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What we need today to re-create the beautiful city, an icon through which to see the glorious City of God, is a new Iliad, a new story that will manifest “what the many do together,” for what the many do together “rarely lacks a certain nobility, or beauty”…

CityIn his Metamorphoses of the City, Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent posits Homer as the “father of the Greek city”; in a careful and ingenious reading of the Iliad (that first poem of the Western world), he speaks of the poetic birth of the city. Seeds of the city, that is, were contained in potentiality in a social form that did not yet exist in actuality. Although Shelley’s claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” is rife with Romantic hubris, even that ultimate skeptic of poetic knowledge, Plato, makes arguments concerning music in his Republicwhich we may transpose to poetry: “Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited… when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” In his LawsPlato goes on to muse upon the consequences of poor music; and, again, we may extend this to poor poetry):

They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what was just and lawful in music…. And by composing licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they could judge for themselves about melody and song…. In music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness; freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty?

Contemporary music and poetry, particularly the dominant forms and narratives popular today, have contributed to, and resulted from, the “licentious and shameless” ethos of our contemporary moment. We are badly in need of a poetry—and we may here use this word broadly to include everything from music to verse to fiction to film—that contains poetic knowledge of the city, to which our descendants will be forced to turn to mitigate what cultural chaos they have inherited.

But, we rightly ask, how could Homer grant us access into the birth of the Greek city? After all, when he gathered oral traditions around the year 725 B.C., he gave voice to a state of Greek life that is definitively different from and prior to Greek civic life. How, then, could he be considered the educator of Greece, “not in a general and so to speak decorous sense, but in the precise and rigorous sense of a master to whose teaching one should conform all the actions of one’s life”? Mr. Manent suggests that we can answer this question by turning to Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates and his companions examine the question of the education of the just and beautiful city’s guardians. They first critique the “old” method, calling into question “the stories that mothers and nurses tell children and that, ‘are, as a whole, false.’” These nurses’ tales are not individualized in each family, but are common across the Grecian households. Such stories are faulty first and foremost in that they say unacceptable things about the gods.

The Trojan War that drives The Iliad is “the condition and the consequence of the self-discovery of ‘mortals.’ That is why,” writes Mr. Manent, “while it speaks of nothing but war, nonetheless [it] says everything about human life, or at least considers it in its entirety.” The gathering of Achaeans around the outskirts of Ilion does not constitute a city per se, but “one can recognize in it a heroic or aristocratic republic, this republic of quarrelsome persuasion that is the invention of Greece and whose virtues democracy will spread and develop. In short, the camp of the Achaeans, the city ‘in speech’ whose founder is Homer, was the common mother of the real Greek cities.” What are some of these virtues? We cannot possibly render them justice here, and so I will point to just a few. First, however, I  will summarize the opening conflict of the Iliad.

King Agamemnon has offended the priest of Apollo by refusing to surrender the priest’s daughter, Chryseis, even as she had come part en parcel with an immense ransom. In reply, Apollo sends a plague on the Achaean camp. The epidemic eats away at them for nine days. On the tenth day Achilles rallies the men and summons the greatest prophet-diviner, Calchas, who explains to the Achaeans that the cause of the conflict is Agamemnon—his unruly, possessive action. In essence, then, the conflict bears on “the share that belongs to each man, to which each man has a right.” Agamemnon agrees to surrender Chryseis, but only because he has decided to take Achilles’ captive Briseis as his own. Filled with rage, Achilles declares that he and his men will no longer fight for Agamemnon. Zeus sends Agamemnon a dream urging him to attack Ilium. Before he heeds the dream, Agamemnon summons the Achaean armies, and, to test them, tells them by inviting them to flee, to avoid fighting “his war.” He expects the men to push back against his seemingly cowardly insistence. “Thus, by advocating black, he will make them crave white. [Although Agamemnon is “king,] this is not our idea of an absolute ruler. The Achaeans need to be persuaded.” Unfortunately, “his typical trick has failed lamentably He is at the end of his power. The only recourse resides in the prudence, or wisdom, of Odysseus. Only Odysseus is capable of confronting the exceptional situation, or the state of emergency [in which Agamemnon’s supposed sovereignty fails to win men over]. In this sense Odysseus, and not Agamemnon, is the true sovereign.” Speaking in turn to the few (the nobles) and the many (the general crowd of soldiers), Odysseus uses various means of persuasion to win the men back into battle, and he succeeds.

The Iliad, then, though it describes a world before the city, before democracy and the virtues that drive it, manifests in Odysseus one of the greatest democratic virtues: persuasion, which is given at random, is not relegated to a particular class or institutional authority, and thus “it is no coincidence that Odysseus’ other name is Nobody.” Yet, even as Odysseus succeeds in persuading nearly everyone, Thersites continues to mock and spew his spleen at Agamemnon. Odysseus rebukes him harshly and cruelly strikes him with his scepter. In Pierre Manent’s reading, Thersites stands as an incarnation of the disrespectful person who criticizes power, who speaks truths better left unspoken. “He thus has some important things in common with Odysseus, first of all a freedom of outlook that stems from independence of mind with respect to social ties…. One could say that Theristes is the spirit of comedy…. Thus, as we see the Iliad, that with Achilles and Agamemnon contains the source and model of all later tragedy, and with Odysseus the prototype of the wise man and we might say the first version of Socrates, with Theristes also contains the living seeds of comedy. Homer was indeed in every sense the educator of Greece.”

With Ulysses Joyce gave us a new Odyssey, which is more of an anti-Odyssey, an unheroic quotidian dramatization of singularity—a triumph of what William F. Lynch, S.J, in Christ and Apollo, calls the “equivocal imagination.” In so doing he captured the gritty thisness of modernity, but though it describes modern messiness with aplomb, Ulysses is—besides a work of art—description and at best diagnosis, but not a goad; it may delight, but it cannot educate. He gave poetry to “the educated.” We need a poetic education fit for what Plato could only call “the many.”

What we need, then, is a new Iliad, a new story that will manifest “what the many do together,” for what the many do together “rarely lacks a certain nobility, or beauty.” Such a story must give us poetic knowledge of the city that future generations will have to use to build upon the waste of postmodernity that they will inherit: the fragmented songs of self-aggrandizement and self-pity, the therapeutic confessionals and small-minded sentimentalism, the barely discernible whispers of the beautiful, the true, and the good. We need to expand our conception of beauty beyond the mere aesthetic. As Mr. Manent writes in “The Original Experience of the City”: “Whereas the Greeks situated beauty in things themselves, we situate it in the eye of the beholder, or of the artist, and thus beauty for us is divorced from any explicit idea of greatness.” For moderns, beauty, being a thing in our eyes, is to be found in the smallest things: a fruit bowl full of plumbs will do, thank you very much—you can have your epic back. “But if we detach ourselves even a little from the complacency or laziness of the spectator,” Mr. Manent goes on, “from the desire that everything be smaller than our view, we will find meaning in the series of notions that are joined in Aristotle’s definition [of beauty]: self-sufficiency, perfection, happiness, and beauty… what is more noble, or beautiful, than the city”? And without a beautiful city, people will lack an icon through which to see the glorious City of God. For, as Augustine said, “Socialis est vita sanctorum”: even the lives of the saints are a life together with others.

While we await the one or the ones who will compose this epic story again, I want to point to one living author who is at the very least is theoretically capable of composing such a poem. His name is Jeremiah Webster. I do not say that he can compose this poem on command, or that his mind and style are fully matured to the point that he could write the enduring epic that will last however many years or centuries as is necessary for the new city to emerge. I do, however, know that he has looked into the past long enough and in a prophetic sense looked into the future long enough to be able to write it. For now, I give you part of his poem “Ilium,” excerpted from his recently-published debut poetry collection After So Many Fires, a sort of prelude to the new Iliad, written amidst one of the many fragmented forms of contemporary human life, a form so fragmented we can hardly call it a city:

Ilium

But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
—Daniel 12:4

“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?”
thus asks the last man, and he blinks.
—Nietzsche

Far enough back
all was born of fire.
See how ordinary
the Pangaea becomes
when home is used
to describe it?
We begin with the silent
prayer
of stromatolites
as coastlines
shimmer
like strings.
I have no words to sink
below a sea with no fire,
but perhaps you can begin
naming these familiar hills.

* * * *

Mortar was left to dry on the trowel
the day we threw down shovel, pick,
left wheelbarrows to bake in the mud,
saw the moon in broad daylight
appear from behind the mountain
before being flung to the sea.
As boys throw stones from a sling,
so the moon flew from its circuit to boil
in the space of the sea.
Why downcast my soul?
Why marvel at the hour of Earth’s unraveling?
Even the experts forecasted as much: the terminal
path of empyrean forms.
God is the first
mover, the second
to return, and the third
authority among Moderns.
There is only fear
when the earth gives
way and the mountains fall
on our freeways and interstates.
He begged for the rough rind
before juice could dry
from her mouth and chin.
She asked for a cherry pit
to suck on and survey the landscape.
The shore gave
way under waves
as a split sun
lit plankton and spare parts
from deserted ships.
They gathered antiques,
dug beneath the remains
of a once proud no longer nation.
As cutworms, imperceptible
from the air, feed off the underbelly
of a leaf, so this Adam, this Eve, subsisted
on ruins.

 

Thesis

Behold, the drunk whispers
as he wanders the streets.
City of Dis, I love you.
I live among your citizens
and praise each one as they pass,
faces flush after meals
on the waterfront.
People stare at passing human
traffic mute to themselves and
others. People talk and wonder
why no one listens.
See the world in your halls,
the vast diversity
of loneliness,
the moment on the metro
when all was silent save
for the clanking of metal against warm bodies,
strangers all texting below the radiant light,
passing all stops wordless to slouch (like shepherds)
over the private miracle:
the incarnate screen.
Gaze with me now,
coliseum, pyramid, gaunt cathedral,
climb my stairs beg skyscrapers, the radio towers reaching in desperation.
Nature lies prostrate before your electric defiance.
Construction sites, hoarse workers, steel, wood, brick, bellow the NEW
with brittle voices.
Praise the promise.
Drink to towers.
Receive this wine.

 

Antithesis

We’ll have plenty to eat,
Mother? the child asks.
With reverence, she rests
a hand on the generator
for when the lights go out.
One pen for the meat birds.
One pen for the cow.
One pen for heirloom seed.
One pen for the sow.
Water is drawn from wells,
purified through activated carbon filters.
Fiber optic lines run for miles,
the monthly funds funneled in
from urban banks.
Out on the hills, toiling
with able hands, a father builds
his monument.
With those he loves indoors,
he works until palms blister.
His assurance: the plateau
of a world defined by
away from,
further out,
better than,
not that.

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Published: Aug 3, 2017
Author
Joshua Hren
Joshua Hren is Assistant Professor of English at Belmont Abbey College. He also serves as editor of Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith, and as Editor-in-Chief of Wiseblood Books. Prof. Hren has published scholarly essays and poems in First Things and short stories in Cobalt. His first academic book, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy, is forthcoming in 2018, and his first collection of short stories, This Our Exile, is forthcoming through Angelico Press in November of 2017.
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4 replies to this post
  1. Professor Hren,

    Enjoyable essay and certainly includes many important things to think about, but it may suffer one fatal flaw, however, I would be pleased to learn that I am wrong. I don’t think an epic poem makes the people, I think the people make the epic poem. As Chesterton said somewhere, maybe in Orthodoxy, something about the history by a single madman doesn’t measure up the the stories told by a people. We are suffering a crisis of culture, of fatherhood, of manly virtue, of virtue itself- our people at the moment is wholly incapable of producing an epic poem. So if a single madman does compose our epic poem? what power would it have to transform our culture? I believe practically none. We have available to us, in abundance I might add, the greatest works of art and treasures of poetry known to man, and how do we esteem them? If someone were to produce a masterpiece who would recognize it for its worth when truly, modern man is convinced that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the ugly is preferable to the beautiful? Modern and almost universal formal illiteracy blankets the world and a brand new epic poem can do little about that.

    It has been known throughout the Great Western Tradition that the good man makes the good family and the good family makes the good society and then the good society can make the good epic. Only in this muddled reductionist post-modern wasteland has man been so arrogant as to try to reverse the hierarchical order in the vain hope that he can make the good city. It seems to me that the hubris and folly of this inversion is self-evident. Webster will not be our Homer, Homer was not Greece’s Homer, Homer was the Greeks.

  2. Dear Steven Jonathan, Your counterpoints contain a good dose of truth, and I thank you for the correctives. I am largely of Irish stock and thus given to soulful hyperbole. I would, however, offer a few points that may yet salvage some of what Manent argues, and what I am after. Manent acknowledges the paradox of Homer’s poetic birth of the city. After all, as he notes, “the first to hear the Homeric poems as we know them were probably citizens of the Greek cities of Ionia, but the narrative that enchanted them spoke of a very different life from their own. How in these conditions could Homer be considered by the enlightened opinion of he cities as the educator of Greece?” He goes on: “To speak of Homer as educator of the city means that there was an experience prior to the experience, an origin prior to the origin. Before there was the city there was the educator of the city.” Note Manent’s emphasis on Homer as educator. This is not a matter of writing utopias which people will, upon hearing, somehow instantiate. The poem is not the person, and not the city, and cannot be in any immediate sense. This is especially true now, given the “muddled reductionist post-modern wasteland” which you describe. But this also does not mean that the poem cannot be the seed of that city. Hundreds of years separate the time that Homer wrote his epic and the emergence of the Greek city states. The dark age that is now beginning and will likely spread and increase does not forbid the possibility of a poem as seed of a future city. (Remember that I am not speaking of a poem which would, in the midst of postmodernity, somehow turn the tide.) Further, Manent insists that Homer is educator, not lawmaker and not founder. Forgive my lack of clarity; my essay does not sufficiently make this distinction. What this means is, for instance, that in the poem “one can recognize in it a heroic or aristocratic republic, this republic of quarrelsome persuasion that is the invention of Greece.” Were all the Greeks educated by Homer’s poem heroic aristocrats? Does a poem lack any capacity whatsoever to educate persons into virtue, and does not this increase in virtue participate in the restoration of culture? Odysseus incarnates the practical wisdom and persuasion that will define the city democratic city state at its best, but such “political wisdom” was by no means abundant among the warriors of the Iliad. / I do not wish to give a power to poetry that it does not contain. I would contend that only an ordered liturgy can make men good in a sacramentally efficacious sense. Still, your position seems to be that poetic knowledge is entirely impotent, or that it is always and only merely reflective, merely imitative, merely documentary or representative. Was Homer’s age worthy of his poem? Were all who heard it sung magnanimous? Was Charlemagne worthy of the idealized garb in which The Song of Roland dressed him? You write, “It has been known throughout the Great Western Tradition that the good man makes the good family and the good family makes the good society and then the good society can make the good epic.” Do you truly wish to deny that Dante, or Homer, or any number of others have had no salutary effects on the souls of students and others who have absorbed them or been taught them well? Have not some such formed societies, even small ones (the city states, after all, were small)? I do not wish to author the hubristic claim that Webster IS Homer, or will be. I do, however, know that poetry has long taught truths–even to the illiterate!–which souls have been unable to learn through straightforward ethical and theological instruction alone. (Would you argue, by the way, that we should give up on ethics because we are living After Virtue?) / So now, the poem will NOT make the city. This was never my contention. But the fact that our times are largely marked by a postmodern wasteland does not mean that there are no virtuous souls, nor that there are no virtuous societies existing, often in exile, amidst the secular leviathan. And some of those virtuous souls are poets. And if one of them knows the Great Tradition, and is virtuous, his poem may well be a seed of the knowledge of goodness to which men may someday turn as part of the food by which they strive after virtue. / At the end of The Crisis of Education Christopher Dawson writes a few lines that are apropos our conversation: “But a complete change of spiritual orientation cannot be effective unless it takes place on a deep psychological level. It cannot be had for the asking! It can only be reached by a long and painful journey through the wastelands. Meanwhile there is an essential preliminary step which can be taken at once wherever and whenever people can be found who recognize this need for spiritual change.” For Dawson, this way is the reform of education. I would only add that poetry is yet another source of that knowledge.

    • Dear Dr. Hren,
      Thank you for the bountiful reply- I hope I don’t come off as too obtuse if I inquire even further into your charitable and intelligent response.
      I don’t understand how we can say such a thing as “an experience prior to ‘the experience’ an origin prior to the origin,” that sounds like a contradiction in terms. When it comes to the maker of the city I am inclined to see what St. Augustine tells us of the two loves that make the two cities, so love and man’s will seems to me to be more of the efficient cause of the city while education seems to me to be the formal cause and flowing from the nature of the city itself not the other way around as you and Manent seem to be suggesting: “Before there was the city there was the educator of the city.” I believe that before there was the city there was the family and by the kind of love a man has for himself and his family is a profound contributor to what kind of city is made by the wills of man. I think education as the formal cause of the city could be an efficient cause of the culture of that city, but I doubt it is the efficient cause of the city itself. So no, my position is not at all that poetic knowledge is impotent, quite the contrary, it has the power to evoke and inspire but this manifests itself not in cities, but in the character and culture of men. I know that Homer and Dante have been edifying human souls since they produced their art, I think it is a mistake to claim that Homer or Dante came out of nowhere- or that Homer and Dante were the educators that “made the city.” Homer was reciting perhaps a 500 year old oral tradition that was indeed reflective of the collective wisdom of peoples- the reason there will be no Homer today is precisely because of the qualitative differences between our city and the cities out of which came the great epics by Homer and Dante and so many more. I don’t deny for a moment that the great epics have “salutary effects on the souls of students,” of course they do, I contend that this is not the efficient cause of the city but the efficient cause of the quality of the culture. Of course I wouldn’t argue that we give up on virtue or the epics just because we are at the twilight of this age, to the contrary, we desperately need a recovery of virtue, ethics and the truth goodness and beauty of true art- and the renewal of our culture depends on this. I certainly do agree with your conclusion but the city has already been made, it is the culture and character of society that potentially benefits from a reform of education and surely the great epics are grist to the mill.
      Again, thank you for your response, I hope we are not talking past each other. My daughter is in her fourth year at Belmont Abbey and she has had some decent classes and I certainly would like for her to have had you for a teacher, but even at one of the most faithful Catholic schools in the land- according to the Newman List, she has been given poor instruction on reading great works- one of her teachers had the class use Albert of Brandenburg’s “Instructio Summaria” as evidence of corruption in the Catholic Church. In a similar way, yet much worse, what is done with Homer in Dante in most classrooms (if they are in many classrooms at all) renders them innocuous, not because they are not powerful, but because our modern methods of exegesis are reductive to the point of revering the dead letter or an idolatry of the written word. Think of Screwtape and the historical point of view starting in letter 9 “You keep him well fed on hazy ideas of Progress and Development and the Historical Point of View, I trust, and give him lots of modern Biographies to read? The people in them are always emerging from
      Phases, aren’t they?” and the “historical” Jesus in letter 23 but especially in letter 27 when Screwtape instructs –“ and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question”.

      To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk”,

      10 Homers couldn’t remediate the good work Screwtape and legions unwitting cooperators have done to literacy, historical and otherwise.

      I agree with Dawson, he knew where our city was going in this age. We may be less far apart than at first it appears. Keep up the good work.

  3. Steven, I insist that I am most grateful for your counterarguments, as they are a continuing source of clarification. Thank you for the chance to have such a conversation! It seems that claims about the character and capacity of literature swing between two extremes. On the one hand, there is the utopian, typically-but-not-exclusively progressive insistence that literature will goad men into immanentizing Plato’s “city in speech.” On the other hand, there is Cardinal John Henry Newman’s position, in The Idea of a University, that literature is exclusively descriptive, merely imitative. And, since “you cannot have a sinless literature” so long as we have sinful men, literature, Newman argues, is largely a “record of man in rebellion.” Newman next goes on to contend that “If you would in fact have a literature of saints, first of all have a nation of them.” (Newman’s contribution to a Catholic understanding of literature is invaluable, I think; I have just published a book chapter arguing for greater incorporation of his ideas as a counterpoint to excessively Romantic claims that “disinterested” beauty will save the world). Newman’s last line is in accord with your main contention that a great literature can only come out of a great city, or a great people. There is a great deal of truth to this. Still, I wonder, how do men become great? And, further, what brings various cities their various characters? It is all too easy to oversimplify the answer to such a question, and I do not wish to do so here. It would seem that at least part of what makes the good man who makes the good family who makes the good city is that at least some of the knowledge of the good and the true which which make the good man who can make the good family who can make the good city can only come through literature. Your inclusion of Thomas’ categories–efficient and formal causes–was a tremendous help, and necessitates a still further clarification on my end. You wrote: “When it comes to the maker of the city I am inclined to see what St. Augustine tells us of the two loves that make the two cities, so love and man’s will seems to me to be more of the efficient cause of the city while education seems to me to be the formal cause and flowing from the nature of the city itself not the other way around as you and Manent seem to be suggesting: “Before there was the city there was the educator of the city.” I believe that before there was the city there was the family and by the kind of love a man has for himself and his family is a profound contributor to what kind of city is made by the wills of man. I think education as the formal cause of the city could be an efficient cause of the culture of that city, but I doubt it is the efficient cause of the city itself.” I very much agree that the two loves make the two cities. But what forms and shapes a man’s loves? What forms and shapes a man’s will? Surely no one thing, but how could “poetry” broadly speaking, how could poetic knowledge not be a significant cause? Any number of factors contributed to the Greeks coming together to engage in argumentation and persuasion, but I suppose one way of putting Manent’s argument is: would they have done so without Homer’s Odysseus? Poetry, and the education into truth and goodness that can (but by no means necessary does) come through epic poetry, can be one of several efficient causes which contribute to the making of a good man. I do not think it is sufficient to say that poetry, and poetic education, can only be an efficient cause of a city’s culture. A corrupted and confused soul will seek out poetry that reflects its own sinfulness. Augustine demonstrates in such a deeply moving manner in his Confessions when he writes, “I was captivated by theatrical shows . . . [because] they were full of representations of my own miseries and fueled my fire. Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure. Nevertheless, he wants to suffer the pain given by being a spectator of these sufferings, and the pain itself is his pleasure.” And yet the right poem can efficiently contribute to the rectification of a corrupted soul. And that rightly ordered soul could go on to form a family. And that family . . .

    I agree with you that ten Homers would likely be unable to turn the tide of our times. With trepidation I seem to see a vision of at least nine perishing in the whirlpool that girds the wasteland. I agree that in our immediate moment poetry’s place will be relegated to a much more modest work. Russell Kirk writes that “novelists will bring into being no ‘Great Society’ by converting themselves into political pedants.” But he also contends that “It remains true, nevertheless, that nature does imitate art. The whole tone of American political conduct might be elevated somewhat by the skillful and yet charitable satirist, or the writer with some vestigial apprehension of tragedy.”

    When I write of the new epic poem, I am refusing to submit to the postmodern insistence that all we have are petit recits, little narratives of little lives. This tendency has dominated contemporary literature far more even than attempts to hijack poems for utopian purposes. In postmodernity, poetry is regularly reduced to mere description of pusillanimity. When I call for a new epic, I mean one that, like Dante’s, would draw upon the great heritage of the past even though Florence is in in dismal and despair-inducing disarray. Further, when I call for a new epic, I am looking forward to the next several decades or even centuries. Wearing the most pessimistic of glasses, taking as my premise the worst case scenario that postmodernity will peter out into a new dark ages, I am anticipating the need for any great-souled poets among us to anticipate our descendants’ need for a new epic. Oral recitation of it will almost certainly be necessary in the illiterate half-light. But, one could counter, postmodernism is not only prescriptive: it is descriptive, and it is accurate. All we have are little narratives of our little lives because all we have are little lives, severed from one another, from the common good, from an overarching narrative and from moral norms. There may even be a certain humility to telling a little story. St. Therese knew the meaning of this more than anyone. But the little way—great as it is—is not the sole way. Certainly at the very least the petit recit is not the be all and end all for those who inhabit either the Glorious City of God or the Great Tradition. Again, one might ask, why a new epic, when we already have the old? In modernity, there are no great deeds of which to sing. To say so would be to do a grave injustice to our forebears, and even some among us whose magnanimity is often lost behind fifteen-minute celebrity that can only ape greatness. And so I still hope for that chanson de gest.

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