied, indeterminable, subjective agents. More on psychic republicanism soon.

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