Epic and Episode
Has the epic returned? Looking at contemporary German literature, it would seem so. Raoul Schrott’s Erste Erde. Epos [First Earth. An Epic] from 2016 competes with its ancient predecessors in its claim to explain the entirety of the world, nature and the cosmos. Ann Cotton’s lyric epic Verbannt! [Banished!] of the same year, with its four hundred stanzas, seems comparatively modest in the attempt to sketch out the life of a remote island world. But whether megalomaniacal or slim, the epic still asserts itself as literature’s »grand« form, even if it is thought to be outmoded by some.
This very continuity of the genre has a tradition, however. In the eighteenth century, the epic was forced to relinquish its position at the top of the generic hierarchy to the novel, but it continued to be a literary touchstone nonetheless. In the nineteenth century, historians and philosophers theorized the epic, culminating in Hegel’s famous characterization of the epic as a »unifying totality« [einheitsvolle Totalität]. In the twentieth century, the literary critic André Jolles updated its central position with his diagnosis that novels tend to come in groups, whereas each epic is a singular milestone. The epic as a topic of erudite discussion, in any case, survived, whether literally or metaphorically, aiming at the grandeur of its subjects as well as the extensiveness of its narratives.
Understood in this broader sense, epics can be found not only in literature and poetry but also in film and, increasingly, in television series, which have witnessed a veritable explosion in the last few years. The narrative structures and strategies of the serial pose questions about the nature of the epic in new ways. They call into question, for instance, whether the boundaries of the epic form are fixed or contingent and whether its structures are open or closed. They also problematize the relationship between selectivity and totality that is at the very heart of the epic. At the same time, in serials the concept of the episode emerges as a counterpoint to the epic: in broadcasting terms, an episode of a season. More traditionally and going back to the epeisodion in Antique tragedy, episode means the insert, or the digression from the main plot. As new serial formats inherit the old epic, they cause us to question how the structural elements of the epic itself relate to generic categories of drama.
How can we more clearly define and evaluate the currency of the epic form today? Which breaks and which continuities do we find in its long history? What sorts of generic, linguistic, or media shifts characterize the course of its transpositions? Where have the specific qualities of the epic form migrated and why? What is the relationship between modernity and epic form?
Public keynote lectures:
- Mo, 10 Sep 2018, 19.00, Trajekte conference room
Ruth Mayer (Leibniz Universität Hannover): Managing Complexity. Modernity, the Film Serial, and the Hazards of Neverending Storytelling
- Tue, 11 Sep 2018, 19.00, Trajekte conference room
Christiane Reitz (Universität Rostock): 1000 Schiffe oder 1186? Zur Poetik des Katalogs in antiker epischer Dichtung
Ill. above: Homer, Ilias II 757–775 in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Papyrus Hawara 24–28. (2. Jh.). Quelle: Wikimedia