Go to epic
(approximately five pages.)
In "Phantoms of Romantic Nationalism," Roger Abrahams wrote
that "The stuff that folklorists study is human accomplishment"
(JAF,Winter 93, p. 5). This was very well put. However,
to avoid conflict with other nations, accomplishment
needs to be framed so as to stress what has been created,
formed, invented, as opposed to who needed to be pushed aside
in order to do this. Another way out of conflict is to stress
a common obstacle or goal: "Relationships between men who are
socially distant from each other, but who share a common purpose,
may be so harmonious as to transcend caste boundaries"
(Oral Epics in India [henceforth, OEI], edited by
Stuart Blackburn, Peter Claus, Joyce Flueckiger, and Susan Wadley,
p. 190). Differences need not be ignored, but they can be framed
as being complementary.
In "Phantoms of Romantic Nationalism," Abrahams also points
out that e-mail is an ironic medium of communication: the senders
and readers are faceless, and so the medium is resistant to authority.
I would add that videoconferencing, on the other hand, is heroic--
one is declaring and exposing oneself, and one can be here and there
at almost the same time, with one giant step.
The epic hero/heroine (and by association, the performer of epic)
is a half-breed: partly of the human community, partly of
the gods / the divine / the dead. Thus, his loyalties are divided.
The epic hero is a visitor among normal humans:
normal humans can never be more than pathetic, ineffective
sheep to him. He can never fully be one of them--he does not
want to be. It is a lonely position. The loneliness can
only be assuaged through heroic action: fulfillment of his
own destiny is his great end: his destiny is his bride,
whom he must win.
"For epic heroes, death involves a subtle transition rather
than a clear defeat. Death leads to the emergence of new
divine forces" (OEI,p. 160).
The immensity of the epic hero's tasks at times seems
overwhelming to him. At such times, the only thing to do
may be to remain immobile and isolated. But the epic hero's
perception of the insurmountable immensity of his project
is temporary: when the epic hero gets warmed up, the impossible
and the magical transpire. It is all about pacing...
Epic heroic stories may begin slowly or travel through
slow stretches, but when the time comes for action, watch out!
Heroic epic as a genre strikes me as quite manic-depressive-y.
How does a story change when it becomes popular over
a wider area? In Indian oral epic, "When a story spreads
beyond its local base by attracting new patronage outside
the small group that originally worshipped the dead hero,
the predominance of the death motif wanes. Added are
1) the hero's supernatural birth, and 2) identification
of the local hero with a pan-Indian epic hero" (OEI,p. 21).
As this happens, "The spirit-possession aspect of the
performance loses strength because the intimacy and
sense of community that this ritual requires weakens"
Performance of epic has been especially popular in times
of transition, transformation, and growth. Epic seems to be
a genre of incipient nationhood. Epic stories often occur
in a feudal world in which families and clans confront each other
in the struggle for territory and kingship (OEI,p. 183).
"Caste heroes represent their caste-mates and champion
their causes in village affairs...in an arena in which
the local caste group organizes its efforts to raise itself
in the eyes of the larger community" (OEI,p. 72).
The public world in these feudal societies--that is, the beginnings
of "a public"--is "essentially a male world... The pattern which
emerges from these narratives reveals a powerful fear of women.
Celibate women and widows are dangerous and often destructive.
Women as sexual beings are a direct threat to men's source of strength.
Not even epic mothers are entirely to be relied on... The virgin bride
in the north Indian Alha epic avenges the murder of her husband
by killing and decapitating her own brother. She then proposes
to become a sati: she insists that her funeral pyre be made out of
the wooden pillars of her father*s audience hall. When there is
argument about who should light the pyre, she loosens her hair,
which bursts into flames--with her burning hair she lights the
pyre herself" (OEI,p. 182).
"Goddesses are relatively unimportant in the Mahabharata
and the Ramayana (the two great pan-Indian epics), but they
play a major role in many vernacular traditions" (OEI,p. 16).
Similarly, Margaret Beissinger reports in "Epic, Gender,
and Nationalism: The Development of Nineteenth Century Balkan
Literature" (in Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World:
The Poetics of Community [henceforth, ETCW], edited by Margaret
Beissinger, Jane Tylus, and Susanne Woffard, pages 69-86),
that the strong female characters, "female helpers, clever maidens,
and spirited women that figured (sometimes quite prominently)
in oral epic were not present in the early literary epic
of the Balkan world--precisely because they were not seen
as effective vehicles for promoting or elaborating the national agenda.
Oral epic, as opposed to literary imitations, reflected the greater
diversity of roles that women played in traditional society and
thus offered a multifaceted portrayal of womanhood. Literary epic had,
after all, a political subtext. It either presented or alluded to
women who could aid in the advancement of this subtext or neglected
them altogether" (ETCW,p. 81).
In India (especially southern India) each village tends
to have its own resident goddess. Her story, the story
of what she has done locally, is told at her shrine.
"In some cases, the chief function of the goddess is to protect
the heroes... In other cases, she is less benevolent and incarnates
herself to bring about a war of destruction that annihilates the
heroes" (OEI,p. 182). There is a very wide variety of performance
styles and contexts around these goddess stories: tellers include
female shamans, female ascetics, and female professional performers.
Is this sometimes performance of epic? Further research is needed
in order to give a sensible answer.
A single epic story is often presented in a variety
of performance styles. "Prose" (speaking) sections often
provide narrative development and explanation of the narrative,
helping the audience members to comprehend what is going on.
Prose may used to interpret or recapitulate a song, or state
who has been speaking or singing. Songs are often sung from
a character's point of view, expressing his/her emotions.
In one epic performance tradition (of Karimpur, north India),
a performer of epic can choose from between no less than
twenty named song styles. The choice of a melody is here
also a choice of a genre of delivery, as each melody has
its own textural--rhythmic and metrical--pattern. Moreover,
many melodies are sung only in certain cultural contexts by
specific individuals. Thus, a choice of melody/delivery style
also conjures a personality type, an attitude and a perspective.
For example, in the above-mentioned Karimpur tradition, one
melody/delivery style is associated with and is especially
performed by women during the rainy season, when married women
visit their parents homes and gather with their girlhood friends.
Thus, time of year (and time of day), atmospheric conditions,
and geographical locale are also conjured by ones style of
delivery. Other styles of speaking/chanting/singing are more
"masculine," implying battle and argumentation: delivery styles
are often accompanied by certain instruments, in this case,
by a drum. Clearly, the songstyle also dictates the performer's
breathing pattern and physical posture.
As one epic performer says, "If you have two educated people,
the wiser is the one who can explain or sing in twenty different
ways" (OEI,p. 98).
Clowning in certain Indian shadow-puppet traditions (such as
performers of the Tolubommalata tradition in Andhra Pradesh)
presents inverse representations of ideal epic figures (OEI,p. 118).
Clowning presents an oscillation between aspirations of
ideal epic conduct and real world fallibility. Clown figures
are often late, and when they do appear, they are often
disheveled, breathing hard, scratching themselves all over,
and combing their hair with their hands. Female clowns often
express a voracious sexual appetite, in contrast to the chaste,
obedient wife standard in men*s national epics.
Lament, as well as clowning, can be seen as deconstructions
of epic. "Study of lament has begun to be a major part of
the feminist reinterpretation of epic, including both textual study
and anthropological accounts of female lament in modern Greece"
Recent fieldwork in oral lament includes:
Anna Caraveli-Chaves, "Bridge Between Worlds: The Greek
Woman's Lament as Communicative Event," JAF93 (1980): 129-157.
Loring Danforth, The Death Rituals of Rural Greece,1982.
Nadia Seemetakis, The Last Word: Women, Death, and Divination
in Inner Mani,1991. The connection between these contemporary
lament traditions and those preserved in ancient Greek literature
was presented in Margaret Alexious groundbreaking work,
The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition,1974, and has been further
analyzed by Gail Holst-Warhaft in Dangerous Voices: Women's
Laments and Greek Literature,1992.
Three of the fourteen chapters of Epic Traditions in the
Contemporary Worldare dedicated to discussion of lament
and its place within and its relationship with epic:
1) "The Natural Tears of Epic," by Thomas Greene
(Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Italian, and British literary texts).
2) "The Poetics of Loss in Greek Epic," by Sheila Murnaghan
(Greek literary and present-day oral texts).
3) "The Role of Lament in the Growth and Death of Roman Epic,"
by Elaine Fantham (Roman literary texts).
It is in lament that the human (that is, the vulnerable)
point of view is expressed. Both those humans attached
to the hero and those attached to the elements destroyed
by the hero lament their losses. These laments are included
within epic, but if permitted, lament bursts frame--
the misery, the wretchedness cannot be bounded. It is an
emotional misery, looking to the future and imagining the
physical misery soon to follow. Even if the performer speaks
from the point of view of a woman who has lost her man and
is about to be sold into slavery, this misery is usually not
dwelled upon. The pain, the wretchedness of this point of view
must be forgotten, blocked out, in order for the epic to proceed.
To embark on directed action, one must to some degree be stupid
and unfeeling, one must wear blinkers. In (male) epic, lament
is thus presented in a bounded fashion.
The suggestion is that "female" lament ignores and even denounces
the death-defying fame that epic provides as compensation
for heroic loss, whereas "male" lament affirms the importance
of eternal fame and glory. Female lament can also be seen
as a critique of the entire nationalization process as
imperialistic, anti-woman, anti-nature, and anti-human.
"Lament challenges the value of dying for the state.
It calls into question the glorification of death sponsored
by martial societies and the epics that celebrate them"
(ETCW,p. 204). Lament also can inspire listeners to
think of their own sorrows, fragmenting audiences into
isolated and private mourners. This is the opposite
of the function usually associated with lament in epic--
which is to draw listeners' attention to glorious deeds
and so promote social cohesion through a group catharsis,
providing closure and renewed resolution, even generating
resentment against the adversary. "Female lament can provide
a public opportunity to testify what it means to be a woman
in a world focused on male interests and values" (ETCW,p. 208).
Female lament can even go so far as to denounce war,
especially civil war, as unheroic and anti-epic. (If we are
all g-d's children, all war is civil war.) Moreover, an
"unsettling experience of loss can generate a description
of the social structure as seen by its most vulnerable
members" (ETCW,p. 208). Lament can be a female attempt
to restrain a hero's devotion to combat, a critique of kleos,
the Greek term for eternal fame as realized in epic song.
"What concerns a warrior most is the disembodied reputation
that outlives the services through which it is earned"
As mentioned, the female graduate student I met at the
AFS meeting (Jennifer Petzen, studies at the U. of Washington,
possibly to ask Margaret Mills to be on her dissertation
committee), told me that some of the self-styled professional
women verbal artists she has worked with in Turkey feel
that they are being kept off the national stage by the men
who run the folk festivals and radio and television.
Jennifer told me that these women say they perform lament,
with elements of epic mixed in (my understanding is
that in places such as Greece and Turkey, there has been
a longstanding tradition of hiring profesional women
lamenters to lament at funerals, and that some women have
noe transformed this art into a performance genre suitable
for general public performance--I need to find out more
about this). In the real world today, I do not think
it makes sense to declare that epic is performed solely by men
and lament is performed solely by women. Many women are
aspiring to perform elements and varieties of epic--
and to participate in the economy--in public, and are doing
so to an increasing degree, despite resistance. This resistance
may in part be occuring because through word and deed some
of these women are calling into question many basic concepts:
what it means to be a man, a woman, a nation. (I think
I might take a look at Women in the Marketplace: Transitional
Economies and Feminine Discursive Domains in Morocco,1992,
by Deborah Kapchan.)