I often ask my students why the 20th century, and now the 21st, produced no great epic poems. I have yet to receive an answer, any answer. After 30 years of such questioning, I suspect I never will.
So here, in pedagogical desperation, I do what I seldom do: I give them the answer they never gave me. It is not my own; it comes from Russell Kirk, as does so much that explains what’s wrong with the world.
Great literature, Kirk insists in his “English Letters in an Age of Boredom,” habitually hovers around four enduring themes: religion, heroism, love, and human variety.
But, he says, (1) a society, like ours, which has lost its religious convictions and its piety, denies itself the first theme. (2) A society that denigrates true greatness denies itself the second. Think about them what you wish, girl-smitten vampires are not heroes. (3) A society that takes love for nothing more than carnal gratification denies itself the third. (4) A society that conceives of humans as little more than accidental, soulless, interchangeable, cogs in a mechanistic nexus denies itself the fourth. “The springs of the imagination thus are dried up,” Kirk pronounces truly, tragically, and finally. In that springless desert, not even satire can flourish or long exist, for with the loss of the great themes and imagination comes the loss even of mockery.
There, in one paragraph, is why great literature died in our hands. We stopped believing the right things. We stopped asking the right questions. In our hands, the perennial issues and the perennial questions to which they gave rise all died. We have the opposite of a Midas touch. What we handle turns not to gold, or even to garbage, but to ghosts.
You can expect nothing else from the culture of death.
No cure for it can be found, save the Word of Life, which we meticulously have banned from the public square, the academy, the laboratory, and the arena.
Wyndham Lewis, it turns out, despite his pessimism and complaints, was too optimistic. He thought human reason might save us. He never asked what, or Who, might save reason.
Lewis forgot that while we human creatures are capable of reason, because of our selfish desires and unruly appetites, we are rarely ever reasonable. Thinking is hard work; thinking rationally harder still. We are not at all well suited, by birth or by habit, either to hard work or to thinking, much less to both.
Kirk could have gone on, could have continued his litany of epic killers. Had he done so, he might have included impatience, the sort bred from years spent planted squarely before a television set, years during which we acquired the habits and rhythms of sitcoms and soap operas – thereby inexorably acquiring a taste only for problems that can be raised and solved in 30 minutes minus commercials, problems like a torn prom dress or backing your dad’s car into a tree. For us, if it can’t be handled in 22 minutes, it’s too long and too difficult. Reduced to those shrunken dimensions, Milton’s epic panoply (or Dante’s) becomes a mere screenplay, a script, replete with artificial laugh lines, clichés, and crudities, wherein inane anatomical utterances replace eloquence and wherein scatological shock replaces beauty, truth, and goodness, things far more difficult to conceive, write, produce, and to communicate than garish, slapstick stunts and juvenile vulgarity. For shrunken sensibilities like ours, the word “epic” means two hours of TV watching for three nights in row. On any or all of those three nights, thinking is optional, hardly required.
That shrunken sensibility stands behind what I hear too often from my students. For example, while discussing Beowulf in an English literature survey course, and the fact that while sometimes you slay the monster, in the end the monster slays you, I asked Jen, a most delightful sorority girl, what monsters she faced. She said: “Every day, when I get up, I don’t know what clothes to wear.”Somewhere in the 20th century, the scope of battle shrunk; the monsters withered; and so, apparently, did we.