Mark Van Doren taught me a long time ago that an epic was episodic in that there were many events that filled in the space between the initial action and the final action. These events did not so much move the action forward as take place within the environment created by the story’s parameters. From that I conclude, upon many years reflection, that epics are different from novels in this respect (as well as many other ways) because while there may be digressions and subplots in novels, much of the plot in novels is used to move the story forward. By these lights, I also conclude, “Exodus” is not an epic. It is too tightly plotted for that. It is more of what Vico would call sacred history, which means that it shows what had to happen rather than what might have happened or what in fact did happen. The Gospels are another sacred history because there too the narrators are recounting what had to have happened and did while the narrator of a novel is just along for the ride, for the telling of the tale, rather than the authoritative voice that commands belief in the inevitability of what is unfolded by a story or set of stories.
But the Gospels are certainly also an epic in the Van Doren sense. Even though the Gospels each present a biography of Jesus, there are, in fact, a limited number of episodes of what happens while Jesus is pursuing his calling as a preacher, no one of which is essential to the basic story, which is that a person born in a miraculous way is the long expected Messiah, something not established until after His death and Resurrection, a belief based, as St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, on faith rather than reason.
“Genesis” is also an epic. The story of the founding of a people, as that is prophesied by no less a figure than God, is told through episodes each of them interesting and yet where the scheme of the work would allow for any number of such stories, possibly there being more patriarchs with each their own set of stories. The seriousness of this story, moreover, is not mitigated but enhanced by our ability to notice the comic twist in one or another of the stories or the emerging character of the people who are created out of these stories. It may well be in the nature of literature that it can be read perversely or ironically, but “Genesis”, because it is so terse and requires the reader to infer the motives of the characters, is particularly prone to irony or some version of the comic. Perhaps the biggest irony is the one provided by the expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve banished to a world where he will labor to provide food and she to suffer in childbirth. That is the way it is in the world. So the punishment of God is that people will live the lives they do in fact live, which can be regarded as not much punishment at all because it is no additional punishment, or else as a very serious punishment, in which case all of life is a kind of prison. Take your pick.
There is also comedy early on in God not knowing where Abel is. I know scholars nowadays say that the story shows God was regarded as walking among people and capable of being fooled. It seems to me, however, that Cain did not think he would very long get away with his denial even to a God who is a bit slow on the uptake. Cain shows his arrogance in a comic way by the bravado of saying he is not his brother’s keeper. A bit later on, Lamech says that he is greater than Cain because he slew a man who wounded him. To bestow that honor upon yourself is to show yourself as evil in a comic way because your words betray a foolish arrogance. There is no need for an outside description of Lamech’s grotesquely angry soul, only a transcription of what he says out of his own mouth.
And Sarah, for her part, laughs and has to be reminded that she laughed when the angel told her that she would conceive. You do not laugh at God as a daughter might laugh at an earthly father. Nor does the reader laugh but is, rather, frozen cold by the fact that God has to be wheedled into being willing to spare Sodom if some good people can be found within the town. There is no joke in the fact that He made the promise, which suggests that He is not all that firm about using his powers, an “aide” able to change his policy, or that not even ten good men could be found. That irony makes the point that people are wicked, more so than because God is remorseless or because the evil of the people of Sodom had been spelled out, which it is not. Not all irony is funny.
The same comic touch is provided in that other tale that plumbs the nature of a people, the “Iliad”, where Ajax is a bit of a fool, Odysseus overly clever, and Achilles vainglorious. Did Homer not know that? We are fooling ourselves if we think that Homer was so entrapped in his own “culture” that he could not see he was overdrawing his characters. Shakespeare understood this when he wrote his dark farce, “Troilus and Cressida”
It is less easily said of Virgil that his characters, so highly motivated by their patriotic and other duties, are deliberately overdrawn for comic effect. That is perhaps why, despite its vividness, poetry and purposefulness, the “Aeneid” is just not on the same level as the “Iliad”. Nor is the comedy within epic rediscovered in Aristo or Dante or other medieval epics. That development awaits the Renaissance, that long delayed recovery from fifteen hundred years of Christian earnestness. There is Cervantes who, like Shakespeare, loved low jokes, and Shakespeare himself, who intrudes Falstaff onto “Henry V” so as to remind his audience that there is comic relief even in wartime.
But even if, by a stretch, one can find humor or irony in the Old Testament, there is nothing even remotely funny about the New Testament. Its whole tone defies interpreting it or any part of it in either a comic or an ironic way. There is dramatic irony in Jesus’ prediction that Peter will betray him, but that is not funny at all; it is to make one cringe. The emotions that dominate the Gospels and “Acts” are righteousness and mercy, those combined with an abiding sentimentality that would take offense if some incident in the life of Jesus and the lives of his followers were not approached with the utmost seriousness. The leper is cured. Marvelous! What about the leper further down the lane? It is an insult to raise that question; the auditor of the Gospel is more concerned to hear the cure as a proof of the divinity of Jesus than as an example of the possibility of lessening human suffering. We who are among the saved can rejoice even if the fruits of our salvation will not be visible to us until the next life, given our present life of toil and trouble, and we must, as Dante advises, remove our pity from those who are not saved, however pathetic or noble they may seem or be.
The New Testament, however, is a comedy, even if it is an unfunny one, if the term “comedy” is understood in the sense it has taken on ever since it was applied to Dante’s epic, which is also, for the most part, an unfunny comedy. What The New Testament does is to to make familiar a way of life of a people, in this case made up of small farmers and market towns becoming ever more influenced by the cosmopolitan culture of Rome, just as Dante had made familiar the violent and mean-spirited life of late Medieval Italians. The New Testament portrays the vineyards and pathways and small towns and weddings that surround an itinerant preacher and his less than merry band, his solemn crew. This is a portrait not of a society in the making but of one that is already extant, the people softened as if they lived in a pastoral idyll, which is indeed how the times of Jesus may have seemed when they are recalled some thirty years later by those who composed the Gospels and “Acts”.
There are other great comedies of this type. There is, of course, Aristophanes, who is not a tragedian not only because he uses a low style and tells jokes but because his concern is the temper of his society as that is revealed by the way fools unravel pomposity and pompous people are shown to be fools. Plato’s “Dialogues” are a comedy as well as philosophy. They provide a vivid portrait of daily life among the Athenian citizenry. They do not do what modern anthropologists would like, which is to provide accounts of what people ate and how they prepared food. They provide more important things: what people said to one another at banquets; what they think about love rather than how they calculate the size of dowries. We get a sense of mental tastes and the variations on those tastes.
And some of them are pretty funny. My favorite is the early dialogue, “Euthyphro”, which is a great comedy. Socrates meets a man who says he will try to get other citizens to join him in acquitting Socrates of charges of blasphemy, and then Socrates promptly goes on to demonstrate just how much of a blasphemer he is, cross examining this man on his way to prayers about why he is saying prayers in the first place and insisting that the man cannot just offer as a reason that it is the custom or that the gods demand it because Socrates wants to know the reason for the custom, Socrates also offering the telling remark that, after all, the gods disagree. So, Socrates, in defending a very abstract notion of religion, shows himself to be no friend of religion as it is usually understood (and as it continues to be usually understood, as a matter of piety, pure and simple). Euthyphro runs away at the end, saying he has no more time to talk, and you may be sure that he reconsiders his vote. You see the guy changing as the dialogue proceeds, becoming more and more uncomfortable with the sweetly stated but very nasty cuts taken against opinions he thinks so obviously true that it is outrageous to suggest otherwise. All of us can sympathize, our own balloons of pretension also every once in awhile punctured, though most of us don’t get to sentence our tormentors to death.
Now, Plato might seem a ringer to throw into a list of epic-scale comedies. Plato provided, some say, the inspiration for our other main ancient example, The New Testament. That leaves us with mighty few epic-scale comedies. The problem is that modern critics reclassify ancient comedies as novels. I was told by Moses Hadas that the “Odyssey” was the first novel. I am no longer sure about that. Yes, the “Odyssey” does give you a portrait of life on the islands, and it does have a plot that unifies it: a son searching for a father as the father tries to get home, with all that both of those searches imply. Yes, it has central dramatic scenes and long side excursions. The difference, though, between a comedy and a novel is that the novel takes the history of an ordinary family and spells that out against the backdrop of society. “Vanity Fair” is about someone who rides with Wellington to Waterloo, not about Wellington. It may take drama to show Bohr meeting Heisenberg (and opera to portray Nixon meeting Mao) and epic scale comedy is also about a great man, a hero, and that is what the “Odyssey” concerns, while the novel does not, even if its characters may act heroically, in their little and unknown ways, mimicking greatness, as they do in Shakespeare’s comedies and in Fielding.
Joyce’s turn on the “Odyssey” is precisely, obviously, to show that his characters are like mythic figures, not that they are mythic figures, given that they sometimes fumble with words or sit on the pot. Part of everyday life is to go to funerals that are in part made embarrassments because of the people you are required to be polite to. Joyce’s novel is very funny and, I suppose, there is no need to declaim that it is not a grand scale comedy rather than a novel except to keep our categories straight. Dreiser devotes “The Financier” to the fictionalized life of a real life robber baron who had also been disgraced before again ascending to power, but the whole point of turning it into fiction was to show how he came to terms with lust and shame and pride and his own financial talents. That is how fiction is different from journalism or hagiography.
There are not that many grand scale comedies. They seem to have died out as an art form. “Don Quixote” is clearly an epic comedy, as is “The Canterbury Tales”. Perhaps Montaigne, writing about that abstracted character known as Man, is the last one to provide us with an epic-scaled comedy that provides the nuances of what it is to be such a creature through the depiction of its natural habitat, its social setting. The novel begins after Montaigne leaves off.
There are many reasons for this interest of the novel in the ordinary person. Maybe it was that Shakespeare made kings into ordinary persons, or that there were so many ordinary people around who could now read novels and so learn about people who were on the same scale as themselves. Maybe it was the opening to literature as a form of journalism and so making journeys to different settings and to people of different class and background a kind of education, the novel a kind of National Geographic of the world of those who lived not many miles away-- perhaps in a manor and also perhaps in a rural village. And maybe, of course, it was part of the overall growth in the early modern age of the importance of the individual and therefore of the individual life. Everybody is important.
The rise of the novel, however, distracts from a consideration of how the New Testament provides some of those same pleasures even though its protagonist is so special a hero as to be the incarnation of God himself, and even though the Gospels are by no means written for the purpose of giving its readers a look see into the Palestinian community of the time. Rather, it is written to do what it says, spread the good news of the coming of the Lord by recounting his deeds, his sayings and his fate, along with numerous facts of his biography, so that subsequent generations will have a sound grounding in the historical sources of their religion because it is that history that makes a difference, that changed the world. At the beginning, at least, Christianity is not a priest bound religion but a text based one, however much the rituals that are developed by its priesthood do have biblical allusions as their basis. The ritualization of Christianity begins early on, even if one source of its power is the story it tells, which had not happened before, even if it had been prophesied that it would occur, and so is a new thing in the world, which makes of Christianity a truly historical religion, even as Judaism is historical because it relies on the image of God parting the Red Sea as a moment in history also awesome and ever to be commemorated.
There is an asymmetry, though, in this explanation of the great works of the Western imagination in that it applies the Greek theory of genre, as that was developed by Aristotle from instances of Greek literature, to works produced by one of the Semitic civilizations. Greek categories make of “Exodus” an epic and make the New Testament a comedy. A theory of genres is a theory of tones, each genre hitting a distinctive emotional chord that can be regarded as a “natural” emotion of the human psyche, or as one fashioned out of cultural experiences that are both overt and the product of given or found culture in the sense of “culture” as that is known to anthropologists. Particular works of literature can combine those tones, as when Shakespeare alternates between comedy and tragedy and melodrama all within the same play, or when Beckett fashions tragicomedy as what can be regarded either as a new tone or a blending of old ones. The genre is a guide to the audience or the reader in that it sets off the universe of feeling that is allowed within a particular work, and the failure to maintain a consistent tone jars against the ability of an auditor to hold the work together as a fiction.
The imposition of Greek categories on Semitic literature would be arbitrary were it not for the fact that one can claim that these are universal categories applicable to any literature at any time, however it was that one or another culture came to craft what we would regard as journalism or epic or tragicomedy. But a perhaps more satisfying reason for applying the Greek categories to other cultures is that they allow the deepening of appreciations founded on other grounds. Criticism finds multiple confirmations of what it takes a book to be what it is. That is certainly clear in the case of “Samuel 1 and 2” which has long been recognized as something the equivalent of a Thucydides history: large political events are motivated by personal greed and other individual emotions as well as the play of other forces, all of these mediated through rational self interest and so providing a world which it is difficult to admire but rings very true to life.
Seeing “Samuel 1 and 2” as an epic elaborates that insight. There are two main protagonists, Saul and David, just as there are two main protagonists in “The Iliad”-- Achilles and Hector. Each set act out of very different motives and although one of each pair triumphs over the other, both are heroic in that they stand for an archetypical emotion larger than themselves. Achilles stands for gaining glory from heroism, however that diminishes personal life, while Hector stands for duty to country whatever sacrifices that entails. Achilles does not look to create a family; Hector is out to protect his family. Saul is like Hector. He is the responsible king, troubled at being king, unwilling to do what even God commands, such as kill all the Amalekites, if it conflicts with his duty as king. David, on the other hand, is rash and glory bound and as he evolves as a character becomes more tainted by his iniquities but does not often seem troubled in his dreams.
So we can return to the Gospels and “Acts” as literary triumphs. They invest us in a world of olive trees, weddings, the betrayal of friendships, and a singular unapproachable figure who has a distinctive character and yet is an enigma which continues to trouble us, our imaginations taken up not just by Him but also by his setting, by the everyday life around him, this more familiar to the Sunday School graduate than any other environment in which the student has not himself lived. Don’t sell short the literary properties of texts that are sacred.