Saturday, October 26, 2013

legendary

Image from break.com
What type of story captures our attention?  Is it the tale of a hero, a person who does extraordinary things in the face of great obstacles? Is it an adventure, a grand story that takes us to exotic lands? Is it a love story which makes our hearts pound with passion? What type of people impress us? Those who are well-spoken and intelligent? Those who are charismatic and funny? Or perhaps we are attracted to the beautiful and graceful ones.

This week has been a hodge-podge of reading for me: everything from biblical texts to anthropology, philology, play-writing, fiction, and memoirs. Some of the stories and characters have gripped me; others have left me unimpressed. It makes me wonder: what's the difference?  What am I looking for? What do I want to immerse myself in?

Erich Auerbach (he's a philologist, a person who studies language in ancient literature) observes the difference between two types of epic story: the legend and the historical account. His examples are Homer's Odyssey and the biblical story of Abraham. While the Odyssey is full of generous explanations, includes lengthy excurses here and there to give background to an event, and makes the reader privy to the inner thoughts of characters, the biblical account is stark in comparison.  So much is hidden. The God we encounter is mysterious, only select scenes of a person's life are included, many details which would seem important to the story are left out. And yet, says Auerbach, the biblical characters are so much more complex and developed and real than those in Homer's legend. Why? Because they are not fully set forth once and for all; they always invite further contemplation, further investigation, further interpretation.

He goes on to observe that the collection of biblical stories seems to lack cohesion. The details often collide and large gaps are evident; and yet, it smacks of historical importance because of these very things.  A simple and straightforward tale with all the loose ends tucked carefully inside is a legend.  A messy, confused story which runs variously here and there: that's history.

The legend creates its own world, it is a separate phenomenon where everything is brought to fullness. The legend invites us to escape reality for a few hours and enjoy this enchanted, unified place. In contrast, the biblical stories have no other unity than a rather obscure God. God is the only factor that ties the disjointed accounts together.  Nothing is included that does not relate to him in some way. Unlike a legend, the Old Testament does not offer an escape to another world. Auerbach writes:  "Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality; we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history." (Auerbach, Mimesis, 15). This makes reading the Bible an uncomfortable undertaking many times. It insists that it is relevant and that its story is our story. We all too often prefer a neater version of life, in other words, a legend.

People who write memoirs or stories of their lives have to resist the temptation to make things neat and tidy. They have to be vigilant against the tendency to spin tales that make them out to be more heroic than they actually are or the urge to heighten certain events to make them more fantastic than they actually were. We can all tell when a tale is too good to be true because intrinsically we know that life is not legendary stuff. Even writers of fiction who have to construct unified stories if they are going to draw us in, know how to make their stories messy enough that the reader will be able to identify with the gaps, the mystery, the unfinished nature that we all recognize as part of life.

The problem is that we can be drawn to stories and characters who appear to have the things we lack. We would love the ability to overcome tremendous obstacles without breaking a sweat, to rise from obscurity to fame, to find the perfect mate who is both rich and good-looking, to live an adventurous life without messy attachments or responsibilities, to solve a grand mystery, to have a superpower, etc. Legends are great entertainment, to be sure, but they are safe stories. They require nothing of us. In fact, they can render us somewhat delusional because they offer a reality that is anything but real. History (real life) is messy. We have to live with constant mystery. We will never know the reasons behind many things. We also inherit a messy history which means that if we want to move on, we have to repent for past misdeeds and forgive those who have wronged us. We have to deal with people who are unkind and dishonest, and if we want any sort of meaningful relationships, we have to learn to love those who are not beautiful nor always lovable. And even if we do the best we can, things won't always work out the way we want them to.

And that's a good thing because it makes us look beyond our story. Unlike a legend which is a closed world, the story of God is a living story which invites us in. It invites us to make our story part of something larger, and it offers us the chance to experience a more unified life by becoming united with the great unifier. We may still be surrounded by obscurity and mystery, but we can be at peace with it because we are not trying to be legendary; we are just keeping it real.

"The sublime influence of God ... reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but inseparable." (Auerbach, Mimesis, 22-23).

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